Although hardly a fresh phenomenon, tattoos are at the moment ubiquitous. Recently while lunching at a reputable restaurant we were served by a young man proudly sporting tattoos on each of his purposefully bared forearms. One tattoo was an ambigram which could be read forward as “respect” and upside down as “loyalty”; another was a commemoration of two deceased female friends. In my youth a tattoo was a stock flourish generally reserved for sailors – something along the lines of an anchor perhaps with “mother” superimposed or a heart with an arrow piercing it. Contemporary films and cartoons at the time fostered the incidence of tattoos upon patrons in seedy shipyard bar rooms. Those early forms of artwork were typically limited to indelible blue ink on the upper shoulder of a man. Now however it is nothing to discover multi-coloured tattoos almost anywhere on the body and equally common among men and women. As historic as is the practice (going back to Egyptian mummies) it is only latterly that I have noticed a widespread explosion of the art form. The stereotypical view of tattoos and who has them is changing. Tattoos now encompass subjects of the broadest humour and disposition of the person.
Apart from traumatic tattoos (skin modifications arising from injuries or accidents) and forcibly imposed tattoos (such as those branded on slaves and by the Nazis during the Holocaust), it doesn’t require a terribly polished artistic sense to distinguish an amateur tattoo from a professional one. Yet no matter how striking the tattoo there is the risk of social impertinence. There lingers the possibility of negative associations. It is reported that there is an explicit link between tattooing and criminality. Further there is supposedly a correlation between body modifications on the one hand and negativism and low self-esteem on the other (though I suspect the science on that particular conjecture is less than reliable ignoring as it does the greater likelihood of adventure and swagger). I have even heard it said that the prospect of pain is considered a fair exchange for the alleviation of emotional trauma.
On a less reproving level tattoos are said to be an expression of individualism and rebellion even though their proliferation may have the opposite effect of attenuating their originality. I once read, “If you want to be different, don’t get a tattoo”. Tattoos may nonetheless speak to an age of increasing estrangement and hostility. The permanence of the tattoo affords the person the comfort of having something unique which can never be taken away, something which is easily transported, not altogether a derisory attraction in an insecure and threatened society. Besides they are usually affordable as an extravagance.
It would be a blunder to overlook the charm of tattoos for purely cosmetic purposes which of necessity entangles the additional feature of vanity. This naturally makes the battering more appealing to young people who are frequently anxious to augment their already intensified mark of narcissism. The unfortunate corollary of the undertaking in one’s youth is the tattoo, like one’s own body, assumes less than compelling features with age. The admission that tattoos are best left concealed is not an uncommon conclusion of the job-seeking candidate. I understand there is now an ever-increasing crusade towards the removal of tattoos. The once liberating quality of tattoos has in many instances become a restrictive element.
Finally there is the debate about the health effects of tattoos and phototoxic reactions, not to mention the risk of exposure to blood contaminants and disease during the procedure, though admittedly the tattoo parlours (which can now be found in shopping malls, the oases of the middle class) have the appearance at least of having graduated from the dingy digs they once occupied.
In the end tattoos are very much like any number of other indulgences in life, and it is very unlikely that any amount of reflection upon the subject will do anything to dissuade people from doing what moves them. How you leave your mark in life is your choice!