What are tattoos about; aesthetics, telling a story, being part of a clan, hiding behind a mask or reinforcing individuality?
One-in-three young adults in the UK, it is reported, have a tattoo, and 30% of 25-39 year olds are likely to subject themselves to the needle, despite the pain.
The roots of popular tattooing lie in nineteenth-century fashionable society, and stem from Captain Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific and his encounters with heavily tattooed Polynesian islanders. In the 1890’s it was all the rage amongst the upper classes and even aristocracy, but over the coming decades the fashion slipped in desirability as sailors returning from overseas with bared arms of naked ladies and the names of sweethearts left at home, which soon had to be removed or adapted to accommodate new loves, gave tattooing an unattractive appeal.
The most common tattoos to be requested for removal these days are still ex-lover’s names and misspelt foreign quotes, but also, and surprisingly perhaps, dolphins. (Note to Samantha Cameron, who has one on her ankle).
Personality differences between those who have tattoos and those who don’t, according to a 2012 study, is small, but those with tattoos, as you would expect, tended to be extrovert and had a need to show their uniqueness. Being individual is the root-cause. Stuart Ross, psychology lecturer at Newman University in Birmingham, says ‘While it is painful, it is always controllable. That’s why you see a lot of athletes with big tattoos. It’s a rite of passage, like running the marathon.’
The gay community has always been at the forefront of tattooing symbols on their bodies that hold meaning. From a simple star, popularised by gay sailors referencing the nautical star, to the Greek letter lambda, adopted by the New York Gay Activists Alliance in the 70’s, to the more recent bear paw print and anything that includes rainbow colours. But what about the explosion of artistry we see adorned these days?
Aaron Heier,writer, publicist, co-host of online talk show He Said/She Said and famous for his tattoos says, ‘Being quite a bit older now than I
was when I got my first tattoo, I can say that I certainly would have made different tattoo choices, but even those I got when I was younger represent something to me – they mark a point in my life, a period of time that was significant in one way or another. It’s a way to express our uniqueness, our individuality. For me, I’m drawn to the art, the aesthetic and the permanency of tattoos. It’s like the ultimate commitment of self-expression. They represent the physical, visual me and who I am as an individual 100 percent.’
So, it seems we should delight in the individuality of those who have gone through the pain of inscribing a meaningful quote or image on their bodies, and perhaps we ought to appreciate their tattoos as we would any work of art. Some we get, some we don’t understand, others we’re completely turned off by, but ultimately, some we love and are all the better ourselves for finding the hidden meaning, and understanding the person behind it.