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.
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 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 Kendal 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 habit-forming 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 tattoo-wearers 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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2011