SANDI TOKSVIG happily puts ink to paper… but skin?
As fashions change, Sandi considers whether it’s too late to embrace the latest trend. She’d like to, she says, but it’s crucial to know where to draw the line...
Ihate being late for anything. I’d rather be a day early than tardy by a minute, so I was appalled to realise that I am currently 37 years too late to get my first tattoo. Apparently, the average age a person first gets their skin inked (stay with me, I have all the tattoo lingo) is 21. I am 58, and it has only just occurred to me that I might fancy a hint of bodily art. Not that you have to be 21. Dame Judi Dench got her first permanent inscription for her 81st birthday. Her daughter paid for her to have the words Carpe Diem, or Seize The Day, inscribed on her wrist. It’s a great sentiment, although the actual font of the tattoo looks as though someone has managed to put her arm through the roller of an antique typewriter.
Women having tattoos is not some newfangled example of the world going to hell in a handcart. It’s a practice that goes back to at least 3,250 BC – some experts say even earlier – and there was a positive passion for such permanent decoration among the Victorian hoi polloi. There was even a Victorian/edwardian penchant for women to work as professional tattooed ladies. One of the star women who turned her body into a mobile art gallery was Nora Hildebrandt. She began making an exhibition of herself in 1882, by which time she was allegedly covered neck-to-toe in 365 designs. She told those willing to part with their money that she had been abducted by American Indians, tied to a tree and given a new tattoo every day for a year. The real story was rather more prosaic. Her father, Martin Hildebrandt, was America’s first professional tattoo artist and had simply brought his work home with him.
For me, Nora is eclipsed by a woman from Wisconsin called Artoria Gibbons. Born in 1893, she married a tattoo artist called Charles Red Gibbons when she was 19. He decided to turn her into the ultimate calling card for his profession, and by the 1920s she was touring as a professional tattooed lady in sideshows at fairs and circuses. She was a religious lady, so Red inked the entire Last Supper across her back, and one of the last working tattooed ladies in America – she didn’t retire until 1981. The pictures from her youth look amazing, but it is said that she put on a lot of weight late in life and, sadly, Jesus ended up looking rather leery.
I suppose that’s what you have to think about as you get older: will that gorgeous portrait of Johnny Depp on your chest still look inviting when gravity begins to have the inevitable effect on your bosom area?
Lots of people live to regret the design that once seemed like something that could be lived with for ever. Rule number one is to be certain you will always feel the same as you do on the day the tattoo machine whirs into life. Laser-removal clinics make a fortune trying to erase the names of people’s exes from their flesh. What about other passions? Can anyone be certain that they will always feel as strongly about the cuisine at Nando’s as the day they have a chicken logo etched into their thigh?
Rule number two is to find a tattoo artist who can muster basic spelling. The internet is littered with examples of people’s bodies boldly declaring You Only Life Once, Strenth And Courage or No Regert. And someone with artistic skills would be a bonus. There is little more depressing than a portrait of a loved one who appears to be melting.
I expect in the end I won’t do it at all. The truth is, I wear my heart on my sleeve and the names of my loved ones have long been invisibly etched on my body. But I still toy with ideas for a tattoo design. I have a long operation scar on my stomach, and it would amuse me to have a helpful zip fastener drawn on one end in case they have to go in again. Or I could come up with something that might help out in old age, like having the words This Way Up tattooed on my chest for when I’m finally bedridden and not entirely capable. Or Caution – Highly Flammable for one last echoing laugh at the crematorium.
Lots of people live to regret their tattoo designs