Written in the scars
Tattoos used to signify youthful rebellion. Now they stand for middle-aged foolishness
ANDREW M. BROWN
What do you do if you want to upset your parents these days? Properly rebel, I mean. You certainly don’t get a tattoo.Tattoos won’t bother anybody — they’ve become a fashion accessory, adopted as widely as bangles and bracelets. Shrewd money is investing in the sector, because it’s going through a growth spurt: tattoo parlours are up 5.6 per cent since 2008.
But this isn’t merely a fad: it reflects a deep underlying secular obsession with living for ever and, especially, staying permanently young. Young women are driving the boom in fashionable tattooing. My friend Alice, for instance, is 23, super-cool, and works in high fashion. She has several tattoos, including a shooting star on the delicate underside of her wrist. It’s not a tiny, embarrassed thing — it’s a good two inches long. She got it when she was 18.Alice is booked in for another on Saturday, a quotation this time.
But it’s not only the young: older folk are desperately getting in on the act. Fern Britton, the 53-year-old television presenter, has just had a couple of butterflies inked into her abdomen. She was influenced by Felicity Kendal, 64, who has a star tattoo on her foot and a moon and two feathers further up one leg. The eagerness with which women like these two are rushing to the tattoo parlour indicates a desire to hold desperately on to youth. Not worrying about tomorrow is the defining characteristic of youth, because young people do not think they are going to die. Who cares if the tattoo will still be there in 20 years’ time? Young people can barely see beyond the next weekend. Older women want to co-opt some of this sense of recklessness. As Fern Britton says, it’s part of her ‘disgraceful middle age’. Tattoos, like smoking cigarettes, are a defiant rejection of getting old.
a Tweety Pie cartoon figure on a hip bone, or, like Samantha Cameron, a little dolphin so low down on the ankle that a shoe would cover it. This very small act of self-assertion meant: I’m cooler than my square friends but I’m still sensible deep down. It represented safe flirting with a fringe identity and, crucially, it signified the passing from adolescence into adulthood — because only an adult can make such an irrevocable decision. Now older women are using tattoos to signify how juvenile they are, or, rather, how in touch with the spirit of youth. Felicity Ken-
Older people who undergo this procedure are fairly shaking their fists at the Grim Reaper dal is of pensionable age, but she is, in this sense, regressing.The sexual element can’t be ignored, either: tattoos are often in a place normally only seen by a lover.
Traditionally, of course, we associate ‘tats’ with male tribes — with ex-cons, sailors, the heavy-leather motorcycling fraternity. They are groups on the margins. The prisoner with a spider’s web design spreading up his neck is ruling himself out of an office job. (Not that body art is exclusively a working class fad: Edward VII had quite a few tattoos, many of them done by Sutherland Macdonald, a legendary tattoo artist with a shop above the Turkish baths at 76 Jermyn Street.)
Today, customers want their tattoos to be more sophisticated affairs than the quaint and stylised images of old. The draughtsmanship is of better quality than it used to be. Irony is deployed in the designs, and pretentious spirituality. Women, and a few hyper-fashionable males modelling themselves on David Beckham, choose symbols, words and phrases as well, often in learned languages.
Popular places for tattoos on women are underneath arms and wrists and behind the ears — always places where hair, clothing or posture can easily cover up if needed. It still tends to be men who tattoo the exterior surfaces of the body, as you see with Beckham and his ‘sleeve tattoos’. These are images and words that envelop his forearms. Actually, Beckham’s case illustrates both how habitforming body art can be, and, I would argue, the effect of ageing and a decline in career. As the great footballer approaches middle age and, at the same time, his professional eminence wanes, so his tattoos have become more extensive and more obvious. Don’t forget, he started off back in 1999 with a fairly modest ‘Brooklyn’ (his eldest son’s name) in the small of his back. Tattoos are more-ish.
Keep in mind also that, while tattoos may be nearly as common as bracelets, they still represent a much more extreme intervention. In the cause of ‘style’, you are damaging yourself. This is not quite the same as self-harming: for one thing, self-harmers are ashamed of their injuries, whereas tattoowearers are proud. Still, you are piercing the body’s integument, which is designed to protect us from infection and disease. The usual procedure involves pricking the surface of the skin with needles and injecting pigment into the layer of tissue underneath. Scarring and ‘granulation’ occur, and that creates your tattoo. And it’s painful, too, so middle-aged people who undergo this process are fairly shaking their fists at the Grim Reaper. What lengths will they go to next, you may wonder?
Mind you, none of this worries young Alice. ‘It’s just like decoration,’ she says. ‘It’s, like, accessorising.’ She doesn’t care that her tattoos are permanent. She’s happy to turn her skin into a fashion item. For now.
Andrew M. Brown works for the Daily Telegraph.
There is a paradox to this: people do it to be fashionable, which is a temporary, fleeting state, yet the result is indelibly branded into the epidermis. And this permanence is the reason it’s fashionable. It says: it’s cool not to care.
