Wednesday, 18th June 2008
If you think you understand everything, you must be misinformed. If you think
you’ve seen it all – well, you are wrong, too.
The other day, I was shopping for a pair of shoes – no easy “feet” for me. It’s
come to the point where I walk into a shop and ask for “something, anything” in my
size, rather than pointing to something and asking for it in a different colour or
But I digress.
In walked a lady wearing a skirt (or was it a belt?) high enough to give us a view
of her thighs all the way up to the waterline. This was coupled with a long-sleeved
top and a mobile telephone, sunspecs, and a ballpoint pen all dangling from
different chains around her neck…. and football shoes without laces. I couldn’t be
making this up if I tried, right?
What fascinated me, however, was the tattoo of blue dogs’ paws – I kid you not –
that wended its way around her right leg, from the ankle, round the shin and back of
the leg, spiralling up around the (sizeable) amount of puckered flesh available for
She was complaining (in tattered Maltese) about how she could never, but never, find
a pair of suitable shoes. The owner asked what would have made the shoes suitable,
and she said that she wanted to be fashionable, and so craved “something like” a
Marc Jacobs “backward heel” , or the ones by Antonio Berardi (as worn by Victoria
Beckham) – you know “the high heels that had no heels…”
I have a sneaking suspicion that this could have been a candid camera skit.
But even if it were, she made my day.
As the shop-owner explained that his clientele was somewhat different, she asked for
a pair of fancy long laces for her shoes, paid for them, and left.
In one of my writers’ groups we get a set of questions every week, to be answered as
“ourselves” and also as an alter ego, who might or might not one day become a
character in a novel. And inevitably, my Diva will henceforth pick up a clue or two
from this person-a yacht in full sail that passed my skiff in the morning, as it
were, rather than us being two ships that pass in the night.
Of course, we have all seen variants of this person’s habille; but I, for one, had
never seen anything approaching her tattoo.
There was a time when anyone “bit-tpingija” was frowned upon. This was even before
studies linking body modification and externalised risk-taking behaviours became
fashionable. But how can we begin to say that anyone who has a tattoo is into
substance abuse, gambling, S&M, criminal activities, and gang affiliation?
Especially when these studies have mostly been carried out amongst targeted groups
(and I don’t mean sailors or bikers) and not across the board?
Ironically, there was a time when tattoos were only for the elite –such as Winston
Churchill’s mother, who hid hers (a snake on the wrist) with a diamond bracelet when
she deemed it necessary to do so; Queen Victoria, who had one where it would not be
easily seen, and, further back, Harold II, who had “Edith” (his mistress) and
“England” across his chest.
The word tattoo existed long before Sir Martin Frobisher returned from his
explorations of the northwest passage of China, bringing back a man, a woman with
tattoos on both her forehead and chin, and their child. It is said that Elizabeth I
was fascinated with this.
The word, in the context of “the beating of military drums” was common much before
the voyage of Cook, whom Robbie Williams has famously emulated. The word has its
roots in the Latin verb for marking the action of striking or beating; besides, the
Polynesian word “ta” means “striking something”.
Ironically, tattooing is also a matter of religious concern. Some religions
actively forbid it; others think that it is a “mark” of salvation.
In 1991, tattooing was in the news because of “Otzi” – the frozen Neolithic man from
5,3000 years ago, found by a German couple hiking near a glacier in the Italian
Alps. He was tattooed; and indeed European archaeologists have found paraphernalia
used for tattooing dating back as far as 40,000 years ago.
A friend of mine says that her tattoos are merely “coloured acupuncture” and a
“personal mandala” – and that since having them done, she has never been seriously
ill at any time. Each time someone comments about them, she spouts all manner of
psychobabble about the “intentional endurance of suffering” as the “ideal way to
become one with the life-force of the universe…”
If asked, she will give you a lengthy, fascinating explanation of the history of
tattooing, and the meaning behind typical tattoos (for example the difference
between a Harley Davidson rose and a blue one). She will tell you why Maoris tattoo
their faces, why one caste of Indians tattoos the name of the god Ran on every
available square centimetre of flesh, why Aborigines tattoo their arms, and how
Lakota Tribe Native Americans assuage Owl Woman.
Some people – and not only those who have tattoos made with inks mixed with snake
venom to act as an antidote – regard tattoos as a protective amulet. For each one
of these, however, there will always be another who does it “just for fun” or for a
dare, because of peer pressure, or to spite someone.
The David Beckhams of this world, i.e. people with more money than sense, have
unfortunately done much to popularise tattoos. Just as people walk into a
hairdresser’s salon clutching a Hello! picture of a celebrity and announce that
they want a cut, colour and set “exactly like that” others go to tattoo parlours
with a photograph, a symbol, or a drawing of what they want – and unless they are
really determined, they will then feel spoilt for choice when they view the bulging
files of the tattoo artiste.
Tattoos, then, are either a work of art, or a tawdry way of gaining attention.