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Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
More than skin deep
The clouds clear, the T-shirts come off to reveal a nation of tattooed men and women. Body art studios are flourishing as more and more people go under the needle, writes BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

Birds do it, blokes do it - it's no longer just bikers, sailors and criminals who go in for tattoos.

Dean Macey
Decathlete Dean Macey: No pain, no gain
The art of tattooing has been around for at least 5,000 years, but only recently has it become a fashion statement.

Just a couple of decades ago tattoos remained the preserve of bikers, sailors and criminals. But the punk era helped change all that, as fans rushed to emulate idols such as Sid Vicious and Killing Joke. In the past five years, tattooing has gone mainstream.

Today, even the most anodyne of celebrities sports a tattoo or three. All the Spice Girls are painted ladies. Robbie Williams has a Maori design on his left arm, a lion's head above the motto Born To Be Mild on the right, and a Celtic cross on one thigh.

Butterfly Art Barbie
Even Barbie's got one
Even Barbie has had a tattoo - a doll launched in 1999 came with a butterfly on her stomach and temporary tats for the owner.

The number of tattoo studios in the UK has risen from 50 in the 1970s to at least 700 today; while in the US, an estimated one in 10 adults are tattooed, up from one in 100 in 1970.

Although official estimates are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that one in 50 women in Scotland have tattoos, according to an Edinburgh-based tattooist.

Passport to South Seas

Over the centuries tattoos have been the indelible marks of royalty, of loyalty to a gang, of religious devotion and pledges of love.

Top tattoos
Japanese characters
Tribal and Celtic designs
Rose, butterfly and dolphin motifs
Ring around belly button
Loved one's name
Paul Sayce, a tattooist and curator of the British Tattoo History Museum in Oxford, says body art has long been popular in island nations such as the UK, Japan and New Zealand.

"This is because tattooing used to be a mark of travel. Sailors collected tattoos from the countries they visited, much like we get our passports stamped."

Of the 25 mutineers on the Bounty in 1789, court records show that 21 had tattoos from their time in Tahiti. A century later, the royal princes, Albert and George, visited tattooists first in Japan, then Jerusalem, while serving in the Royal Navy.

Robbie Williams with Maori tattoo
Just one of Robbie's tattoos...
Sally Feldt, editor of Skin Deep magazine, says old school tattoos - daggers, ships sailing homeward-bound and pin-up girls - are making a comeback.

"Some people think that's how tattoos should look, and maybe get them in memory of an old uncle. Others look beyond tattooing for inspiration - I've seen Michelangelo and Botticelli tattoos, and my own include Art Nouveau and William Morris designs."

According to a study by the British Journal of Dermatology, up to 75% of customers eventually regret it, with most seeking advice on removal after an average of 14 years.

Maori performer with traditional moko tattoo
...inspired by traditional Maori designs from NZ
Yet Ms Feldt says many of those getting their first tattoos are people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who search long and hard for a design and a tattooist to suit them.

"If you choose carefully, you'll probably never regret it."

A number of studios warn customers to think twice before emblazoning a lover's name across their body, as a tattoo typically lasts longer than the romance. Increasingly, tattooed names commemorate a child or parent rather than a lover.

Nothing lasts forever

Permanence is the only drawback, says Mr Sayce, adding that removal procedures rarely, if ever, erase all trace of the design. And doubts have been raised about just how impermanent so-called temporary tattoos actually are.

Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher
Patsy and Liam split before the ink dried on their his-'n'-hers tats
"For that reason, I always advise people to have it done where it can't be seen. I won't tattoo on the hands, neck or face, or on women's forearms."

The enthusiasm for tattoos waxes and wanes every decade or so, he says. "Ten years ago, no-one wanted to talk to us."

So what's his pick for the next hot tattoo trend? "Not having them. That's the next big craze."

Easier said than done - but then, whoever said that following fashion would be painless?

Marked man and woman at Toronto Tattoo Convention
One is never enough: Enthusiasts say tattoos are addictive

See also:

28 Nov 00 | UK
More trouble than you'd ink
29 May 01 | Scotland
Call for skin piercing controls
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