Remember the old days when tattoos were exotic and mysterious and implied a slightly dubious character? Before they became mainstream, millennial and dare I say it, bland? The glory days when a man with a fading green anchor on his forearm; or a delicately inscribed ‘L-O-V-E’ and ‘H-A-T-E’ on the knuckles of each hand caused a frisson of unease. Were these people sailors? Or bikers? Had they been in prison? A tattooed woman was even scarier. Was she a wasp-chewing gangster’s wife with a flick-knife hidden in her backcombed wig? Was she on the game? Was she CHER?
I’m not sure when the general attitude towards tattoos evolved. Perhaps it was the 1980s and the birth of MTV? When our innocent eyes were exposed to the sight of hot, wholesome, young rock stars – with their peachy skin, Colgate smiles, and a touch of ink, to show that they were rebels. Jon Bon Jovi was a bit of a hard man to my naïve ten year old self, but despite the Superman tattoo on his upper arm he looked like he was kind, and would share his hair tips on how to keep that luxuriant mullet soft and well-conditioned. Unlike those hoary old middle age heavy metallers and their unseemly habit of biting the heads off bats and other rodents.
Throughout the 90s they became more mainstream but still maintained a slight edge. A tattoo-wearer was still a smidge wild – but sure as long as you could cover it up, wasn’t it only a bit of permanently etched fun?
When I got myself inked on the left shoulder at the age of twenty four, way back at the dawn of the century, we had not yet reached ‘Peak Tattoo’. It was still viewed as unwise to have tattoos below the elbow – and if you displayed any on your hand or face, then you might as well consign yourself to a life of poverty, petty crime and prostitution. Or worse still, you’d end up working in a HEAVY METAL bar, or at a tattoo parlour, where dubious characters with base morals would be your only social outlet.
I never regretted my tattoo – it was done in Hanky Panky’s on a canal in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I chose that shop because the pierced lady in the rubber dress at work, recommended the place. My future ex-husband, Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, had also been inked there.
I still like the buffalo design. But it’s an easy thing to forget – I never see it. I can forget I have it. Until I remember.
As I boarded the bus to the dreary, industrial wastelands this morning I glanced around at fellow passengers, on their way to their deeply, respectable office and warehouse and factory jobs. I marvelled at just how many tattoos were on display. Extravagant, intricate, ornate, colourful. On every arm, leg and neck. A few hardly souls with tattooed hands. Some guys with their arms completely covered in a sleeve of tattoos. Some quite beautiful. Others plain ugly, overdone, and screaming desperation.
It looked so hipster. So mainstream. So studiedly alternative. In fact, to my eyes, it looked quite dull. Most of the people were young, hot, and with good bodies. I had a vision of them twenty years hence, when gravity is greeting those pert pecs and bosoms. How alluring will the skin art be then I wonder? Will it have smudged into a sludgy, fading green hue? Will childbirth, wrinkles and weight gain give a new perspective on their body art?
Will people who have never been inked be regarded as the rebels by this point – strange, wild, independent people who are at peace with the hide, that nature dealt them?
I have no idea. Being tattooed from head to toe is not a statement on someone’s morals or worth. Neither is having no tattoos. It never has been – except perhaps for the ‘teardrop from the eye’ tattoo, which as far as I know, signifies that someone has spent time in the slammer for murder.
It’s just that tattoos were once wild and glamourous. That is now all but lost – with a few brave and notable exceptions.
A big shout out must go to those people who sport DIY tattoos – the more faded and scrawled the ink, the better. Arms and necks that bear legends such as ‘Love you Mum’, are limbs of beauty. These are independent, free thinking people.
An elegant ‘L-O-V-E’ and ‘H-A-T-E’ on the knuckle is still very bohemian.
Tattoos signifying identity and culture – such as the Maori face tattoo; or the small crucifix on the inner wrist of middle eastern Christians are still worthy of respect, signifying something deeper than vanity.
And the fact that Dolly Parton is covered in tattoos from the neck down – to hide her plastic surgery scars – but chooses not to reveal them, for fear of alienating her religious, southern fan-base, is a fact that makes me very happy.
For everyone else – I wish they’d be more accepting of their flabby, mottled skin. Tattoos are rarely beautiful and it’s not rebellious to sport one, when it’s a majority sport.