Having been a seaman for a good few years, I should have a better excuse than most to have a schooner under billowing full sail inked on one forearm and a scantily clad young lady on the other, preferably having blurred over the years. But no, I don’t have anything of the sort. There’s an ugly scar on one forearm, a reminder that machinery and maintenance carried out without training isn’t a great idea, and at one time I toyed with the idea of some kind of decoration to hide it. The scar’s faded now anyway, in a way that a tattoo would never have done.
Don’t get me wrong. Tattoos can look good if done well and with skill and artistry. Unfortunately, that’s pretty rare.
But for my money, they look awkward. If you haven’t sailed around Cape Horn, or at least around Land’s End, haven’t scored a try for the All Blacks, aren’t a third generation yakuza or haven’t shot a man in Reno and done the time afterwards, then a tattoo is wrong.
Most of them, the ones that are painfully on show through the summer months when clothing is generally on the more revealing side, look plain stupid to this old fart’s eyes. Maybe a wee fairy or a cool dragon look good on a teenage shoulder or thigh, but how’s it going to look when that shoulder is in its fifties or beyond? How about the abstract faux-Celtic pattern over the small of the back so popular with young ladies and known in this manor as a Tramp Stamp? They look sweet when new, but a pregnancy or two can turn them into a tangle of barbed wire.
Most of them seem to be picked out of the catalogue everyone else is making a choice from, so getting a tat becomes a way of showing your individuality by looking the same as everyone else.
Sorry, kids. What looks unbelievably cool when you’re nineteen is going to look painful when you’re thirty and colossally embarrassing as you hit fifty. Maybe only people over a certain age should indulge in indelible decoration? That’s on the basis that the younger generation lacks foresight, judgement and experience to make a rational judgement on whether or not that amazingly supercool dragon on your shoulder is going to be just as impressive in 2041 as it was when you picked it out of the catalogue?
Then there’s the lettering. One acquaintance of mine thought he had his daughters’ names etched lovingly on one shoulder in elegant Kanji, only to find out when he finally met a native Japanese speaker that he in fact had the name of prominent suppliers of household white goods engraved on his back.
Come on, people, learn some sense, will you? Trusting someone who doesn’t have a command of any language but his own to put something on your skin for ever in Chinese, Japanese, Urdu or Sanskrit is as smart as taking at face value someone emailing you out of the blue with an offer of an unwanted $10 million that happened to be lying around.
This stuff is permanent. It stays there until long after you’re dead, and that might be a long, long time. That’s unless you want to go for the very expensive laser treatment to have those symbols of youthful idiocy removed. Bart Simpson did it. Well, he was in Tijuana with Krusty, and I gather that’s standard practice for anyone visiting Tijuana. Remind me to keep clear of Tijuana.
In fact, I’m reliably informed by the neighbourhood Simpsons guru that Bart actually got himself tattooed twice, and also that Sideshow Bob has a tattoo that reads ‘Die, Bart, Die’ on his chest.
Then there’s the more sinister stuff like scarring and branding, and the ironmongery… That’s different in that it can be taken out and eventually the holes in your ears/nose/eyebrows/lip/navel/nipples/ or wherever further south will grow out; should grow out. It depends how big the holes are and how long they’ve been there.
Again, not smart. A bone through your nose is as good as a flashing neon sign on your forehead explaining that no, the wearer isn’t likely to be über-reliable. There’s no guarantee that’s the case, and it’s our conditioning that makes us think this way with an innate suspicion of those who don’t look like us. It’s unfortunate, as characters who go in for being a little different are often the genuinely interesting ones.
As a seafarer, I should have as much right as any to have a gold hoop in one ear. The theory was that if a man was lost at sea and his body should be washed up somewhere, then the gold in one ear would cover the cost of burial in some distant land. In reality, it’s to do with balance. An imbalance between the ears can affect the workings inside and help some people with seasickness, although it’s a tenuous theory.
But as a writer’s device, tats and piercings are a gift. Where would Lisbeth Salander be without her ink and studs? Want to give someone sinister a past? A swallow on one hand. A tongue stud or a neck tattoo, especially if it has a spelling mistake in it, can cast your characters as effectively as any dialogue. Need to identify that murdered villain? Brilliant, a teenage sweetheart’s blurred name on one arm will do the trick nicely.
So maybe we’ll keep the ink and the ironmongery. Just not for me, thanks, even in Tijuana.