As a social trend, tattooing has accelerated since the turn of the last century. Twenty years ago, a minority of well-brought-up youngsters restricted themselves to small and innocuous designs. Teenage girls might have returned from their year off having acquired an easily concealable yin-yang symbol, or
‘The off-the-shoulder look is very in this season.’
the spectator | 16 July 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Rod Liddle
MPs and bankers didn’t clean up their acts.
Nor will the hacks
I’d like the art therapists to be next, if at all possible. I mean, next in line for the national outpouring of bile and contumely. My closest friend is an art therapist and his smugness is beginning to get my goat, especially coming from someone who wanders around loony bins at my expense with a bag of crayons and a head full of post-Freudian idiocies. So, 2012, remember, let’s take it out on the art therapists. I’ll start the Twitter campaign in November, you ring the Guardian.
For the moment, though, it’s journalists, and fair enough I suppose. Just as with the loathing poured upon the bankers, and then the politicians, the fury has its confected elements for sure, and it is given momentum by schadenfreude, spite and political opportunism, not to mention social networking sites. But there’s no doubting that the massed public revulsion is genuine enough and perhaps overdue. I felt, as we all rounded with glee upon the MPs two years ago, that sooner or later we would cop it, a feeling of foreboding compounded by my trade’s astonishingly sanctimonious outrage that we were having a privacy law imposed upon us by judges. The super-injunctions, as it turned out, were useless. But in those arguments marshalled every day in every national newspaper, the demands that we have a right to investigate who is shagging who and then to tell you all about it, in the public interest, in the service of fairness and openness, as part of a democracy and so on, repeated ad nauseam, our right to let you know that Jeremy Clarkson or someone from The Saturdays might be having marital difficulties — well, the hypocrisy stank.And I thought, I’m not entirely sure we have the public with us on this one.
There are interesting similarities in the consecutive eviscerations of the bankers, politicians and journalists. The suspicion, for a start, that each of them had it coming.The fact that in each case they were abiding by established practice which they believed, rightly or wrongly, was part of the deal of being a banker, or an MP, or a journalist. The fact that their excesses in each case were known about long, long before everybody started getting really angry. We knew the bankers and the finance houses were taking inordinate risks which seemed to defy the laws of physics, never mind economics. That MPs played fast and loose with their expenses was widely known and, indeed, the MPs argued in public that it was a quid pro quo for being badly paid, a deal which everyone was signed up to. And as for the journos — that most egregious of transgressions, bribing the police; you will have seen footage of Rebekah Brooks explaining to a Commons select committee that News International had, in the past, bunged loads of money the way of the old bill. Nobody
I felt, as we rounded on the MPs, that sooner or later we would cop it took much fright back then. It wasn’t quite our time to feel the wrath descend.
In each case too, the political left has been the most vengeful and driven, even if it was the Daily Telegraph which broke the expenses story (by, er, procuring hacked information. But that was OK). But it has been selectively vengeful, of course, which is why almost all of the odium is poured upon Rupert Murdoch rather than, say, the Daily Mail or the Daily Mirror.As one commentator noted this week, Rupert Murdoch is the left’s Voldemort, an embodiment of everything it loathes. Partly, one suspects, because he has a rather surer grasp of what it is the downtrodden masses really want than did, say, Karl Marx or Antonio Gramsci. The public, I suspect, is more even-handed in its contempt; we are, for a while, all the same, just as were the bankers and the politicians. But of course there are inconsistencies there too; while they seem to believe that the hacking of phones is wrong,
the spectator | 16 July 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk the sales-sheets tell us that the newspapers which have done the most hacking are the most popular with the public.And there were no complaints from the public about bankers when the economy was spiralling upwards as a consequence of their injudicious (as it turned out) ‘investments’ in debt.
And then there are the inconsistencies of the left, epitomised by that walking, talking inconsistency Julian Assange. There is no great moral difference between hacking a phone and hacking a computer file. The justification for both is that the perpetrators wish to reveal to the public stuff which individuals wish to keep secret; one will claim defence of the ‘public interest’, the other — if they’re honest — commercial interest. Is it in the public interest to know what diplomats say privately? Is it helpful? I’m not sure. Let’s face it, the whole of WikiLeaks was based on the illegal or unethical acquisition of secret information. At least the News of the World sometimes used methods which lay within the law. But the left is too busy trying to exonerate Assange from those sexual assault charges to worry.
The question now is whether journalism goes the same way of those other two subjects of public loathing. In other words, what are the prospects of Fleet Street reflecting upon its misdeeds and putting its house in order, banning for ever the employment of rat-faced private investigators, illegal hacking, bunging wads of wonga to the filth and so on? The bankers haven’t changed one bit, although they told us they would at the time. The MPs also told us that things would be different from now on, God forgive us — it is time for a new, clean and transparent culture within Westminster, how appallingly have we let you down, etc, etc. Well, they are now claiming even more in expenses than they did when all that fuss occurred, and are quietly removing the checks introduced to stop them robbing us blind. So don’t bet on Fleet Street being terribly different a year or two from now.
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