HERE THERE BE DRAGONS

I have always preferred my clothes plain. Not boring plain. I like texture and colour but have always felt that patterns and graphics overwhelm form and date rapidly. This is also how I feel about skin, our bodies are not improved by a pattern, very little is, with the possible exception of big cats and scatter cushions. I am not a tattoo hater though, my skin has no permanent designs on it because like most humans my preferences are subject to change, though inexplicably I do still like Hall and Oates. Possibly my monotone veneer makes me unqualified to speak on the subject of tattoos but when has a lack of qualification ever stopped me? I certainly have no intention of telling people with tattoos that they will regret them or will wish to have them removed because they might not. Yet. Regret can take a while and tattoos have all the time in the world, especially bad ones.

There can be little doubt that some tattoos are utterly brilliant, they may not improve the present human but they certainly gift wrap it. The problem is most tattoos are not brilliant, they are crap and do nothing more than crudely declare ownership. When a six year old child obliterates the frame of their bed with a multiplicity of stickers it doesn’t improve the bed but simply states that this is the domain of a six year old child. It could be argued that the stickers briefly elevate the bed by capturing fleeting childhood but at some point the child will tire of the stickers and peel them off. This option, short of scalpels or lasers, is not available to similarly adorned skin and it is this human vandalism and the denial that perpetuates it that interests me. All I can do is tell you what I think, nothing more than my opinion, not definitive, not a threat, then when I’m done you can say ‘Fuck you’ and get another tattoo.

Saying anything about tattoos is tricky, practically everything that can be said already has been, repeatedly. Articles are often mocking, not only because the majority of tattoos are risible but also because the detractors are likely clamouring cleanskins who write for an increasingly hysterical and divisive media. As a result some of the tattooed have become defensive, blaming this negative sentiment for a lack of career opportunities, trying to portray themselves as a put-upon minority, a particular demographic who are discriminated against by the wider non-tattooed public. This only tends to make things worse as in almost all cases tattoos are voluntary and while some deserve and get respect most don’t. If you choose to have ARSEHOLE tattooed on your forehead you shouldn’t be surprised if people take it literally, it’s not as if you were born with it, it’s not a skin colour or a disability, it’s a description. 

I know it’s unlikely that anyone has arsehole tattooed on their forehead but give it time, sooner or later someone will think it’s a good idea and then complain that they can’t get a job in a nursery. They shouldn’t expect to be embraced by the illustrated community either though as not all tattoos are created equal. There is a significant difference between a man with a hastily drawn rat on his neck and a man with a four years in the making bio-mechanical dolls house on his back. People with brilliant tattoos know it but unfortunately those with crap tattoos also think theirs are brilliant because they confuse rash commitment with art. Really good tattoos are created by really good tattoo artists and it is quite unlikely that the person that did or does your tattoo will be one of these.

Not that great tattoos are always necessary to create great art. I have a heavily illustrated friend who was in the merchant navy for most of his working life. He had a simple rule of one tattoo per port and over a thirty odd year career that adds up to an awful lot of very different tattoos. Most aren’t particularly well drawn and collectively they shouldn’t work but they do, in the best possible way. His body has become a rare document, a map charting a life with extraordinary illustrations. Here there be dragons. His skin has a tattooed authenticity the likes of which I have never seen and could not be replicated no matter how good your tattooist. 

Tattoos are all about narrative with the very best ones turning your body into a compelling graphic novel. I have a client with a series of lightly drawn cartoon characters from every conceivable source tumbling over each other, down his arms to his wrists. It is an mesmerising farrago of familiar faces, fists and feet that gives the impression of always having been there. This kind of result can be achieved slowly over time or in a series of great flourishes but it cannot be done without talent and planning. Instant gratification has been the downfall of the tattoo as the vast majority have little or no backstory, are poorly considered, poorly executed and poorly told. Great tattoos, even eccentric or lurid ones, integrate, become part of the flesh, bad tattoos just sit there, like a turd on a rock. The only thing that gives them any value is the strained context of skin as canvas, the sacrifice and continued sufferance of the wearer. Context is why Duchamp’s urinal is only art in a gallery and everywhere else it’s a toilet. If you imagine your tattoo on a different more challenging surface would it still have any merit? Would it look any good painted on the bonnet of your car for example? Would it increase the resale value? I very much doubt it, unless it’s a citroën.

