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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 October 2007, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
So why do 'normal' people get tattoos?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Would-be prime ministers' wives have them. Lawyers have them. Doctors have them. So how did tattoos become so acceptable?

Sailors. Prisoners. Bikers. Tattoos in the Western world were once the mark of the outcast, of the rocker and the rebel - of a certain kind of macho culture.

And yet now when the latest celebrity tattoo is revealed the gist of the discussion is usually an evaluation of the merits of the design, of the choice of Sanskrit or Latin script rather than the fact a public figure is displaying a prominent tattoo.

Darker ink lines are added to a tattoo

It's now just an everyday thing. An event like the International London Tattoo Convention can attract thousands of punters, queuing round the block to get tattoos and to witness the human canvasses covered in eye-wateringly intricate designs.

Here one can find flaming dragons, vivid carp, stylised 50s pin-up girls and a cornucopia of other alternative imagery. And the whole thing is underpinned by a dramatic shift in the status of the once-humble tat.

David Cameron's wife Samantha has attracted a soupcon of aggressive press coverage, over her plugging of her stationery firm's products rather than her discreet tattoo of a dolphin on her ankle.

But how did tattoos become all right for "normal" people and, most of all, for women?

Samantha Cameron
Some opt for a tattoo that is easily hidden

Among the scores of artists at the convention is Alan Dean, 61, from Luton, who has been a tattooist since the age of 16. In those days the equipment was all home-made and the ink was obtained from art shops in a process of trial and error. He has seen a dramatic change since then.

"Tattooing used to be the preserve of people who were too lazy to work and too scared to steal. Nowadays you have got proper artists," he suggests.

"A lot of people wanted tattoos years ago but they were associated with freaks and prostitutes. I get a lot of women coming saying they should have had them 20 years ago."

King Harold II
King Edward VII
Sir Winston Churchill
His mother
Ex-US Secretary of State George Shultz

As with so many social phenomena, the change in the status of the tattoo has happened simultaneously in the UK and US.

American-born Lynette Blinne took her daughter Kristen to get her first tattoo on her 16th birthday. The then 44-year-old English teacher liked the idea so much that she got one on her own birthday, a black cat.

"It is not considered lowlife as it perhaps was once. Many people are now going for their first tattoo in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s," she insists.

"Do English teachers do things like this? You'll find they do. You'll find tattoos in accounting and lawyers and every straight-up job. It isn't just alternative people."

Lizard tattoo on lower back
Lower backs and backs of shoulder are popular for women

A million miles away from the tattoo "addicts" who throng the convention is Grace Sproat, a 31-year-old GP who is perhaps representative of the new tattoo customer base. She has an easily-hidden gecko lizard on her lower back.

"I still haven't officially told my parents and I got it in 1996, 11 years ago. It was sort of rebellious but not really because I could cover it up and no-one would have seen.

"I just wanted to mark myself out, put something on myself that made me unique."

Katherine Irwin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii, has studied the cultural significance of the rise of tattooing among mainstream people in the West.

Tattooed ankles
Ankles are also an option

But she points out that in 19th Century Europe it was fashionable among some sections of the upper class to have discreet tattoos, of family crests and other aristocratic emblems. Tattoos have gone in and out of the mainstream, she insists.

"They became a symbol of working class masculinity. Now they are being recrafted into a middle class symbol.

"They like to play with fringe identities without sacrificing their middle class status. They get a tattoo that is thumbing their nose at middle class society in a way that is so mainstream that it would be hard to push them out.

"They don't get anything super-fringe, they weren't doing bloody skull and crossbones."

Tattoo fans at the convention

At the convention, among the adverts for tools like the "chrome buzzard" and the "cutback liner", there is an advertising banner bearing the legend "We Can Make Anyone Look Cool".

And that is the promise of the tattoo - that the ordinary unadorned stretch of arm or leg or stomach will be transformed into a canvas for a statement, either artistic or counter-cultural, of cool.

For the women milling around the convention the most popular explanation of the motive for getting a tattoo is about "reasserting control over your own body". In a Western world where body image, plastic surgery, anorexia and the depiction of women is a topic of daily debate, tattoos represent a different current of thought.

It is a sentiment that Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, believes dates back to the 1980s.

Sophie Ellis Bextor showing off her tattoo
Singer, ex-model and Blue Peter host daughter Sophie Ellis Bextor has one

"In the 1980s it was a real body decade," she says. "There was a lot of body anxiety. Women wanted to reassert control over their own bodies."

Christine Whittington, co-author of Body Marks: Tattooing, Piercing, and Scarification, got her first tattoo in her 40s and traces the change in tattoos to the rise of proper artists in the 1970s. "It was moved out of the danger zone," she says.

