Skin Deep

5th October 2012

Tattoos have never been more popular.

Heather Harris gets the needle. Or doesn’t…

She’s been a Doctor, a Spanish Teacher, a Scuba Diver and a Vet (seemingly with few professional qualifications) but it wasn’t until she got a tattoo last year that the authorities stood up and took notice.

Barbie had overstepped the mark.

Parents could cope with the pink hair and stilettos, but the large flower covering her chest and the tiger curling up her neck caused controversy across the globe.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for little girls to be having Barbie dolls with tattoos all over,” parent Reye Griffith told the American TV station CBS; Mitti Hansen, parent of a four year old daughter, agreed: “I think it sends out all the wrong signals for young girls”.

Luckily, before the storm threatened to ruin Barbie’s next career as a Nuclear Scientist, this limited edition doll faded from view faster than her inky body art. She had needled her fans before, when manufacturer Mattel unveiled ‘Totally Stylin’ Barbie’, but then her body art could be stuck on – and removed (faster than my little brother could behead her with his penknife). This time was different.

It’s the permanency that makes tattoos such a sticking point.

After all, these days even plastic surgery can be reversed. You only have to witness the ever changing figures of some of our female celebrities to know that when they realised they’ve boobed, they quickly go under the knife again.

When it comes to romantic tattoos, however, many couples find the ink lasts longer than the relationship. Think Cheryl and Ashley, Russell and Katie, Angelina and Billy Bob – removing the name of their lost love proved more costly and painful than their respective divorces. To laser your love out of your life – and your torso – can cost a few hundred pounds for a small blue/black version, but thousands for a multi-coloured variant. And as far as tattoos are concerned, going green is most definitely not the way forward; this pigment is impossible to remove.

The problem is that this art form, which has been around for over five thousand years, is way more than skin deep. As Rae Schwarz, the Body Art Editor (a niche area of journalism if ever there was one) of US web-based magazine, explains, “Your outer layer of skin is constantly being replenished, so this wouldn't be good for a tattoo – as soon as your skin refreshed itself, your tattoo would be gone!” The tattooist therefore pushes right through the epidermis and leaves the tattoo in the dermis. “Your dermis pretty much stays the way it is for your entire life, so a design put there is permanent…”

…which is a shame, as a British Journal of Dermatology study estimates that ‘75% of the UK people who have tattoos live to regret it.’

This wasn’t the case in 1769 on board Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour, when naturalist Joseph Banks made the first mention of the concept of the tattoo (Samoan ‘tatau’) in his journal: “…the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition.” Nor was it an issue for the Ainu people of Japan and the Russian Far East, who traditionally had facial tattoos, or for the tribal groups of Polynesia, Africa and New Zealand – to whom this was a symbol of loyalty for life.

Paul Sayce, from Oxford’s British Tattoo History Museum, explains, “Tattooing used to be a mark of travel. Sailors collected tattoos from the countries they visited much like we get our passport stamped.”

During the punk period of the 1970s, though, tattoos moved from the sternums of sailors, the biceps of bikers and the arms of armed robbers and into the mainstream. Would-be Sid Viciouses (Viciousi?) demonstrated their allegiance to their favoured music by sticking pins in themselves: safety pins through their noses and ink-filled pins over the rest of their bodies. (I bet there’s plenty of bank managers secretly hiding a God Save The Queen tattoo under their pinstripes, a reminder of a wilder past).

Women took to it too, and an industry developed. The number of tattoo parlours rose from a mere 50 in the UK in 1970 to over 700 by the millennium and, according to, many thousands today. In fact, while the rest of the economy is shrinking, the business of body art continues to expand faster than the girth of many a customer – which is a rather critical element of the whole process.

“That’s one of the golden rules (as well as never getting a tattoo when drunk)… never have a string of words or image in a place that may stretch or shrink over time,” Infinite Tattoo advises. And that’s where the fairer sex have ‘pinpointed’ the way forward to perfection. Like so many things in fashion, as far as choosing a tattoo is concerned, less is often more.

Compare the tasteful dolphin on the ankle of the wife of our current Prime Minister to the entire arm of Hebrew rantings on David Beckham; contrast the aggressive inkings of singer Robbie Williams’s upper torso with the touching addition of a jaguar (a symbol taken from her husband David’s coat of arms) on the 70 year old shoulder of Lady Judy Steel. The grandmother of eight, explained recently, “It was simply done for fun — a bit of a whim — but there is something quite exhilarating about the thought of a hidden pink jaguar beneath my sensible jersey and anorak.”

My friend had her first tattoos at the age of 38. “I’d always loved body art,” she explains, “but it wasn’t until we adopted our two children from Russia that I decided that two Russian dolls on my tummy was exactly what I wanted. I love them so much!” That’s the children as well as the tattoos, obviously.
For my sister-in-law it was a case of celebrating her new life. After starting college aged nearly 40 she found that she was one of the few in the class without a little inked something so decided to take the plunge. “ It’s at the base of my spine, so hidden most of the time, but really impressed my classmates most of who were half my age!”

And that’s when a visit to the parlour suddenly makes sense: when a tattoo is planned, carefully chosen and designed as a mark of permanent love and loyalty or as a personal celebration – not as the result of a boozy stag do in Budapest or a bet over a Friday night curry.

But are they really still a symbol of rebellion?… It would appear not. As media commentator Jan Moir put it, after seeing Lady Steel’s newly be-jaguared shoulder: “Tattoos are officially no longer edgy… In fact, they are now as suburban as cupcakes, conservatory furniture and Cath Kidston prints.”


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