Dimbleby’s ink: how tattoos became establishment

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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When a veteran British broadcaster and figurehead of the establishment, David Dimbleby, decides to get a tattoo and show it off, it’s clear that getting ‘inked’ is now as respectable as wearing a suit and tie. The 75-year-old has had a tattoo of a scorpion, the symbol of his star sign, on his shoulder while making the new BBC One maritime series, Britain and the Sea. During filming, Dimbleby was given the chance to have a tattoo of his own while looking into how body art was introduced to the UK as a result of Captain Cook’s South Sea adventures. Yet, if we take a closer look, the current fad for tats has less to do with maritime history than it does with today’s culture of narcissism.

Informed by therapeutic norms, expressions of ‘The Self’ have become a defining marker of a person’s identity. Whereas a person’s relationship to society once defined who they were, namely through their livelihood or their political allegiances, today, self-definition is achieved through vandalising the flesh. Indeed, in the past, tattoos were a symbol that you existed outside of mainstream society, it was the flesh badge of the unemployable ex-con and the hardman.

But in an age where ‘tell all’ expressions are the norm, people are suspicious of those without tattoos. As one tattooist put it, ‘if you don’t have tattoos, you don’t have a life’. The cultural pressure to have and flaunt tattoos has become so enormous that the real free-thinkers and rebels are those who still refuse to get inked up. Tattoos have become one of those cultural totems, like the Glastonbury music festival, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or long shorts in the summer, that are supposedly ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ but are, in fact, irredeemably gauche and laughable.

With this in mind, the image of Dimbleby getting his tat out is all the more skin-crawling.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics/sociology teacher in London.

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Topics Politics


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