For reasons I’m yet to fathom, the last couple of weeks have seen a flurry of articles about the ‘politics’ of tattoos. Maybe it’s because someone famous only for being on The Apprentice said she personally didn’t like them. Maybe it’s because ripping into anyone under 30 is the right-wing element of the media’s favourite column-filling exercise. Or maybe because hey, not much has happened in 2016 and we’re short of things to get outraged about. It’s been a slow-news year, right? Guys…?
After five years of thinking about it, and six months of scrawling designs on scrap paper whenever I got a moment, I got a tattoo this year. You know how it goes, when in Brighton… It was a 26th birthday present to myself. It’s a short quote, barely a couple of inches long and about 1cm wide on the inside of my left wrist. I adore it. It’s not immediately noticeable, unless you’ve got quite niche interests and are studying my arms intently, and it’s easily covered with long sleeves, if necessary. It pleases me every time I look at it, or run a finger over it absent-mindedly. Sure, I’m probably still in the tattoo honeymoon period; it’s only been six months, but still. I got it done at the lovely Velvet Tattoo studio in Hove, which is entirely female-run – a massive added bonus there for me, as I was quite scared of going into what I described as ‘you know, one of those “grrrrr!” places’. I’m not scared of regretting it in a few decades’ time; I accept that maybe I will, but then again, maybe I won’t. And if I do, you know what? I expect I’ll live.
Tattoos seem to elicit incredibly strong opinions, especially from those firmly in the “dislike” camp. People who don’t like them cannot wait to tell you exactly why and wherefore, and their reasoning is often (though not always) quite, quite bonkers. Times columnist Melanie Phillips wrote an article in April this year in which she asserted that, in people who decide to get tattoos, “[t]here’s perhaps a degree of narcissism and a yearning to be unique. Maybe also, for some, inarticulacy plays a part: those with a poor command of language may find satisfaction in using their own skin as a statement.” I’d hazard a guess she didn’t run that theory past any tattooed writers, poets or lyricists before she filed her copy.
Later in the same article, somewhat bafflingly, she writes: “It is no coincidence that the fashion for tattoos and piercings has taken place at the same time as the huge increase in popularity and acceptance of paganism.” Yeah, I know what you mean, Mel; I for one cannot move for all the pagans. They’re just everywhere, with their nose studs and body art. In all seriousness though, I cannot get over the nonsense in this piece, but I’ve got better things to do than try and unpick it (full copy here for Times subscribers).
I completely understand why people may not like tattoos, but what I don’t understand is the lack of willingness to accept that what other people do to their bodies is no-one else’s business. Personally, I only like small tattoos; I’d never want a full sleeve of ink, but I can see why other people have them. The artwork of tattoos can be seriously impressive and quite lovely to look at (don’t believe me? Check out Abi Eve Gadd Tattoos – she used to work at Velvet Tattoo and is now based in Swansea, and I adore her Instagram feed) and the process itself is addictive. There’s something quite thrilling about the pain, the healing, and the revealing of something beautiful and personal, and I understand why people end up in the tattooist’s chair time and time again.
The criticisms that tattoos are “common”, and the preserve of criminals and sailors, are grossly classist, and painfully out of date. In the Victorian era, make-up was seen as something used only by prostitutes and performers, and so it wasn’t proper to wear it, but shock-horror, times and attitudes change. In some jobs, women are now required – or at least strongly encouraged – to wear make-up. Whatever you may think of that (and it’s certainly not great), the point is: we move on, and how we perceive things changes. Society is supposed to become more accepting of difference, more tolerant, more open-minded. That’s how we grow. I understand that in some workplaces, visible tattoos may not fit the image an organisation needs to project, but for the vast majority of jobs, a person’s appearance will have little or nothing to do with their ability and work ethic.
I have a theory, and admittedly, it might be a foolish one, but bear with me: people with tattoos have recognised that life is short. It’s brief and uncertain and therefore far too precious to squander on worrying about what other people might think of your choices. It’s too precious to live timidly, too precious to not do something purely for yourself once in a while. Obviously, you don’t have to get a tattoo to demonstrate that you’ve realised our time on this earth is rather fleeting and something of a whistle-stop tour, but it is one way of saying a little “fuck it”. As it says on the wrist of Dame Judi Dench herself: carpe diem. You might as well seize the day, you have fewer of them than you think. And if Dames Dench and Mirren are firmly in the ink crowd, I think we all need to calm down.
Furthermore, loath as I am to start a statement with “as a woman”, the point about body ownership needs to be made, so let’s get it over with. As a woman, I am used to the idea of my body not being wholly my own. Women’s bodies are still, up to a point, public property. We’re told what to do and what not to do with them at every turn. Nice tits/legs/arse, love. Be thin, but not too thin, but not too athletic because they’ll say you look manly, but don’t you dare be plump, or (mouth the word because it burns on the tongue) FAT. Breastfeed your children, but God, not in public. Jump through ludicrous hoops to take control of your fertility, jump through ludicrous hoops to deal with a pregnancy you cannot go through with.
So much noise. So many opinions. So many standards. I can’t tell you how good it feels to stake a claim to my own blood and bone machinery. To say “this is for me; my pleasure and joy and mine alone. This is not for anyone else”. In a gorgeous piece for The Pool, Sali Hughes summed it up perfectly: “it might be helpful for tattoo-haters to know something about those who love them: it’s not just that we don’t give a monkeys what you think – it’s also that we actively enjoy the fact that some people don’t get it. Frankly, I quite like being a member of a club that millions of people find mysterious, appalling and scary.”
Amen to that.