One of the several billion regrets of my old age, that I have left it too late to be tattooed (for wizened skin over shrivelled muscles gives the Rembrandts and Van Goghs of body art too poor a canvas to work well with), coincides with publication of a new book John Miller's The Philosophy of Tattoos.
It is a measure of how widespread tattooing has become and how socially important a phenomenon it is now that the esteemed British Library commissioned an academic intellectual, Miller, to write this book about tattoos for its British Library Philosophy Of series.
Miller looks at how humans have always tattooed themselves but of course what we are all noticing today is how rapid the rise of the fashion for tattooing is. Thirty years ago very few folk, and then usually only sailors, were tattooed but now research says that a third of adults are tattoo-decorated.
I have no statistics for Australia but see that in just a decade in France the number of professional tattooists has leapt from 400 to 4000. Today one sees tattooed folk almost everywhere and so for example those of us who are rugby league aficionados notice how rugby league players seem all so fabulously tattoo-embellished that a visiting Martian might imagine it is a sport exclusively played by a tattooed sub-species of Homo sapiens, perhaps a Homo muraloides.
Everyday meetings with the memorably tattooed are commonplace now.
The other day in a plant nursery I saw and gasped at a substantial woman so fabulously and colourfully tattooed on her arms and legs that as a spectacle she completely eclipsed the flowering plants on gaudy and eye-smiting display all around us. I followed her for quite some time, at a discreet distance, not perving but admiring.
One of her tattoos (from memory on an ample calf muscle) was a copy of one of artist Frida Kahlo's startling self-portraits, indicating, perhaps, that the tattooed woman is, like drearily untattooed me, a huge admirer of Kahlo and her paintings. If only I had anywhere on my now reduced and age-bonsaied body to do a Frida Kahlo self-portrait justice I might get it done. But it is too late.
At a shopping centre I frequent I am sometimes served at a counter by a pale young woman whose enviable visible tattoos have a black spiders and black spiders' webs theme. It is one of the (precious few) consolations of being a harmless old man that one can ogle a young woman's tattoos in the same spirit in which a blameless old man looks at a painting in a gallery, without there being anything creepy and perverse in this aesthetic kind of looking.
One curmudgeonly old intellectual's grumbling, denture-gnashing review of The Philosophy of Tattoos (the curmudgeon is Theodore Dalrymple, a favourite of mine) gnashes that tattoos are not so much "body art" as "body kitsch" and that getting tattooed, once thought rebellious, is now just "another manifestation of herd-like behaviour".
But my own view is that when, like my aforementioned examples of Ms Kahloadmirer and Ms Spiderwoman, there is something unique about the tattooing what is going on is a kind of advertisement of the tattooed person's individualism and is the very opposite of anything herd-like.
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Again, blowing his curmudgeon-trumpet, Dalrymple thinks that "Individuation through tattooing is a rather sad phenomenon. Of course, people have always used clothes, hairstyles, ornaments and so forth, to make themselves different ... But clothes and ornaments can be discarded and hair can grow, or be cut. The outrageous, once they feel more sure of themselves as individuals, can rejoin the rest of the human race if they so wish. Those who disfigure themselves permanently [by tattooing] however, are stuck with their choices ..."
He makes a good point. I remember being in a street in a characterfully seedy neighbourhood of Glasgow where shopfronts for tattoo parlours and for tattoo-removal emporiums-surgeries were side by side all along the street in a poignant juxtaposition of businesses catering for both wild instant enthusiasms and for repent-at-leisure realisations of terrible mistakes.
I have read that the pain of having a tattoo removed is comparable to the pain of passing a kidney stone and as a kidney stone veteran I am sure that however regrettable my tattoo (perhaps celebrating a then spasm of admiration for a cult or for a woman I soon grew out of) I would leave the tattoo where it is, taking infinite pains to hide it.
But on this matter of irremovability one of my regrets, at 76, of no longer being tattooable is that I am mature enough now to make good, regret-proof decisions of who and what to be tattooed with.
All of my heroes of politics and of the arts are well-established now in my heart and I know that to be tattooed with their faces, with their artworks, with passages from their great works (I would festoon myself with quotes from Shakespeare, and most poems by my favourite poet Emily Dickinson are exquisitely small as if she subconsciously intended them to inked onto her devotees' calves and biceps) would never find me wanting them removed.
But perhaps, too, one would dare to find a place on one's body for a late-breaking hero, for, say, a likeness of Ukraine's brave and inspirational president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
But for some of us, those of us with weather-beaten, age-hammered bodies, it is all too late. Tattooable young skin, like youth itself, is wasted on the young.
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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