By John Litchfield
With tattoos now more popular than ever, you are just as likely to find them on your GP or your child’s teacher as you are a sailor or prison inmate. So, if they are now so common place, do they continue to mean anything? John Litchfield takes a journey into the world of body art and decides whether or not to take the plunge.
Why on earth would anyone even consider getting a tattoo? It seems such a bizarre choice to make, to go through the discomfort of having an image permanently marked onto your skin, discounting the distinct possibility that in the near or distant future it may no longer be to your taste. There are the classic tales of regrettable tattoos bearing the names of spouses or partners, with the relationship fading long before the ink. One of the better known instances of this being Johnny Depp’s famous tribute to then girlfriend Winona Ryder which was later transformed to “Wino Forever” when they parted ways.
Still, it has always been in the back of my mind that someday I would like to get at least one.
I have decided to investigate further, to develop a better understanding of just what tattoos mean in modern society, what drives someone to become tattooed and whether this will lead me to act on or ignore my own urges to be indelibly marked.
Fear of pain has never been the issue, injections at the doctor’s surgery have never really registered, and although several hundred jabs over a short space of time might, this doesn’t frighten me excessively. The decision on what to choose has always held me back, how to pick something I will still appreciate in the decades to come. If I am to be “inked”, the design needs to be something personal, but something relevant to me at the time could be less so later on. But does that matter? Should tattoos be something to represent who you will always be or just reminders of who you once were? Perhaps it is the permanence and the risk that draws me. To commit myself to something that I could love but easily hate as well.
Ed Hockings (20) has recently had work done to cover an old tattoo that he was unhappy with. “I got a Portsmouth F.C tattoo when I was 16 because of my Granddad. I never had a dad growing up and he used to take me to the matches all the time, so when he died I got it put on my arm.” Unfortunately, Ed’s tattoo was given to him by a friend with a gun, rather than a skilled artist and became something that he was less fond of over time. It has now been covered over with a larger image of Our Lady of Lourdes as he will be taking a child with learning disabilities on a pilgrimage this year. Despite the fact that for some time he was stuck with a poorly etched emblem on his arm, Ed has no regrets. “It was a time of my life. It was what I wanted to do and it did show what I felt at the time.” However, he does offer me some words of caution if I do decide to go ahead with buying a design of my own. “It’s worth researching and don’t rush into it, that was my mistake, what you choose is something that’s gonna be there for life”.
Surveys undertaken last year showed that the popularity of body art has never been higher, with one fifth of all Britons now sporting at least one tattoo and nearly one third of the population between the ages of 16 and 44. Whilst they are becoming increasingly commonplace, tattoos have been a constant throughout many ancient and even pre-historic societies. In 1991, the frozen body of a Bronze Age man, believed to be five thousand years old, was discovered in the Alps with various tattoos on his body. It is impossible to know the exact significance of the earliest tattoos as they predate recorded history, but it is believed that they may have been part of ancient religious ceremonies, perhaps in the hopes of curing illness as many are found around major organs.
Tattoos have signified different things to different cultures, such as shark teeth on divers to protect them in the water or just designs to show which tribe you belonged to, which could mean where you were from or more recently your military group or gang. In modern times, they can be nothing more than a reflection of yourself, and this is what interests me.
Arriving at Brighton’s Racecourse for January’s Tattoo Convention I was unsure what to expect, but the first thing that struck me was the car park. Full largely with recent model, mid to high end vehicles, it gave the impression that tattoo fanatics were not the outsiders that they once might have been. Where once employers might have seen a potential worker with body art as someone to avoid, the array of cars suggests that such stigmas are no longer present. Entering the venue, a bearded and beer bellied man walks past in a Hell’s Angels t-shirt, harking back to the old days, but this is one of the few cases. Walking around, it becomes clear that there is no set person that buys a tattoo. As the diverse crowd mills around me, I can see that the appeal is not specific to any age group or gender and cuts across social, cultural and class boundaries. Thumbing through the many photo albums on the artists’ stands, the true range of designs possible becomes instantly apparent. From the grotesque to the funny to the beautiful, tattoos span a wide spectrum, as real art should. In a modern day where much art is designed on a computer and printed, it is also one of the last beacons of true, freehand art, but a form that is living, breathing and walking, rather than gathering dust on a wall. From religious iconography to snakes wrapped around daggers to people with Alan Partridge or Derrick Trotter tattooed to their calves, the array of options seems endless. The more I see, the more I feel like a child in a well stocked sweetshop, trying to decide on how best to spend his limited pocket money.
