Celebrities, footballers, trashy magazines and non-intimidating high-street availability have helped make tattoos commonplace and accessible. Once the reserve of tribesmen and sailors, tattoos have become normalized through media exposure – to people who would never consider them, to those who love them, and to those who might be tempted to consider them.
This is no bad thing. I love tattoos. I have several. I don’t care if you do or not, or if you like them or not. But as glossy magazines get stuck in to guessing which of his children David Beckham’s latest tattoo celebrates, or what Rhianna’s latest stamp might symbolise, the idea that a tattoo might not actually have an explicit meaning becomes hard for the uninitiated to accept.
Here’s the thing: not every tattoo has to mean something.
Of course I am happy to talk to people about the work I’ve had done (not that man by Kilburn tube station who asked if he could lick my arm, though) when they spot the birds and flowers winding their way up my arm. What does it mean? It means birds and flowers are winding their way up my arm. Why did I get it? I liked it. I thought it would make a good tattoo. I was right. It does.
The problem with TV shows like Miami/LA/London Ink (one of the problems, at any rate) is that the viewer is subjected to a half-hour sob story about a dead goldfish, a cancer-stricken grandmother, spiritual journeys, unfaltering religious faith and inspirational quotes. These emotional testimonies validate the customer’s desire for a tattoo, caught on camera as needle pierces flesh.
I could of course fictionalise my own choices a little, and harp on about the timing of me choosing to start the seemingly never-ending and quite frankly massive piece which covers the top of my left arm, moves over my shoulder and spreads across my back (15 hours and counting to date, if you were wondering). It coincided with me getting over a horrific breakup, from a boyfriend who thought getting a tattoo of an 19th century woodblock ‘just because I like it’ was a silly idea. Perhaps it was an act of rebellion, or a way of claiming my body as my own. However he also didn’t want me to live in England, and I do, so I didn’t really need to alter my appearance permanently to achieve rebellious aims in an effort to ‘get over’ him. The truth is of course a lot more foolish and meaningless. I had cash to burn, an idea in my head, and a summer off work. It was just the right time.
And, for the record, if anyone put a video camera anywhere NEAR me whilst I was panting and squinting my way through two hours of that burning, scratching, endlessly searing pain, they’d end up with footage as unusable as those episodes of LA Ink when Kat Von D bleached her hair white and had a bit of a breakdown whilst tattooing hairless cats on to everyone’s legs.
Whatever your reason or chosen imagery, the physical process of being doodled on with electrified needles and permanent ink has a fair amount of meaning in itself. The very act of changing your skin is a very personal thing. The fact is, you have chosen to subject your body to a certain degree of pain because you wish to look a particular way – be it a tiny piece of script in a hidden spot that few people will ever see, or a huge full sleeve that you whip out the second the temperature rises. Whatever design you choose doesn’t really need to carry any significance, and certainly doesn’t need to come with any justification.