But the political thread is still clear at London's convention. Leah Schein, 23, who has a tattoo of a Wiccan moon goddess, says: "It's a lot to do with having control over your own image and control over your own body."

Laura, a student nurse, says it is all about the art for tattooed women. "They don't see it as a sailor tattoo or slaggish. Our culture has changed."

Tattoo veteran Colin Snow
Some take their passion for tattoos to extreme lengths

But it certainly seems the case that rather than emblems of feminist struggle many of the women who get tattoos seem to opt for what might be seen as traditionally feminine themes.

Mike Phillips, who runs Reading Ink, says more women than men attend his parlour, but that the choices of image are different.

"Men get bigger stuff though. With women it's stars, flowers, cherubs."

But for those, both male and female, who are persuaded by the images of tattooed celebrities in the media, 60-year-old tattoo-festooned veteran Colin Snow has a warning.

"Fashions change but tattoos are forever."

Below is a selection of your comments.

David in London it is not up to you to not employ someone with tattoos as you would be discriminating them and that I'm fairly sure is illegal. Get your views up to scratch with the 21st Century!
Angela, Oxford

David London I would consider the fact you are a Senior Executive for a large corporation and the fact you cannot spell Tattoo would cost you the respect of co-workers.
Lee , Littlehampton

Define "normal"
Sam, Sussex

As a tattooed "professional" myself, I am aware of the fact that tattoos are becoming more socially acceptable on one level but I am still advised to keep them covered whilst at work. I am in the process of having some large body art done because I want to make a statement about my lifestyle choices (I belong to the old school of rockers and rebels - a dying breed). At what point will it become non-offensive to have your art on display? When every person over the age of 16 has at least one tattoo? It seems ok to have a cherub or Minnie Mouse on display, but not a Chinese dragon crawling up your leg or an alien landscape on your forearm. If tattoos really are becoming the "norm" then it's about time we were allowed to truly show them off.
Kat , Loughton, England

It's my 40th birthday next month and I'm getting my first tattoo to mark the occasion - a fairy! Not some twee Tinkerbell but a proper gothic fairy. It's my body, always has been and if my parents and in-laws don't like it then so what!? By the way, I'm a civil servant.

As Ozzy Osborne once remarked to his daughter Kelly, 'If you want to be different, don't get a tattoo.'
Robert McCaffrey, Epsom, England

I've got a number of tattoos and piercing, and I can assure the doubters that I don't have any problem with self esteem, any desire to stand out from the crowd, or any need to make an exhibition of myself. All my work is personal to me, and has always been because it's something I wanted done, not because of any need to fit in or appear trendy.

In much the same way as any other decision in life, everyone has their own motivations and reasons for getting tattoos, piercing, brandings, scarification or whatever, and it's not fair to tar anyone who's had work done with the same 'freak' brush. Live and let live, and don't judge a book by it's (nicely inked) cover.
Dave Higgins, Crawley, West Sussex

I can't agree with 'Jon, West Country' statement that only people with low self-esteem get tats. That's the same as saying only bald people wear hats. I'm a successful IT consultant, with a great wife and fantastic life and I love tattoo Art!
Ash, Winchester

People should really consider carefully about having tattoos - as a senior executive in a very large corporation, I wouldn't employ anyone with a visible tattoo. It might be "trendy" but the "stuffy" people still tend to make the big decisions and they still associate tattoos with lots of negative views.
David, London

I like to be unique, different, special, not a sheep, one of the crowd or a follower of fashion. Hence my decision NOT to copy everyone else and jump on the tattoo bandwagon. My body is tattoo free and proud of it!
Rachel, Devon, UK

I got my first tattoo 6 years ago at the age of 19 and have since been inked several more times, including having started my left half sleeve this week. I get tattooed for various reasons including, as has already been mentioned, taking control over my own body. Having been bullied at school for the way I looked, suffered with eating disorders and dealt with self injury, I find that my tattoos really do help me to like my body and reclaim something which, for many years, I've hated. My tattoos also have important meanings for me, so that not only do they make me feel better about myself physically, they also reaffirm my beliefs and remind me that no matter what other people think, at last I'm being really 'me'.
Bethan Jones, Aberdare, S. Wales

Years ago, I went to a local body-art parlour for a piercing. While in there, a man came in for a regimental tattoo in memory of his father, but halfway through we realised no one was 100% certain how to spell 'airborne' - maybe 'airborne'? Fortunately we hadn't got that far and had time to find a dictionary but it reminded me that you live with the good stuff and the mistakes forever. They're not something to have on a whim. At least piercings can heal up.
Donna, Manchester, UK

