Tattoos to shock and to mourn
I wonder what tattoos I’d have if I were young now, convinced that my skin would always be firm and worth looking at because I would never grow old and saggy.
I also wonder why I’d do it, but even my own children are marked with indelible ink that speaks visual platitudes: kinda Ma¯ ori, kinda Celtic, kinda my favourite pop star a decade ago. This is kinda My Generation, and it’s not mine.
I’d be bound to choose a visual cliche´ too. The rose with a dagger through it is classic, maybe the grim motto of my Scottish clan, Hold Fast, or the Scottish motto, No-one Touches Me with Impunity, in Latin so that I’d constantly have to explain it. But I’ve never even been to Scotland, so I’d have a nerve.
The talking-point tattoo is a tricky thing. A waitress will have a whole arm sleeve done, but you feel it would be rude to ask what it means. You shouldn’t stare at it, but why else is it exposed? And what are those leg tattoos about?
Concealing varicose veins? That I’d understand. Alternative to socks?
The old bodgie tattoo, lettered Cut Across Dotted Line with a dotted line across your neck, was a self-evident provocation. Mother was always a worry; do you still cling to her apron strings? Old lovers’ names will become embarrassing, (as in how could you do this to me when I did this for you?), though the fleeting impulse to believe in for ever is touching. There is no For Ever unfortunately.
They run off with your best friend, or you grow tired of them.
Tattoos remind me of school desks, which could have great graphics carved into them with a protractor, then inked, a forever memory of a boring maths class, and there is no other kind. There were many hearts with arrows through them, proof of being smitten by someone new this week, and sometimes weird geometrical patterns.
If we were Celts long ago we are long out of touch with the significance of our ancestors’ tats, but what we think they were seems to be enough. You see them everywhere.
I don’t think it’s good form to use symbols of significance to other cultures, the way Robbie Williams did when he got a Ma¯ ori tattoo here. But I’d be tempted by the tattoos of Pazyryk ice mummies discovered last century in Siberia.
People are getting them in Russia, and no wonder; they’re rather lovely.
Russian gang tattoos are worth a go if you want to shock your mother, but the best I think are Japanese yakusa tattoos. My life has been too dull to qualify for these.
Maybe that’s the point of tattoos, that you are an interesting, adventurous person because you have them. Ma¯ ori tattoos are a different category, though reviving the full facial moko is problematic: it can be interpreted as unintended aggression.
Having Mongrel Mob tattooed across your face, or on your cheek is, however, explicit enough to make its meaning plain, that you are not looking to make new friends.
I don’t understand other facial and neck tattoos, which you’re going to see for ever as your face and neck inevitably collapse into wrinkles, and sag.
Yesterday’s skull tattoo with crossed cudgels will look like a smudge of wayward mascara before you know it. A whole world
Russian gang tattoos are worth a go if you want to shock your mother.
of old lady pastel clothing will be denied you just when you want to collapse into dotage.
A newer version of tattoos is the mourning tat, which I first saw when Paul Holmes’s stepdaughter added a portrait of him to her body. Was there no other way to remember him with fondness? I guess not.
The latest versions of this are being inked into the family of Amber-Rose Rush, the 16-year-old girl murdered in Dunedin a bit over a week ago, allegedly by a young doctor. She had a tattoo of birds and flowers, her brother says, so Amber’s mother and sister had exactly the same tattoo done in the days following her death.
The brother’s bird is being drawn up as a phoenix, which is a step into symbolism, I guess, because in ancient times the mythical bird was supposed to be immune to fire.
They will remember her in their tattoos, then, and mourners were asked to wear colourful clothes to her funeral. A family spokesman said Amber loved bright colours, so ‘‘in respect of her wishes do not wear black’’.
They weren’t her wishes, of course. She had no chance to express them.
Yet it seems to me, a person from another time, that death is solemn and sad, and no amount of vivid colour could make her death less than an utter tragedy.