WHETHER we like it or not, tattoos are a feature of modern life. They’re a common sight. Some are small, discreet and barely noticeable, while others are obvious and difficult to avoid, covering large amounts of skin, like human graffiti.
As a young lad, I don’t remember seeing too many. In those days they were mostly limited to sailors and fishermen and were usually located on the upper arm and covered by a shirt sleeve.
Many believe they should have been left there, but times have changed. Anyone can have one now and for some people, it’s a case of the more the merrier.
It’s sometimes referred to as body art and footballers, like David Beckham, have helped to make it fashionable.
To my mind, sticking a tattoo on your body is the same as branding an animal except that the branding iron has been swapped for a needle, and a parlour is used instead of a barn.
Although when you see some of these tattoos, you could be excused for thinking that they were applied by a blind farmer with a pitch-fork in a hay shed.
Originally, animals were branded for identification purposes. The owner put his initials on the rump of his cows so nobody else could lay claim to them.
That made perfect sense at a time when rustling cattle was big business, but why that needed to transfer to humans is beyond me.
Anyway, we already have ways to identify each other. We have names, birth certs and passports that mark us out for who we are. Passports are easier to get and are a less painful form of property marking so there is no need to be jabbing ourselves with inky pins.
Many disagree though, because body art is now big business and has come a long way from its humble beginnings.
The actual word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word tattau, which means ‘to mark’. Early tattooing involved cutting the skin with a knife and packing dirt or ashes from the fire into the cut to discolour it permanently, creating tribal markings.
Some say that it began in China and that sailors discovered it during their travels to the Orient.
Sailors often passed the long hours at sea by ‘pricking’ designs into themselves, probably out of boredom. They sometimes used gunpowder mixed with ink, to stain the skin, because the Chinese believed gunpowder had magical powers of long life and protection.
There have been many times in my life when I’ve been bored but I have never considered cutting a chunk out of my skin and packing the wound with dirt. The person who came up with this idea must have had a great imagination and a high pain threshold.
Having a tattoo is a personal choice but there is a difference between having something small on your upper arm and walking around looking like you should be housed in the National Art Gallery.
Those who support it say that it’s a form of expression, but if you cover your body to the extent that you can’t see any skin, then what is it exactly that you are trying to express?
A lot of it has to do with personal taste and personality, and there will always be extroverts who have a desire to be seen to be different. Like the Teddy Boys, the Goths and the Punks back in the day with the spiky green hair and the pins in their noses.
Some people will always want to stand out and body art is one way to achieve that. The more outrageous the tattoo, the bigger the statement.
But when you reach the point where everyone is looking outrageous, doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of trying to be original? It’s difficult to be unique if every second person is covered in as much war paint as you are.
Sitting on a beach recently. I noticed that there were several girls who had what looked like poems tattooed on various parts of their bodies. What is the protocol for the rest of us regarding these? Are we supposed to read them, or should we ignore them altogether for fear of being called a pervert?
It could a bit awkward trying to explain what exactly you were doing on your knees next to a sun bed trying to read the poetry tattooed on a girl’s thigh if she suddenly starts screaming.
There is another consideration too.
If you’re going to permanently mark your body, then you need to be pretty sure that you like the design because it’s there for life. Getting rid of it is difficult and can be painful.
There is also the fact that as a person gets older the body changes shape. We develop wrinkles and we may start to sag a bit here and there so the original tattoo may not be quite as glamorous as it was when it started out.
What began as something exotic on your back might look completely different later in life when it’s hanging down your backside. Expressing your undying love to Mary may seem like a romantic gesture at the time but that could get a little awkward if you end up with Joan.
Alcohol influences many decisions to get a tattoo. It’s not uncommon to hear of someone waking up with a hangover to discover that his body has a new feature.
Drunk or sober, when deciding to get a tattoo, it’s important to ensure that the person wielding the needle is familiar with the English language. One poor unfortunate had a large tattoo drawn down the full length of his forearm in big letters; ‘No Regerts’.
Now, it’s quite possible that he has no regerts but I suspect that he is very sorry.