Oh, get off your high horse about women having tats, already - loads of cultures have tattooing as part of various life affirming rites for men AND women, and just because women in the UK have now joined them doesn't mean all us gals aspire to ape macho bikers, or change our gender-specific identity - it has just become part of that identity. Hell, we'll be wearing trousers next!
Chandra, London

Tattoos may appear attractive (to those who like them) when they are initially applied but after 30+ years they look blotchy and quite ghastly. Any defacing of the body in a permanent manner is clearly undesirable and, whilst I would not advocate it, punk safety pins are a lot less damaging in the long term since they can be removed once the wearer matures. The worst tattoos involve the names or images of loved ones since, when tastes change, the tattoo remains as a permanent reminder of betrayal or disappointment.
Morven Hay, London

I am a 37 year old mother of three children and a magistrate. I work full time in a professional role and currently have five tattoos. Two of which take up the majority of my back. Most of the time they are not on display and very few people know about them but when the suit comes off there they are. I love them. I would love to take off the suit jacket whilst in court to show the rather large one on my right upper arm just to see people's faces as they would never have guessed.
Julie Adamson, Rotherham, England

I've wanted a tattoo for years but not yet brave enough to go through with it. The reason being not knowing what degree of pain it inflicts upon you so I will have to go on wishing I had one until I pluck up the courage to go through with it!
Jenny, Caerphilly

Call me Old fashioned but I think tattoos says more about the person's self-esteem and their own psyche. Basically they have low self-esteem and don't feel good about themselves. The tattoo is an attempt to solve the problem of self and introspection. Not classy, tasteful or fashionable. Sorry!
Jon, West Country

I think people get tattoos as they are looking for something new and adventurous in their life, and they think a tattoo will bring that. However, most will, in my opinion, regret it, as a tattoo will not bring anything other than a non-removable mark on their person. It usually looks like desecration of an otherwise perfectly nice body.
Sam Davidson

I have eleven tattoos now and used to have numerous piercings in various places. I also want to be a lecturer and I'm currently studying hard for a first-class degree. Tattoos are just a permanent representations of who I am. I change, and then the tattoos are a reminder of HOW I change.
Mel, Wales

Back in the 60s and 70s, one of the main drawbacks (no pun intended) of tattoos was that, over time, they lost definition and turned into dark splodges rather than a piece of art. I would like to know whether this position has changed. Has the industry developed inks that will maintain definition and tone over decades? Or is the current generation of tattoo-wearers almost certain to end up sporting what looks like a bad birthmark?
Iain Banks, Surrey, UK

I am a tattooed woman, and my kind is hardly something new- I've seen photos of women covered in ink from the early 1900s, and they're proud of it too. I love that I am decorated- I think of myself as a blank canvas, and intend to decorate what God gave me with beautiful colours.
Faye, Buckinghamshire, UK

Why oh why do girls feel the need to deface their body by getting a tattoo? There is nothing worse than a pretty looking girl who has some tacky looking tattoo etched on their skin.
Jimi, Glasgow

Finally some more people are going to notice this social shift. I got my first ink piece when I was 17, I drew it myself, and my parents even drove me to the nearest tat artist that I would trust (Hardcore Inks, Dorchester). Since I've had another arm job and currently finishing my chest/shoulder piece. I love the fact that tattoos are becoming more acceptable, and think that the only problem is the fact that the majority of people go for a 'book' design rather than their own creation. I only hope that in the not too distant future we will see the same acceptance come about for piercings and other body mods.
J, Reading

I decided to get a tattoo for my 21st birthday, something that was a permanent present from one of my friends. I spent ages choosing it. As Colin Snow says in the article "Fashions change but tattoos are forever" I think if you do decide to get one, you have to think how it will look on you in 20 years or 30 years time - so avoid cartoon characters and the like! I opted for a lily - the meaning of my name isn't going to change so nor will the meaning of my tattoo to me.
Suzanne, Fife, UK

I considered getting a tattoo when I was younger but then it occurred to me it was a permanent fashion statement and that in the future, unlike a pair of ripped jeans or whatever was fashionable at the time I would not be able to easily take it off. I bet there are a few people with their name emblazoned in Chinese on there arm who know exactly what I'm talking about.
Dean Moran, Manchester

I've got a small black rose and my back and I'd love to get something on my arms but I work in finance and I'm in my thirties... I just know I would get so much hassle if I had a tattoo that could be seen. You can talk all you want about changed attitudes but most employers wouldn't let you do it even if you're not in a customer facing role!
Janet, Leigh on Sea

The final comment in your article "Fashions change but tattoos are forever" should be a warning to all those contemplating tattoos. Even certain celebrities who initially showed their tattoos with pride have since undergone treatment for removal. Old, faded tattoos are unattractive and disfiguring.
Kay Sanders, Huddersfield, UK

Buying rebellion - there's nothing sadder.
David, Ely


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