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...

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Contents - ILLUSTRATION CLARE MACKIE

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

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