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!”.
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.
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 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.
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.