Why tattoos make my flesh crawl
The tattoo has always been a mark of powerlessness, not individuality. And now everyone’s got one.
Joanna Southgate’s heavily tattooed arms caused a stir at Royal Ascot last week. Apparently, the 34-year-old sneaked in and avoided being told to cover them up. In a discussion piece last Sunday, an Observer journalist argued that tattoos like Southgate’s can be beautiful and a work of art in their own right. Novelist and journalist Rachel Johnson, however, declared that they simply lacked style and elegance. If they’re not good enough for actress Kristin Scott Thomas, she declared, they’re not good enough for any stylish woman. In the Mirror, Tony Parsons also declared that tattoos were a depressing eyesore and that Britain has become a ‘tattooed nation’.
For once, I’m with Parsons. In Britain, when the sun comes out, so do the tattoos. Acres and acres of flesh vandalised by grubby-looking ink daubings: martial-arts symbols, nude dancers, flowers and roses, Guns’n’Roses, dolphins, dogs and loved ones’ names scrawled in Sanskrit. Tattoos used to be a subcultural expression of criminals, sailors and hard men. Now everyone, from footballers to the prime minister’s wife, has their body adorned in artwork last seen on a Prog-Rock album sleeve. To describe them as lurid would be an understatement, which is a word probably hated and feared in tattoo parlours everywhere.
So what’s going on? How did we arrive at a situation whereby not having a tattoo is now a sign of daring rebellion? While sitting in a pub garden recently, I realised I was about the only person whose flesh could be considered a blank canvas. Nor will I be getting my arms mutilated anytime soon. Apart from tattoos looking hideously ugly, they are also indicative of a person’s insularity. No doubt having a tattoo is widely seen as a mark of individuality and personal expression; that is, you have altered your body’s appearance to demonstrate something about yourself. As one blogger put it recently, ‘a tattoo is a life story. And with a virgin skin you obviously don’t have a life.’
Yet there’s more going on here than questionable aesthetic tastes. With tattoos, the emphasis is all on the self, and the centrality of the self, rather than anything outside of the body. You may not be in a position to make a mark on the outside world, or even on your local community, but at least you can leave a mark on your own body. In a deeply narcissistic age, self-aggrandising tattoos have become the body badge of choice for thousands. But by enlarging ourselves with tattoos, we’re belittling ourselves in the process. It’s a sign of our low expectations that having control over flesh decorations is considered to be the limit of our capacities as an individual. So while shaping the outside world seems near impossible, you can at least shape barbed-wire patterns on your arm.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Historically, tattoos have long been part of subcultures in which fundamental social change was dismissed. During the postwar period, tattoos were associated with rock’n’roll outlaw chic: the greaser, the rocker and the Hell’s Angels. In other words, tattoos were associated with an ‘outsider’ form of ‘cool’. And yet, the original definition of ‘cool’ was to be decidedly icy about the struggles between left and right, socialism and conservatism, workers and bosses. It was to be cool about the possibilities of human progress achieved through social transformation. To display your tattoos was to elevate the self over any commitment to engaging with and changing society.
Of course in an age where human progress has little positive meaning, it’s not surprising that ‘cool’, in its anti-political sense, has become so widespread. But the emptying out of politics has also gone hand-in-hand with a rejection of civilised mainstream values, too. Increasingly, universal standards in public life, from formality of speech to ‘dressing for an occasion’, are seen as irritating, even offensive, reminders of stuffy Old Britain. Anyone who questions the dismantling of such universal standards is seen as an out-of-touch reactionary who needs to ‘chillax’.
Public displays of tattoos, such as swallows on hands to denote having ‘done bird’, were often a sad display of self-loathing by marginalised individuals in society. In the early 1980s, lumpenised punks and skinheads would also have a ‘cut here’ tattoo dotted around their throat. A mixture of personal degradation and outlaw status has, historically, provided tattoos with their shock value.
In recent years, such shock value has now taken the form of the neck tattoo, where huge ink daubings have no place to hide. The comedy writer Armando Iannucci recently said on Twitter that neck tattoos must be ‘the worst sort of career move going’. But that is exactly why some individuals have them; it is a defiant rejection of the formalised dress codes required to advance in most workplaces, a tattooed sneer at the uptight world of white-collar work and ‘office drones’.
Imagining yourself on the margins, and not at the centre of society, is why tattoos have become so popular. Whether it is refusing to hold down a job or, in the middle classes’ case, rejecting bourgeois values, significant sections of society want to vacate the public sphere. Just like the historically isolated social groups with which tattoo wearers seek identification, today a lot of people want to be outside contemporary society. In effect, tattoos are a celebration of powerlessness and marginalisation. Getting tattooed up is simply a way of putting ourselves down.
Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.