Under the skin. Why are we so obsessed with tattoos?

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Late last year, a picture of Cheryl Cole appeared on the internet and in various newspapers. Nothing particularly odd about that; Ms. Cole is a constant media fixture. Only this picture, which she had released herself, was of her backside, newly embellished with some enormous red and black flowers. It’s quite a spectacular tattoo (the picture is only marred by some rather nasty pink underpants), but the ensuing fuss and excitement would suggest Cheryl is the only human being to ever be marked in this way.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. One of the oldest sets of human remains ever unearthed, emerged from solid Alpine ice, and was found to be decorated with rudimentary permanent ink. The body was swallowed by the snow somewhere around 2500BC. That’s older than Brucie.

 'I find the application a very life-affirming, ritualistic experience, where many elements combine to produce a strange thrill.'

And this is where I declare my interest. I have seven tattoos, one is small (the DC Comics logo), the others quite large. They were acquired over a number of years, and I probably haven’t finished yet. I like tattoos and I enjoy being tattooed. I’ve never regretted having them installed and have been sensible enough to adopt a ‘nothing above the collarbone, nothing below the wrist’ policy.  I also find the application a very life-affirming, ritualistic experience, where many elements combine to produce a strange thrill.
The adrenalin begins to flow as you enter the studio, largely prompted by the thick aroma of antiseptic fluid and the hornet buzz of the machines. Before the operation proper begins, the artist applies a transfer of the design to your body, and as long as the effect meets your approval, this is the last time that patch of flesh will be natural and pink. Then it’s showtime.

If anybody ever tells you being tattooed doesn’t hurt, they’re either lying or poorly. Of course it hurts, the outline particularly so. Fine lines combine three, closely set needles mounted in a uniquely strange contraption about the size of soldering iron fitted with a motor. It’s controlled by a foot pedal and its nose houses a brand new spike, dipped in sterile ink. When this first touches the skin, you realise your mind has misremembered the sensation as a sharp twinge, when in reality it more closely resembles a glowing hot pin scraping its way through the dermis. However, after a minute or two, something surprising happens. Your brain floods with endorphins – a reflex prompted by any wound. That’s when an unexpected high develops. This is what creates tattoo addiction.

Oh yes, they’re addictive alright. The reason so few tattooed folk have just one design, is the irrepressible compulsion to undergo the operation all over again. It’s a powerful urge, as Harry Styles would confirm.

Those who aren’t keen on tattoos struggle to understand why anyone would opt for the ink and needle treatment. And there isn’t a single or simple explanation. In the last decade, tattooing has enjoyed an enormous renaissance, largely thanks to celebrity endorsement. When Angelina’s neck, Robbie’s torso, Cheryl’s bottom and Beckham’s arms trundle about the place fully illustrated, it’s not surprising to find people aspiring to adopt a similar look (hopefully they make better selections than Mr. Williams, who sports some dreadful work).

Although, it wasn’t always this way. In years past, tattoos have represented many things – and until recently, aspiring pop star wasn’t one of them. From the eighteenth century, sailors provided a steady income for the ink artists’ studios. There was a good reason for this. If one was unfortunate enough to be lost overboard, by the time one’s body washed up it would be so distorted by the brine, identification would be impossible if it wasn’t for a set of indelible pictures. And because sailors were pretty hardened, rum-swilling sorts, the tattoo became associated with outsiders and rogues. So, by the 20th century they had become popular totems for skinheads, Hell’s Angels and various other tribal groupings. In pre-history though, skin markings were symbols of power, strength and influence. The biology of tattoos has gone unchanged for millennia, but their significance has altered enormously with history.

The idea that a tattoo is an indicator of rebellion or ‘otherness’ is now entirely redundant. The elaborate artwork flashed with such verve by Guns ‘N’ Roses, Zodiac Mindwarp, Ozzy et al, has now been entirely defused, rendered impotent and embraced by the establishment. Once we know Samantha Cameron and David Dimbleby are inked, the rock warrior aspect is finished. Although going under the needle in order to enhance one’s wild-man or working class credentials was never the best idea in the first place.

Even if you find tattoos unpleasant, you should acknowledge the activity as being highly creative and artistic. Thanks to the advanced equipment available, modern tattooing can produce remarkably intricate and compelling pictures. Thankfully, you will never be forced to have your buttocks coloured with a display of enormous flowers, but the skill involved in producing this modification to the Cole derriere shouldn’t be underestimated.

However fashion, ideas and social norms morph and align themselves – there will always be a demand for the craft of the tattoo artist. Because, strange as it may seem, a portion of the populace has  always sought to decorate their bodies this way. Me included.

Magnus Shaw is a tattooed copywriter, blogger and consultant

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