Love it or hate it, the intricate art of tattooing has fascinated millions of people for thousands of years. This ancient ritual has been used to mark the status of women in Borneo, identify the slaves of the Roman Empire, and to ward off the bad spirits of ancient China and Polynesian tribes. Today, many regard it as a symbol of strength and pride for men, and predominately one of sexuality for women (hence the testimony to the “tramp stamp.”) A particular favourite of mine is not one I’ve ever seen before, but one I’ve read of in a book – The House of Spirits – where the stirringly sexy prostitute Transito Soto, sported a serpent coiled around her navel, which would slither with the sensual movements of her belly. Tattoos are usually symbolic of one’s individuality, experiences, status or religion, which confirms the psychological theory of “dermal diagnosis,” which claims that the soul of the deviant becomes exteriorised to the body’s surface. Personally, I can’t argue with this. My decision to get the Bengal Tiger climbing the length of my back involved a panicked, last minute request that the tiger would not be growling as to conflict with my typically non-aggressive nature (and yes, I can almost hear the laughter of any past boyfriends that may ever read this!). It seems that today, “getting inked” remains just as sacred a ritual as it had been thousands of years earlier.
Despite being a practice as old as man, the stigma attached to tattooing still remains, with many associating it with crime, gangs, prostitution and various other social transgressions. Neither the elaborate beauty of a design or the impossible precision of the needle have seemed to break the negative attitudes towards marked skin in Western cultures, with many employers confessing their reluctance to hiring a tattooed worker. For a short time in the late nineteenth century, tattoos had been a fashionable trend among England’s upper class, inspired by King George V, who flaunted a dragon across his arm, and Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Churchill, who carried a discreet serpent wrapped around her wrist. When the fad became less expensive and expanded to the lower classes, it was then discarded by the wealthy and eventually considered anti-social and taboo.
Nevertheless, if you explore the aisles of your local newsagency this afternoon, you are likely to find a vast collection of magazines devoted to the tattoo enthusiasts in your community. The string of tattoo festivals and conventions around the world reveal many people not only embracing the practice as an artful expression of identity, but also as a testament to a particular lifestyle. The separation of tattooing from socially acceptable practices creates a sense of community among tattooed individuals but also divides society into being either happy defenders or relentless assailants of the age-old practice.