The rapidly growing art of making the body a living canvas

Amy Winehouse regularly sported tattoos
Amy Winehouse regularly sported tattoos
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Tattoos were once frowned upon by some, but now they’ve become the height of fashion. So what’s changed, asks Chris Bond?

IT wasn’t that long ago that tattoos were something you might have if you were a sailor, or a miner.

They were seen as an indelible badge, a mark of pride by those who wore them, but there was also a stigma associated with them and they were viewed by many people as nothing more than graffiti.

But the days when only burly working class men had tattoos have long gone. Female 
celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Cheryl Cole are known to be big fans of body art, as it’s now called, while anyone who tuned in to watch the BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef show recently will probably have noticed how many tattoos the contestants sported. And those were just the ones we could see.

Tattoos haven’t just become acceptable in society, they’ve become fashionable, too. Prime Minister’s wife Samantha Cameron’s tasteful, if unoriginal, dolphin tattoo has attracted plenty of press coverage in the last few years, while Kate Moss revealed recently that she has a tattoo of two tiny swallows on her back, done by Lucian Freud.

Then there are sport stars like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, who wear their body art with pride; in fact it’s reached the point where it’s probably easier to name footballers who haven’t got a tattoo. Famous fans like Sheffield United supporter Sean Bean, who has “100% Blade” tattooed on his left shoulder, also have them.

Tattoos have become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades, to the point where it’s estimated that as many as one in five British adults now has one. There are no doubt plenty of people who got them when they were younger and now wish they hadn’t, but at the same time there appears to have been a change in attitude.

Les Back, a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College, in London, believes there has been a generational shift in the way tattoos are viewed. “My father was a respectable working class man, and he forbade me and my brother from getting a tattoo. For him they were associated with people who weren’t going anywhere in life and to have a tattoo was condemning yourself to stigma,” he says.

But such attitudes, once prevalent in British society, have changed. “There is still a trace of stigma, but it’s nothing like it used to be. There’s been a tattooing renaissance in the last 15 years or so, and its popularity has reached a completely new level.”

Prof Back believes this is linked to different social trends: “One of these is perfectibility, the idea that the body can be modified at our whim. It can be adorned, painted and transformed.”

But tattoos have been popular in the past as well: “In Britain there’s a strong maritime connection, but there’s an earlier tradition that goes back to Captain Cook and Polynesia, when they were brought back and became curios. In the 18th Century tattoos were worn like jewellery and there was no social divide. It was only later that they became associated with criminality and poverty.”

The modern fashion for tattoos ties in with the whole body culture that exists today.

“It’s about telling your story and using your body as a canvas. There’s this idea that we can transform our bodies but it’s a hollow promise. People put the names of their loved ones onto their bodies and it becomes a bit like a memorial. But, while the ink is permanent, it’s on a canvas that’s impermanent.”