Jun 8, 2012

Tattoos: Art or Ugly?

The Skype connection was a bit scratchy, but my father's delight was clear.

"There are no TATTS here, Bert," he exclaimed, using one of the more simple of my childhood nicknames. "They're not COVERED in TATTS."

My father was in Prague at the time, no doubt spending my inheritance on clay Golems and absinthe. Aside from the castle, Karlov Most and the astronomical clock, the chief attraction of the Czech capital seemed to be ink-free skin.

Now that would make a great design for a .... no, wait!

It was something of coincidental timing.

You know that moment in The Simpsons when Ned Flanders, smothered by his neighbour's sudden affection, wakes in a sweat and exclaims "I hate Homer Simpson!"? I had one of those just days before my father skyped me from across the globe. There was no reason for it, I hadn't just been menaced by a gang of *insert controversial bikie gang here* - just a simple realisation: I don't like tattoos.

Now this doesn't mean I think they should be banned, or people shouldn't get them. I'm not advocating a tattoo-free nanny state (or even, for that matter, a tattoo-free nanny).

But personally, aesthetically - I don't like them.

It may be something I've inherited from my aforementioned father. He's spent his life in the merchant navy, yet has always had a strong aversion to tattoos. I don't think my sea-faring grandfather had one either; considering my Gran refused to allow him to even grow a beard, I daresay a big Polish eagle across his back was out of the question.

But family views aside, my prudishness when it comes to tattoos is mostly my own. There's no doubt tattoos have become much more mainstream than even 10 or 15 years ago. We seem to be at a tipping point - many employers will still demand tattoos be covered up in the workplace, but as tribal stripes peek out from under shirt sleeves, and bits of cursive text wind their way through collars up necks, how long before ink saturation has hit 50 per cent of the population or more?

So here are my top three reasons for disliking tattoos.

1. Future planning. 

There's no doubt some tattoos are trends just as much as any fashion item. Designs on the small of a lady's back, tantalisingly visible between the top of her pants and the bottom of her shirt, were once all the rage. But their repositioning as "Tramp Stamps" or "Slag Tags" has seen them attract the same derision as "leggings as pants".

So many butt-erflies...
I get sick of clothes after just a few months - how on Earth could I work out a design for a tattoo that I'd be happy with (ostensibly) forever?

2. They make you look.... kinda ...dirty.

Again, a personal view. I find many tattoos make the person look like they've been attacked by a 3-year-old with a Sharpie. Up close perhaps you can see the individual designs, but I find the Gestalt image unappealing.

3. Putting it out there.

I feel like many tattoos are the more expensive and more permanent version of bumper stickers. I can have thoughts, dreams, visions, memories - without needing to sear them into my skin. But that works in reverse; those "My Family" stickers are quite possibly just the simpler version of David Beckham-style family name tattoos.

And he has *such* a pretty face...
But I felt I couldn't write a anti-tatt rant without actually consulting someone who likes them, to get the other point of view.

I met Chris, aka @selga55, a few weeks ago, when he very kindly offered me a steam mop, free of charge. That's just the way Twitter works sometimes: one day you're asking for advice on floor-cleaning, the next you're picking up an as-new Bissell from (until then) a stranger.

I couldn't help but notice Chris' impressive set of tattoos, across his arms and legs. I didn't mention them at the time, because I'm not totally rude, and also, I didn't want to jeopardise attainment of the steam mop (I have quite dirty floors). But a few days ago I shot him an email, and he very kindly answered my questions about why a person might put so much stuff on their skin.

Chris was 42 when he got his first tattoo, Che Guevara's face, on his left shoulder. He has numerous others, including Japanese 17th century samurai on his left leg, and the legendary Koi on his right leg.

"I get more when I forget how much it hurts," he told me. "I have always strived for art over motif... I have a lot of dragons, and the Koi legend is about the carp that swims upstream, up into a waterfall and becomes a dragon."

For Chris, his tattoos are very personal, and while he admits they wouldn't be to everyone's taste, he did put a lot of thought into them. He likes the growing widespread acceptance of tattoos in the community, but wishes people would put more thought into their designs.

"My beef about a lot of the ‘art’ is people just wanting to get something and move on. I mean if I see one more set of poker machine cherries on someone’s foot I’ll scream!"

Chris also believes if you don't think carefully about your design, you could wind up with one off the shelf.

"When you don’t know what to get and the artist wants a quick buck = Southern Cross tattoo," he said.

I asked Chris if he regretted any of his tattoos.

"Not any I regret  - I'm old enough to know better - but some I like more than others," he replied. Sometimes wish I had more of a plan for the arms but still, I'm not unhappy with results."

