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Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009
John turns tattoo love into PhD
By Scott Faulkner
BBC Birmingham

John Follett
Tattooing used to be used to smuggle secret messages across enemy lines during the war

Tattoo fanatic John Follett was so fascinated with body art that he earned a university doctorate in it after nine years of hard graft, and pain.

The part-time student turned his own passion for inked skin into a PhD after realising the subject of tattooing was under-researched, despite its history.

The 36-year-old has just finished his thesis, The Consumption of Tattoos and Tattooing: The Body as Permanent Text.

He has now been awarded a doctorate by the University of Wolverhampton.

"When I started my doctorate there were very few academic books on tattooing so it was like dancing in the dark," says John, who himself has spent more than £1,000 on tattoos.

A man with  'ouch' tattoo on his inside lip
The world's most tattooed person has 99.9 per cent of his body covered

"Until recently it has been limited in scope and relevance and some of the work available is out of date as it does not encompass the changes linked with tattoo usage that have occurred in the last 25 to 30 years.

"In spite of its importance and linkage to various types of consumption, tattooing has not been adequately or recently investigated in terms of why or how people 'consume' tattoos, and the role of marketing."

'Mental disturbances'

John, whose Romanian wife Cristina is also a tattoo fan, says he had his first at 17 but that it wasn't until he turned 25 that he fell in love with tattooing.

The student union research and representation officer admits he has since had his first tattoo covered over with more body art after a disappointing first experience, but that he has no regrets about any of his 'tatts'.

Music and women's liberation have also helped to make tattoos more respectable; there are even references to tattoos in the Bible
John Follett

"It's like any passion; when people get tattoos they either get one or go hell for leather, and I became hooked. Now I won't stop until I run out of space.

"I would rather regret something I've done than regret not doing something.

"A lot of people say tattooing shows mental disturbances but that's perception and not true from the work I've looked at.

"It's interesting to note that the negative perceptions of tattoos only really came about since the 1950s - before that it was much more acceptable.

"If you look back to the nineteenth century up until the Second World War the working classes and upper classes had tattoos, as did some members of royalty."

Royal approval

John's friend, Graham Sherry, 30, was one of many people he interviewed in the course of his studies.

Graham's high pain threshold has seen him tattoo more unusual parts of his body, including his armpit!

Graham having his armpit tattooed
American Samuel O'Reilly invented the first electronic tattoo machine in 1890

"It is like an addiction," admits the unemployed warehouseman.

"People see some of my tattoos and question whether I'm right in the head!

"The tattooist questioned whether I'd be able to handle the pain of my armpit being done but it didn't feel any worse to me.

"My advice to others thinking of having a tattoo is not to rush into anything, visit the studio and see one being done beforehand and speak to the people in the chair if you can.

"The legal age for having a tattoo is 18 but I waited until my 22nd birthday because that was right for me."

Counter-culture movement

Tattooing gained royal approval in 1862 when the Prince of Wales visited the Holy Land and had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm.

In later life, as King Edward VII, he also had a number of traditional tattoos as did his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York, who later became King George V.

Many wealthy Britons and naval officers, following the example of the Dukes, acquired tattoos from Japanese masters.

By 1890 the fad had spread to America, and tattoos were seen on members of the highest social circles.

A woman showing her back tattoo
The word tattoo is from Polynesian 'ta' and the Tahitian 'tatau'

However, the later association of tattoos with sailors, circus 'freaks', prisoners, and motorcycle gangs gave tattoos a negative image.

By the 1960s the counter-culture movement started to change perceptions of tattoos again by celebrating their rebelliousness.

Tattoos appeared to gain acceptability through the 1970s and 1980s and became increasingly popular in the 1990s onwards as more celebrities went under the needle.

Recently a new analysis concluded that the world's oldest tattoos were etched in soot on the body of Ötzi, the 5,300 year-old Tyrolean iceman found by Alpine climbers near the Italian-Austrian border in 1991.

"Tattoos have always been linked with group belonging," asserts John.

"Music and women's liberation have also helped to make tattoos more respectable; there are even references to tattoos in the Bible.

"There was a shift in the 1980s into mainstream culture and the punk, goth and alternative scenes also made tattoos fashionable.

"Tattoos are definitely more acceptable but not absolutely acceptable, especially if it's visible all of the time.

"Mostly I found it is the people working in the industry who choose extreme tattoos."

Marketing concepts

Professor Christina Goulding, John's PhD tutor at the University's Business School, says his work has contributed to the understanding of existing theory on the notions of permanence and the body, and on 'consumption'.

"It's quite an off-the-wall subject to delve into but when you look at the processes involved it includes many of the marketing concepts such as decision making, loyalty, regret and consumer development; it's quite interdisciplinary.

A tattooist at work
Naturalist Sir Joseph Banks brought the word 'tattoo' into Britain from Polynesia

"It's a big hurdle cleared to get your PhD and says that you have made a significant contribution to your discipline.

"It's very, very hard to work and study for your PhD so he deserves a lot of credit for completing his."

She adds: "I had my ears pierced when I was 16 and fainted then so the thought of having a tattoo is frightening!

"John has had so many and I don't think even he can put his finger on the absolute essence of tattooing."


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