Tattoo to you too!

Imagine Mick Jagger tattooed like this - any improvement?

Imagine Mick Jagger tattooed like this – any improvement?

Body art. The latest craze. Tattoos have become like blogs and warts – everybody’s got one. Take footballers, for instance. Every arm is covered with some swirling snake reaching up and spitting at the fans, then slithering round the neck and spilling over the shoulders like a shoddy blue coat of arms. But what do these defiantly urban works of art really mean? In my day tattoos were strictly for the hard men, the roughies and toughies. Sailors had them hidden under their shirts, blokes that dug the road sported them as symbols of virility. Prisoners had LOVE and HATE written across the knuckles of each hand. These were men to be fearful of. The tattoos said: “Mess with me, sunshine, and you’ll get a fat lip!”.

Worth getting a yellow card to show off your body art...

Worth getting a yellow card to show off your body art…

But tattoos on a woman? That’s a whole different kettle of prawns. Delicate little butterflies peeking out from bikini tops or hovering just above the buttocks. What could they possibly mean? Because don’t kid yourselves, they do carry meaning: they are signs within a culture that relies on interpretation. I have a theory about the significance of tattoos on women. If I was forced to reduce the meaning to three words only, it would be these: I LIKE SEX.

Beautiful, darling, but whatever does it mean?

Beautiful, darling, but whatever does it mean?

How ridiculous, you might say, how banal. For a start, everybody likes sex, don’t they? OK, fair enough. So let’s start to build up some layers of meaning to do a better job of this interpreting. We can make a kind of list:

1) I am comfortable about my body. OK, fair enough, no offence taken. Live and let live.

2) I want you to notice my body. Oh, do you? Are you sure you want ME to notice or did you have someone else in mind, because that’s important, isn’t it?

3) I want you to look more closely at my body. Now this is getting a bit rich…I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a happily married dullard with nose hair and dog breath.

4) Don’t you see that my body is worth decorating? Yes I do, I honestly do, you’ve made your point loud and clear. Now I’m getting a bit nervous so I’ll stop looking if it’s OK with you.

The point I’m trying to make is that bodies are not just lumps of fat and flesh that protect the bones, they are very much sexual things. And adorning them with natty, cheeky little symbols is bound to provoke sexual interest. It is making your body into a public space, asking to be noticed. If a woman wears bright red lipstick, she wants people to notice her beautiful lips, doesn’t she? Stands to reason. If she wears a short skirt she wants people (men, presumably) to notice her remarkable legs. Lips and legs are like starters before the main course; they are tantalising entry points to the inner body, the full monty.

The inimitable Roland Barthes: "Culture is a desire machine".

The inimitable Roland Barthes: we are all seduced by culture

The late great French master of semiotics, Roland Barthes, once described culture as “a machine for showing desire”. You only need to think about advertising to realise he’s right, of course. Provocative images are being thrown at us 24 hours a day. Desire is very good for business. Desire is what keeps people spending. Men in particular are reduced to rabbits on heat: prepared to splash the cash to stave off  some mysterious and humiliating craving for fulfilment. The unattainable sexual fantasy is a powerful driver of our culture. Tattoos, for my money, only add to the mystique.

The proliferation of tattoos has now reached the point that, well, if you don’t have one you must be a prude, a square (“careta” as they say in Brazil). If your skin is clean it means you are hiding yourself away. You are making another kind of statement: “I’m a private person. I’m not advertising my body.” The downside of this is that you are not part of the club, the happy body club, the ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ club. You are a bit precious, old-fashioned, a fuddy duddy. You are one of those people who turns the light off before locking horns.

Hello you! I hope this is a play fight...

Hello you! I hope this is a play fight…

But I’m getting a bit serious, so let’s lighten up. Here’s an exercise you can try at home. Imagine a lady, a real lady. Go on, close your eyes for a few seconds and visualize, in your imagination, a lady. Now open your eyes and ask yourself this question: could your lady have a tattoo and still be a lady? Sadly, of course, the truth is that ladies and gentlemen are a rapidly dying breed. And old dogs like me are desperately losing the plot.