However, the increased choice exacerbates the problem that already existed, what to go for. I see plenty that I would happily have, but these are other people’s tattoos and if I do decide to get one, which seems to be ever more likely, it has to be personal to me. I start to think of images that would be suitable, such as album covers from records that I have liked for long enough to minimise risk of future embarrassment. This instantly feels ridiculous, as I have not even worn a band’s t-shirt since I was a teenager and now I am considering having their logo engraved upon my skin for the rest of my days.
Ben Moore (23) is a regular at tattoo conventions and went for the same option when picking his first tattoo. “My first tattoo was of my favourite band Alexisonfire’s emblem. It was something quick and easy to get and see how it went because I knew that I’d want more. I’d waited until I was 18, partly because of the law and partly because your body doesn’t fully develop until then and the tattoos can stretch out of shape.”
Ben now has over 20 tattoos and tries to come up with something original each time. “I like to get stuff you wouldn’t expect people to have, so the next one that I’m planning to get is a panther wearing slacks and a pair of spats with a walking stick and one claw stuck in my arm.” With Ben’s leanings towards more abstract concepts, I was curious to know how he felt about people going for more fashionable designs. “Hate them. Tribal, Celtic or any of those sorts of tattoos, there’s just no imagination behind them; they’re just a piece of flash they’ve got off the parlour wall.”
Does he regret his first choice and more importantly, is he now stuck with the logo of a band that he’s grown out of? “They were my favourite band of the moment and they’re still my favourite band now. Every tattoo relates to a specific moment in my life where I’ve thought about it, drawn it up and made the commitment to have it put on my skin for life, so I don’t think I’d ever regret a tattoo”
One image that comes to mind is the cover for Sparklehorse’s 1998 album Good Morning Spider. It had never been popular enough to become notably unfashionable, but the songs have remained dear to me since its release. Mark Linkous, their only permanent member, tragically died last year and a tattoo of the distinctive descending swallow from the record’s sleeve could be a fitting tribute to someone who had created music that I had adored for so long. Next stall, next photo album, first page, a swallow swooping down someone’s shoulder. OK, every bird and beast must have been done at some stage. Undeterred, I move on. Next stall, next album, another bloody swallow. Ben tells me that swallows are a traditional sailor tattoo. Not wanting to be unoriginal or fraudulently claim a naval history, I scrap the idea and return to the proverbial drawing board.
Back home, I continue to search my memory for a suitable idea. My mind drifts back to a holiday I had taken 18 months earlier, backpacking alone around Guatemala. I had seldom felt so much freedom and thoughts of that trip never fail to bring back happy memories. At the ancient ruins of Tikal I had climbed the giant temples that thrust forth from the Central American jungle, virtually untouched by modern civilisation. I had even taken some half decent photos of my own and decided that I would be happy to wear a design involving one of the structures that I had conquered.
“So have you been to this place before?” Snappy asks me.
“Only the other day, I had to come by to drop off the deposit.” I answer, suddenly realising that he meant the ancient temple that he was etching into my back, not the parlour that we were sitting in. I had been impressed with Kings Cross Tattoo Parlour’s stand at Brighton and had viewed more of their work online back at home. I had decided to have my tattoo in black and grey rather than colour and had found Snappy Gomez’s work in this style tasteful and intricate. As it was my first tattoo and I didn’t yet know whether I would want to be branded too obviously, I had chosen to have the design on my back below my right shoulder. Snappy didn’t talk too much while he worked, but this was fine as I was aware of how much trust I was placing in his hands and I was happy to let him concentrate, especially as in the waiting room I had read an article about an Australian amateur tattoo artist that had misused that trust. Rather than a yin and yang symbol surrounded with dragons as his friend had requested, he had opted for a 40cm penis and a slogan about his sexuality. Such cases are rare though and punishable by law. Also, no established parlour or artist would risk the damage to their reputation that such an incident would cause. When he did speak, Snappy’s long standing enthusiasm echoed that of Ben. However, he had not been prepared to wait and had tattooed himself with a picture of a spider at just 14. It been done crudely with needles bound together at home, but in 1989, aged 17, he started his first apprenticeship. I was pleased that the man responsible for my tattoo had a passion for the art and more that half a lifetime’s experience.
At first, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about pain wise. A little more than a tingle on the skin. After an hour or so in the chair, this became more of an irritation as boredom set in. The pain didn’t really start until maybe half an hour later. Having a detailed image, means going over the same small and already bruised area repeatedly and I was pleased to be facing the other way so that Snappy couldn’t see me wincing. After nearly two and a half hours I was glad that it was over, but finally seeing the work made it all feel worth it. Snappy had done a great job, the detail of the stonework was fantastic. The great temple I had once climbed was no longer just an image committed to memory or a holiday snap, but a part of me for the rest of my life.
Later, meeting friends, I take out my phone to show them a picture of my new cutaneous acquisition. “So you got a Dalek?”
At least I’m happy with it.