It’s not as if people set out to get a shit tattoo they just end up with one. So it’s just as well that the intention is rarely to improve, it’s more likely to intimidate or distract or obscure. It might be about acceptance or approval or peer pressure. It might be about celebration, affirmation, birth or death or even identity, occasionally it might even be about art. Whatever the reason, however legitimate, this urge to colour-in rather presumes that the canvas is blank when it is not, blemishes, scars, stretch marks, it is life’s masterwork. The body is on a journey but tattoos anchor it, fix it in a particular place and time. It’s not life that’s short, it’s youth, young types seem blissfully unaware that they will likely live for an awfully long time as an old person. You will change, your skin will change your mind and opinions will change but your ink won’t. Well, it will fade and go fuzzy but it will still be there when you are a pensioner which is bad news for hipsters. ‘Why’s there a naked sailor on your arm Granny?’

I realise that for some people that’s the point, if not art then a tattoo can be a skewer upon which the shish kebab of life is speared and that’s fine if you’re in the armed forces or in prison or in the sons of anarchy or if there’s a major event in your life where your memory of it isn’t sufficient and a more literal remembrance seems appropriate. But remembrance is rarely the reason that a young man turns one of his arms into a mock Maori pop sock or why a once celebrated woman has her entire bottom re-imagined as a rose bush. What starts out as an admirable quest for something original, something that captures the individual can quickly descend into farce, there is almost nothing more cliched, more hackneyed than badly thought out tattoos. So ordinary, so common place have they become that it is those without tattoos who are beginning to look subversive. 

When I was fifteen I went on holiday with my family to the south of Spain. We drove there through France in an old Volvo estate and I travelled the whole way in the boot looking at where we had just been. It took a couple of days and we stayed overnight at a French campsite pitching our tent on the terraced lawns of a once magnificent but now ruined chateau. There was no restaurant as such but there was a place to eat nearby in the courtyard of an old timber barn where a woman of undetermined age did all the cooking in an outdoor kitchen. It was a set menu but the food was incredible and whilst I was eating I happened to notice an unusual symbol burnt into the side of the barn. It had clearly been there for a very long time and was unlike anything I had ever seen. I asked the cook what it was but she didn’t speak English and just gave me an enigmatic shrug. I felt altered by that symbol and took a photograph of it with my Dad’s Polaroid, it meant something important I knew it did and on my eighteenth birthday I found myself in a Worthing tattoo parlour a little drunk, clutching that same photo, about to have the unknown symbol committed to ink. Jump ten years and I am in Australia doing a Shakespeare with the Queensland Theatre Company. I am at a barbecue with the cast sitting with the actress who plays my alleged lover and her circus acrobat boyfriend. He has a number of tattoos but it is the really unusual one on his shoulder that catches my eye, it is terribly familiar and I ask him where he got it. He smiles and glances at it with the pride of the uniquely illustrated.
  ‘Well,’ he says. ‘I was backpacking in the south of France, camping in the grounds of this ruined chateau with all these lawn terraces. There were no restaurants or anything but just up the road was this old girl who cooked really good food in the yard of this derelict barn and on the side of it, burnt into the timber, was this mysterious symbol.’
You get the picture, this random acrobat I met at a barbecue in Queensland in Australia had my tattoo. Well almost. Much to my shame at the time I had bailed on my eighteenth and fled the tattoo parlour with my virgin skin intact, just as well really.
  ‘Thing is,’ said the acrobat. ‘Years later I met a guy who knew what it meant.’
  ‘What?’ I asked, leaning in closer.
  ‘Cowshed.’ Said the acrobat.

Originality is illusive. Flowers, skulls, birds, words, cogs, wings, fish, arrows, tribal, Lego minifigures, if your first tattoo is one of these then it is a mistake you are likely to repeat. Einstein is credited with saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. So it is with a crap tattoo and if it spreads then the best you can hope for is a random combination of banalities that don’t resemble the spilled contents of a crazy lady’s handbag, but probably will. Bad tattoos have become self-fulfilling prophecies, predictions that come true simply because the prediction was made, with often no greater reason for existing than themselves. They are permanent but brought into being through impermanent sentiment, they are that most curious of contradictions, enduring fashion, the sartorial equivalent of wearing the same Hawaiian shirt every day for the rest of your life. 

Which only adds to the mystery of why women get them. Whereas tattoos merely fail to improve the male body what they do to the female body is completely different. They declassify it. Being a woman is no guarantee of a quality tattoo, quite the opposite, and so it is critical that great care is taken, the female body is a more socially sophisticated surface than the male and so bad ink can appear even more defacing. Whether the tattoos are small and discreet or large and defiant the reasons women give for getting them are often the same, self-empowerment and a greater sense of autonomy or control over their bodies. Men however often see them differently. There was a reason why the tattooed lady was a fairground attraction, her tattoos gave men an excuse to stare at her body, lustfully or disapprovingly or both. To a certain extent this is still the case, especially where bad tattoos are concerned, with some men interpreting them as an invitation to harass. Tattooed ladies are no longer a rarity but their ubiquity has made them no less contentious and they are still open to various forms of objectification. Their illustrations are either adored, abhorred or ignored yet no matter what reaction they provoke they will always be a private statement that demands a public explanation.

