Tat­toos to shock and to mourn

Taranaki Daily News - - Comment & Opinion - RSOEMARY MCLEOD

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.

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