Okay, what’s with all the tattoos on everyone these days? It seems like they’re more popular in western society than ever before.
In the sixties through to the nineties tattoos were something you saw on criminals and sailors. It was a badge that signified rebellion and low socio economic status. This is not to say all people with tattoos were poor, but if someone had a tat they weren’t likely to be a celebrity, lawyer, or a doctor (but they may well have been a witch doctor).
Now they’re everywhere! Glamorous sporting stars are parading them, along with actors, comedians, musicians, teachers and well…young people generally. Suddenly tattoos are common with middle class folk below the age of forty. They no longer seem to say “Careful of me, I’m a tough and angry bastard who’s likely to rob your house”. So what are they saying now?
Well, firstly the style of tattoo is different. The old LOVE and HATE ones on the knuckles are definitely out, skulls are a no-no and the pictures of sexy mermaids and cartoon characters such as Popeye, Olive Oil and super heroes are also rare. These days it’s more like artistic body decoration: swirling patterns in the style of Maori art; flowers and leaf patterns; sea creatures such as dolphins and whales (as opposed to sharks and snakes with vicious teeth); and any number of patterns that might be seen on a curtain or bedspread rather than a body.
Personally I wouldn’t ever want one, and when I see one on someone I immediately think less of them. Why? The obvious answer is that I’m a victim of a prudish, middle class up-bringing, but I think there’s more to it.
I have nothing against using technology to reshape and enhance the human body. I have a tungsten valve in my heart – due to a congenital heart disease – so I’d be a hypocrite to suggest that interfering with nature is wrong. And if someone has an ugly defect in their face or excessively large and unwieldy breasts, or they have some hideous deformity, of course get in there and fix it. No problem. But, like Botox and face lifts, tattoos are different; they’re not about survival or correcting a disfigurement or relieving pain. In fact, they’re almost the opposite in that they actually create a disfigurement and pain. They’re a permanent scar on the skin.
I think what happens is I see a tattoo on a person and I can’t help thinking, ‘That’s there forever you know (unless you undergo painful and expensive surgery), how sober were you when you did it and how pleased are you now?’ Of course I don’t share those thoughts (hey I’d like to keep what teeth I have left) but I think it, and I imagine that’s what I’d be thinking if I had one myself.
So, with tattooing becoming extra popular, is there a growth in tattoo removal? According to a plastic surgeon friend “…you bet there is and thank you very much, I’ve just bought a new yacht.” An article in the New York times in 2007 quotes the FDA as saying there were over 100, 000 removals in the U.S. that year alone. Whether this is an increase, it didn’t say, but I trust my doctor mate who reckons it’s his main source of income, particularly as some tattoos can take up to fifteen laser treatments to remove.
But what’s changed in the western world that’s brought this on? What significant social and historical shift is this related to? And was it a celebrity led trend, i.e. did some actor or pop star got a tat and suddenly it grew from there? Apart from wtaching sport I have little to do with any commercial media so I have no idea about this.
As it’s occurred over the last decade there’s a temptation to relate it either the new millennium or 911 or a mixture of both. But what does the bombing of New York by Muslims (and a consequent war) have to do with young people marking their bodies?
Nothing I’d say.
It could however, have something to do with skin cancer. In recent decades tanning has become unpopular and considered ugly, when as we know brown bods were all the rage for many decades. The fashion mags are full of skin so milky white one can only wonder if Clown White # 4 has been applied. Are the tats a replacement for tanning, almost as a way of saying, ‘Okay, I can’t change my skin via the sun or a lamp but I can do it with ink instead.’ Or is it simply that white bodies are a far better canvas for tattoo art so hey why not!
Heaven knows. What I do know is that Mitchell Johnson’s arm looks bloody stupid, and if he doesn’t make up for it with a few more wickets in the Sydney test, well he may as well chop his arm off. Speaking of which, American comedian Lenny Bruce had a tattoo on his arm, as a result of being in the navy, and often had to answer to his Jewish family for whom it was a sin to desecrate the body. His aunty said to him one day, “How are you going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” Lenny replied casually, “Well, when I die they can cut the arm off and bury that in a Goy cemetery and the rest of me in a Jewish cemetery.”
My father has a tattoo for the same reason as Lenny: as a sailor in WWII he got drunk and gave in to peer pressure. It’s a drawing of a black swan swimming on a river amidst some reeds. He later went on to become a well-to-do middle class doctor who is now retired and living in Claremont. Many years ago, at a family picnic, when my father rolled up his sleeves, I overheard my older sister’s boy friend say, “Wow, your Dad’s got a tat!” as if the sun had suddenly turned purple and giant green ants started falling from the sky.
I wonder if at some future barbecue a dad will remove his shirt and a boyfriend will turn to his girl and say, “Wow, your dad’s got no tats!”