Now I'm interested in what you think. What are your experiences with tattoos? Have you had one you regret, or put thought into the art of it? And do you like how they look on others?


  1. Very amused by the timing of your post as I just finished a side piece. I worked on the original design for almost a year and then worked closely with my artist to turn it into something that would work well with my body. It's a highly symbolic and highly personal piece.

    Sometimes things are important enough to you that having a permanent piece of art to remind you of the meaning is worth it.

    On a less deep note, as an artist the human figure is a wonderful canvas. Why not adorn it in a way that inspires you?

    People also get all worried about tattoos changing and becoming less defined as you get older. To that I say, big f'ing deal. When I'm a wrinkly old granny I see no reason why I shouldn't be a fabulously colorful wrinkly old granny.

    If you're interested {Click here} and it'll take you to my post showing my finished work. Warning: It's quite large.

  2. I've entertained the notion of getting small circular tattoos around my upper bicep to commemorate great achievements in my live. My first online comic, my first overseas trip, my first wife. Stuff like that.

    Ultimately I've never plucked up the courage to get it done. I know that the circles will distort the bigger my biceps and triceps grow and that doesn't sit well with me.

    But then, maybe I should get tattoos when I'm older and fatter. One of those optical illusions that makes me look thinner than I am when I'm naked. Aren't horizontal stripes thinning?

    Or is that vertical?

    I should probably figure that out before committing.

  3. Hey Haven! I just had a look at your tatt, and it's pretty darn impressive! You have obviously put a lot of thought into it.

    Also, you mentioned how out of shape you are.... I wish I was as out of shape as you are! One reason I don't think I could get tatts is I have too many chub rolls!

    Dan - get a tattoo of a six pack. :)

  4. Tattoos: Art or Ugly?

    Why can't they be both? Ugly art.

  5. Tattoos I hate: tribal tattoos on white people, Southern cross tattoos on anyone, bible phrases (particularly the one from Leviticus about man not lying down with another man), nautical themed tattoos on someone who's never crewed a boat, Chinese characters on someone who does not identify as Chinese or subscribes seriously to a theology that arose in China.

    Actually I basically have problems with any tattoos which seek to co-opt another culture as an artistic statement. I know someone who's got a few tattoos that have a spiritual meaning but it's actually to do with her own spirituality, her family's history and her support of the struggle of a particular people rather than just thinking "Hey, that looks cute and sounds kind of deep!" Another friend has a lovely piece on her shoulder blade of some lotus blossoms. Another friend has Pacman tattooed on one arm and a black ghost tattooed on the other arm, he's pretty big into video games and video game culture and it's a way he can carry that with him. He was also talking about getting an Autobot logo tattooed on his chest. I've got a cousin with tattoos in Gaelic because he's very connected to his Irish heritage (I am not).

    I think tattoos can be sexy but they can also be incredibly tacky. A good design of significant personal meaning that doesn't steal other cultures' emblems/symbols and strip them of all meaning is a "good" tattoo imho. Getting a tribal armband as a white person who doesn't _belong to a tribe_ because you think they'll look rad with your dreadlocks (that you got even though you're not actually a Rastafarian, you just went through a Bob Marley phase) doesn't make you deep, it makes you a dickhead.

    There are some really beautiful designs out there that aren't specific to any one culture, though. And that's where it begins to get much more into subjective taste, particularly when you start to talk about where they're placed.

    I don't think I would ever get a tattoo. There's nothing I so strongly identify with that I would consider putting it permanently on my skin.

  6. Sam has good points. I'm not a fan of tattoos, but my partner has a number of them. His first tattoo was in memory of his Mum, who died young of Breast Cancer. He also has pictures of his daughters tattood on each arm (luckily he only has two kids). There are others without that special meaning, and personally I don't like any of them, (the heart he had for his Mum isn't bad), and I've always said I'll never have a tattoo.

    HOWEVER, unlike Sam (and his comment sums up my own feelings on the matter very well), There IS something I identify with very strongly, which has made me consider the possibility of having a tattoo. I have noticed that a number of ladies are having the pink ribbon tattood on hands and wrists recently. This is something I would consider. Maybe once I get my five year all clear. (As a sook though, I still struggle with the concept of paying someone money to hurt you - without anaesthetic!!!)

  7. Can't do it and wouldn't for myself. I think I was on the cusp of eligibility, being in a particular part of Gen X that first started popularising tatts but it just isn't me and never would be.

    I think people in some spheres of employment can get away with body art but we are still a long way off from it being acceptable. This is why I think it is something young people need to approach with caution. It might be fine if you're a barista but not if you want to be a barrister.

    Okay that was bad but probably the best example I can think of.

  8. Every second pro sportsman alive has ink now, and I hate it. Everyone wants to be a rebel, just like everyone else.

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