Tattoo me not?

A leisurely stroll in Soho on a Saturday afternoon on and off Carnaby street is also a chance to have a look at all the current tattoo trends. A snake in the neck, a pin-up from the elbow up …they come in all shapes, forms and colours and they adorn all body parts of their beholders.

Rihana in Poland - Summer 2013
Rihana in Poland – Summer 2013

Even without paying close attention to the matter it would be difficult to miss all those celebrities’ tattoos splashed out on so many covers or advertising. For instance, July 2013 came with Rihana wearing her bikini in Poland showing not only her perfect body but also an Egyptian goddess with her wings spread through her chest. More of a sports fan? Then just step outside to admire David Beckham’s ‘sleeve’ on Sky Sports billboards throughout the country. It therefore triggers the question: why and when did tattoos become such a widespread phenomena?

Sky Sports Commercial
Sky Sports Commercial

Besides the facts that they are a beautiful and disturbingly captivating pieces of art (and that my mother would have killed me if I had come home with one) what do I know about tattoos? Time to reassess.

1. Tattoos are permanent.


My prejudiced view: a tattoo is a body modification using indelible ink hence its permanence. Celebrities’ tattoo artist Bang Bang in an interview to The Cut explained that one should do a lot of research as to the theme and the artist they want to sit with. How not to agree? It is a lifetime to be spent with the art of your choice.

The reality: Although it is deemed to be even more painful than being tattooed, laser removal procedures do exist. They are more or less successful depending on the ink type and the colour scheme.

As a consequence,  the judeo-christaian fear of being damned forever or more simply the anxiety linked to seeing this kitty becoming a tiger as years pass by are gone. It is therefore not as daunting to make a choice that once upon a time could have impacted a lifetime.

2. Tattoos are tribal


My prejudiced view: the Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as, “In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian tatau. In Tahitian, tatu.” Many tattoos serve as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion. They are highly symbolic and have been used as mark of recognition among peers. In gangs and among prison inmates they are highly coded. The Yakuzas, the members of the Japanese mafia, whom tattoos may fully cover their bodies came first to mind thanks to Irina Ionesco’s series in the late 1990’s. These coded tattoos are not normally viewable by the general public. ‘Clear’ skin will be left at the collar shirt level for instance.

Irina Ionesco, Yakuzas series
Irina Ionesco, Yakuzas series

The reality: there is nothing quite tribal about today’s tattoos and you do not necessarily think of Claude Levi-Strauss when having a drink at a café in East London. Or should I? Maybe the tattoos are a sign that your are part of the hipsters, the fashionistas but trends come and go so fast that it is difficult to remain underground for long. So yes, tattoos have become quite mainstream. And I am not being unjustly harsh. Even Santa Claus has tattoos! In the Rise of the Guardians, his arms are inscribed with the words ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’, a choice quite reminiscent of Russian inmates knucles’ tattoos reading ‘love’ and ‘hate’. And yes Santa happens to have a Russian accent…

The Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks
The Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks

3. Tattoos are Rebellious


My prejudiced view: From sailors to prison inmates via the Yakuzas and punk stars tattoos are a sign of rebellion.

Irina Ionesco famously photographed the Yakuzas during a visit to Japan but she was initially going to the country with the hope to picture women having been deeply affected by the movie ‘The Tattooed Woman’ by Yoichi Takabayashi. Over 75 year old, she proudly wears a boa tattoo crawling up one leg while an other is etched into her hand. She recalls that it was an outrage at the time as she was sharing this trend with all sorts of criminals.

Irina Ionesco, c AFP
Irina Ionesco, c AFP

Another artist, Nicholas Portalupi, when asked how many tattoos he has would rather point out the remaining “open space”. Member of the hardcore punk Californian scene since his teen years, it is with no surprise that he has a great number of tattoos and they each have a deep meaning that he happily shares.

There are many past examples of how a tattoo is a rebellious statement. The question is whether that still is the case.

The reality: when your banker has a tattoo it may well be part of the establishment.  40% of U.S. adults 26 – 40 have at least one tattoo ( In 2010, it was a fifth of British adults who had one (

Tattooed and Employed
Tattooed and Employed

In a world where we are striving towards uniqueness in everything and anything we do, a tattoo may be the answer. However, Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out in Race and  History: “Mankind is constantly faced with two contradictory processes; one which tends to establish a unification, while the other seeks to maintain and restore diversification.” So I am going to bet that the ball will roll back smoothly into my camp and that I will soon be unique for not having one so… tattoo me not…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: