Despite their ubiquity, tattoos are still taboo. The fact that the following four questions are asked with nauseating regularity and predictability confirms this. My mother still associates them with jail birds and recoils in disgust every time I get a new one, or I make reference to ones I currently have. A recent article in the Daily Mail reflects this viewpoint, that is close minded and outdated.
Tattoos are a thing of beauty and mystery. They are an incredible insight into culture, psychology and history. The tattoos of a subset of society from a given time tells you so much more than can be gleaned from the history books. They give you a passport into hidden clans and underworlds. Studying the Russian criminal tattoos of the Soviet erg gulags, you learn things that get right into the minds of those inmates.
Tattoos are as valid a form of expression as any art form – be it fiction, poetry, painting or music. The difference being, “everyday” people find their voice, not just people who identify themselves as artists. What if a tattoo is ugly and basic and simply picked out of a book? Ugly as it may be, it still says something.
A tattoo is as much a process as it is a final product. An idea, a concept is conceived of, developed and this is transformed into a design that is turned from something theoretical, ethereal, into something permanent on the skin. As my journey with body art has evolved, I see my tattoos as just that: art. A collaboration between me and my idea and the craftsmanship of a tattoo artist I admire, with most of the credit afforded to the latter.
The pain of getting the tattoo and the subsequent healing brings with it a kind of catharsis, a giving birth to – many of my tattoos convey difficult emotions I have and am still battling. Putting it in ink and giving them expression are a way of coming to terms with them. Whether or not third parties think that is valid, is irrelevant.
Over the years my tattoos have evolved with each I get – starting out rudimentary like a Neolithic cave painting (my inaugural tattoo is based on a two thousand year old chalk horse carved into an Oxfordshire hillside) and are now much, much larger, detailed and colourful: getting bolder with each one as I become more comfortable getting tattoos that are ever more visible.
Because of my nature, I have never settled in the kind of jobs that preclude having tattoos, preferring a less conventional lifestyle. When I went for my last job interview, I toyed with the idea of covering my ink, but then thought: No! This is me. They can chose not to employ Me if they don’t like tattoos. They employed me.
The Four Offenders…
1) Did that hurt?
Not quite as infuriating as some of the other questions, but still a pretty inane one. Usually asked as a way of starting conversation. As a general rule: the more detailed, the bigger, the more colour and the thinner and bonier the skin onto which said design is applied, the more it will hurt. There, I’ve equipped you enough never to have to ask that again. Try your hand at a new chat up line.
2) What do your tattoos mean?
First thing: tattoos don’t have to mean anything. They can just look pretty. Second: you are asking a highly personal question, that may warrant a long and personal answer. If you are a stranger asking this question to another stranger, do you think they really want to share this? Do you think they haven’t already answered this question exasperatingly thousands of times already to people like you?
3) Why do you get tattoos, I mean what is the appeal?
For every tattoo on every person there is a different answer of “why”. Out of joy, out of anger, out of love, devotion. Out of rebellion. Out of self harm. Out of confusion. Because you like how it looks. Because you like to experience new things. Because you enjoy the pain of the needle. Like question number 2, the answer to why may be extremely personal and the tattooed one might not fancy divulging this. A tattoo should not have to be justified. A person who chooses to get tattoos should not have to justify why they chose to decorate themselves thus, no more than anybody should need to justify their personal appearance (fashion, physique etc). Tattoos are perhaps one of the few things many people think they have free license to scorn and criticise to the faces of those in question.
4) What’s going to happen when you grow old and don’t like them anymore?
Before each and every tattoo I have had done, I enter a contract with myself that says “I am fully prepared to deal with the consequences of my actions, which includes the possibility that I might not like it in years to come”. When you get a scar, you accept it and after a while you sometimes forget it’s there. Same with tattoos.
And when I get older? Who says one must remain in the perfection of youth? My whole body will grow old and wrinkly and decay, tattooed or not. This process will happen over time and I will adapt to how I look and – again – accept myself. If others chose to dismiss me for being wrinkled and tattooed, that is their choice. I won’t be the only one old and tattooed. And besides, by the time I am old and tattooed the technology for removing tattooed will have evolved to a simple cream that dissolves the ink overnight: that’s the answer I usually use to shut people up.