Even though bad tattoos can seem empowering they are not something you can hide behind, they are not camouflage, they are the very definition of the bleeding obvious. As they multiply they create their own identity until it becomes less about you and more about them and it’s difficult to say who’s wearing who, where they end and you begin. This is the start of a leisurely repentance, it takes time to see beyond the commitment but at some point, man or woman, you will wake up, look in the mirror and wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ You might resist the thought for years, surrender to the culture, exclusively date other illustrated people, swim further out by adding more, hopefully better, tattoos, but it will happen. Not only because your tattoos are bad but because they are no longer relevant, no longer you, they will have lost context. A bad tattoo is a passing fancy that doesn’t pass, a phase that you can’t go all the way through, either a constant reminder of something you would rather forget or an unnecessary reminder of something you never will. Bad tattoos are not worthy of the paper they are written on.

 

Richard’s unofficial rules to reducing the chances of getting a crap tattoo.

Don’t get a tattoo.

Don’t get a cheap tattoo, save up.

Don’t get a tattoo of a Lego minifigure.

Don’t get a tattoo based only on a description.

Don’t get a tattoo of a word you’re not sure how to spell.

Don’t get a first tattoo somewhere that requires a mirror to see it.

Don’t get a tattoo when you’re drunk, hungry, rushed, emotional or on holiday.

Don’t get a tattoo thinking that if you don’t like it you can always get it removed.

Don’t get a tattoo of a new girl/boyfriend’s name, it’s creepy and guaranteed to last longer than the relationship.

Don’t get a tattoo that might look like varicose veins, gangrene, third degree burns or a skin condition from a distance.

Don’t get a tattoo for a cause, a dare or an obligation and don’t ever get matching tattoos, it’s even worse than matching tracksuits.

Don’t get a tattoo if you have never tried to convince yourself not to, it should be a process, a tussle, a carefully considered decision.

Don’t get a tattoo if you have to go through the books at the tattooist, these are the permanent equivalent of those pictures of men’s hairstyles on the wall at the barbers.

Don’t get a cultural tattoo from any culture other than your own and don’t get a tattoo of anything you don’t recognise, that includes symbols and especially languages, no one wants to spend their life with ‘supermarket’ tattooed on their arm in Korean.

Of course none of this will help if you haven’t found a great tattooist and planned a great tattoo. I can’t really help you with this other than to say shop around, get referrals, check out other people’s ink, treat it like the search for a decent brain surgeon or plumber. Don’t just go to the nearest shop to you, and remember you are looking for an artist, there might be other shit tattooists working out of the same premises, get a name.

 

Defence of the realm

In a crowded pub on a Friday night
a punch pulls back at the speed of slight.

As time slows to a standstill, albeit brief
tattoos on the arm are thrown into relief.

I gawp in amazement, balls shrinking in fear
my fingers losing grip on my umpteenth beer.
For monsters writhe on that cocked right hook
like some demonic come to life pop-up book.

I see a snarling tiger its eyes empty and dull
tail threaded through the sockets of a grinning skull.
I see the blood dripping thorns of an English rose
in the teeth of a Minotaur with a ring in its nose.

A dragon its talons sunk into willing flesh clings
it has lime scales and translucent insect wings.
I see a warrior angel her smile gentle and soft
the beating heart in her hand held proudly aloft.

A cigar chewing devil with a wink and red horns
holds the reins of two wild and rearing unicorns.
Their raised hooves snapped at by slavering dogs
who guard an open wound full of pistons and cogs.

And through it all is woven a burning Celtic band
which ignites a spitting cobra on the back of his hand.
In between are symbols and creatures of every kind
that make no real sense to my booze addled mind.

Then all at once they charge in a blur of running ink
the panic in my head is slurred ‘Jesushh Chrishht’ I think.
Mythical beasts and animals boil, bared teeth and claws
a realm of muscle trailing colour from millions of pores.

They pounce with a banshee hallucinogenic scream
driving terror into my soul with the force of a dream.
My very last thought, don’t pick fights if you’re pissed
the last thing I see, L O V E tattooed on a clenched fist.

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