Categories: Brazil, Football, Musings, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Tattoo to you too!

  1. janeykate

    It’s always great to see a blog post from you, I know before I read it that it’s going to be interesting, or thought provoking or funny!
    At school there was a girl whose older sister was the terror of the local town. I used to hide in shops if I saw her coming along the street with her band of bad girls. Anyway, this girl had done a home tattoo along the length of both her arms, one which read ‘Showaddywaddy’ (is that even how you spell that? They were popular in the late seventies I think.) and the other was the names of all of the group members. The statement seems obvious, and if you didn’t like it, then a punch in the face would make you rapidly change your mind 🙂 Honestly, she terrified me!
    Jane x

  2. janeykate,
    As usual, you are too kind, but then kindness is something I know you know about.
    Showaddywaddy, eh? I used to work with a guy from Leicester whose claim to fame was that one of his cousins was in the band once. Sad thing is they were awful. A teddy-boy pub band trotting out cheesy versions of old rock ‘n’ roll songs.
    Blimey! I hope your school chum’s older sister doesn’t see this…I’ll be lynched!
    As regards tattoos, the truth is I am fascinated by them, as you may have guessed, though they arrived a little too late for me, if you know what I mean.
    Anyway – so glad you liked it and commented…nobody else has even read it! I’m serious.
    I must be losing my grip, touch, knack – whatever.

  3. Yeah, well, what if you’re too hairy to get inked, as the people of my generation say? Not that I’m mentioning anyone in particular >_>

    Interesting quote about Barthes, though. I’m sure I read that somewhere back when I was doing one of my essays at UCA.

  4. I’ve always loved your writing, truly I have, but as a woman with tattoos I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one.

    I’m not confident about my image. I’m really not. I’ve always had huge problems with my body and my perception of it, and trust me the last thing that I want to do is parade it around in front of strangers, begging them to look at me.

    In fact, my tattoos aren’t all that visible on a regular basis, at all. No, they’re not in ‘sexy’ places, they are just where the clothes & accessories sit. A small one on the inside of my wrist, which usually ends up hidden under my watch; one on the inside of my upper arm, one near the upper centre of my back, usually just hidden by clothes.

    That’s because they’re not really for anyone else, they’re for me. Each one has a memory attached to it that often if someone sees them and asks I have to laboriously explain. I have my dog’s exact pawprint, transferred through paint (which looks a lot like a Rorschach mark hence the confusion), I have a quote by La Fontaine in the original French that was on the inside of a book of his fables I read as a child growing up in France, and so on.

    The point is, I have them because they tell a little story about me. A few things that really mean a lot to me and make me feel happy. I often glimpse the French one in the mirror and it motivates me to read a French book, to stop the language from slipping. I know one day the pawprint is going to break my heart a bit but I hope that when a few years have passed I look at it with fondness and sweet memories of her.

    I’m not saying that tattoos on women aren’t sometimes used for the ‘sex appeal’ that you’re stating; I just think it’s a bit of an unfair sweeping generalisation to say that this is all womens’ intentions behind them.

    And on the flip side, in a way – why is it that only women are criticised here for using them for sex appeal – don’t men, too? Aren’t the footballers and models posing shirtless with a tattoo that stretches over their biceps, saying look at my guns? Why are women the one that are parading this message, but not the men?

    Also – there’s a long long discussion about women’s use of make-up (your example of the red lipstick) and the connotations behind it in society vs. what the female culture broadly aims for with its’ use, but it comes back to a similar conclusion of the inaccuracy of sweeping generalisations so I won’t bore you,

    • Wise words.
      A very personal and interesting response, Jayne.
      Yes, I make sweeping generalisations; it’s kind of how I approach things.
      But I know we are all different…well, most of us!

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