We live in an environment whereby we are encouraged to be constantly updating our own lives. Standing still is falling behind in the fast paced world of the twenty-first century. It is uncommon to wear a football top from more than a few seasons ago, it is unusual to drive the same car for ten years, and it is unheard of to have the same mobile phone for a decade. I wonder whether these attitudes in part have a role to play on the issue and perception of tattoos.
Advances in laser treatment aside, a tattoo is by and large a permanent fixture upon the skin of the person who gets it. Though it may fade, it may morph with the changing of your skin, and it may become damaged, the tattoo is likely to be the longest lasting item you will have ever purchased.
I believe that we live in a throw away society, and this mentality may be a factor in why tattoos are still so frowned upon by certain people.
Almost everywhere we look we are encouraged to spend, and encouraged to update, replace and refresh. The latest fashion trends, the newest music hits, and the appearance of the next “must have item” show us that nothing can last forever.
Our friends have been reduced to numbers on a social media profile, they can be dismissed at the click of a button. Celebrities achieve their five minutes of fame and then fade back into obscurity. Football boots are bought at the start of each and every new season. Permanence is a quality that is lacking in the majority of things in our lives.
Marriage, for example, the great tradition that we are all expected to partake in, appears to be a tradition in crisis. Previous generations would have seen marriage as one of the cornerstones of a good life. It brings stability, it shows dedication and commitment, and it is permanent. Yet now “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” seems to mean simply “till we get a divorce”. According to The Office for National Statistics (ONS), divorce rates have crept up 0.5% since 2011, and the figure we stand at now, is double that what it was in 1970. The ONS also report that 42% of marriages in England and Wales will lead to divorce.
If sacred vows of love are not going to be permanent, then what is?
It is this absence of permanence, and this mentality that things can be replaced, and that they do not need to last forever, that makes tattoos so interesting, and such a hot topic of debate. It is not just the fact that they are on show to the world – depending on their location of course – but it is also the fact that they will always be on show to the world. A wedding ring symbolizes eternal love between two people, but a ring can be removed, and a marriage can be ended.
We live in a society whereby love is not expected to last forever, where we have to be persuaded to invest in a bag for life, and where the most popular BBQ sets are disposable. Such is the extent of the throw away nature of our lives that we have to be reminded of a dog’s continued existence beyond a period of 24 hours: remember “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas”. If anything typifies our attitude towards objects, items and creatures, it must surely be that phrase.
To fit in, and be part of such a society, you must follow the norm and “buy in” to this throw away mentality. Those who do not, immediately set themselves out as different.
This “buying in” is essentially the following of conventional norms. It is these conventional norms which then create an identity and a culture for a society. In a wonderfully insightful journal entry in Disability Studies Quarterly, William J Peace PHD looks at the similarities between disability stigma and tattoo stigma. Within that article Peace states that to be disabled, and to have a tattoo, represent the same challenge to conventional norms. They are violations of what is right, and how society should behave. Peace goes on to quote Ted Polhemus who states: “… because of the fashion-conscious, pro change nature of the West since the Renaissance ours is a world where to have permanent body decoration such as a tattoo … is, ipso facto, to be different from the norm.”
So this means that not only do people who have tattoos stand out from the crowd because of their physical appearance, but they also stand out from the crowd because of what that appearance represents. One blogger who goes by the name of Fips, sums it up perfectly when they say: “Unlike most of the changes that undergo society, tattoos represent something that is essentially permanent and irrefutable. Whilst hairstyles and clothing fashions can be changed and forgotten, tattoos are, for the vast majority of people, permanent adornments that will be just as visible in a few decades as the day they were made.”
To look at tattoos on such a level, and in such context, allows you an insight in to why they are considered to be so controversial by so many. They fly in the face of, and they go against, almost every other aspect of our lives and of our existence, and yet now, more and more, they are coming to play much more prominent roles within them.
Brandtrust, an American research and strategy firm, produced a short PDF on the topic of tattoos entitled Indelible, and within that they focus on a number of issues surrounding tattoos, just one of which was the issue of permanence. I believe that they perfectly summarised the conflicting role of tattoos within our society by stating that a tattoos “permanence seems a burden in a society that prizes personal reinvention”.
New York’s Binghamton University host a student newspaper by the name of Pipe Dream, and in late 2013 they ran a piece which also looked at the role that tattoos play in an ever-changing environment. They correctly state that: “We express ourselves in increasingly ephemeral and fluid ways. A status update from last week is irrelevant, ancient history. Tweets roll in and out of our psyches as Instagram photos pass before our eyes, noticed and forgotten in a breath”. The perfect example of this short-term reality is the presence of applications such as Snapchat, it is the epitome of a disposable, and short lived existence.
The popularity of tattoos within society appears to be a paradox. Our society is built on the ideals of refresh, renew and update, and yet one of the most rapidly growing, and popular, past-times is tattooing, which convey the message of staying put, of security, and of permanence.
Perhaps the relationship between society and tattoos has multiple levels, and multiple lines of connection. Perhaps not only is the controversy surrounding tattoos due to the society in which we live, but the tattoos themselves are a reaction to that society. In a world that is constantly changing, and where everything is disposable, perhaps tattoos are the stability and the permanence that people need in their lives. The world may change significantly, and rapidly, around us, but the tattoos never will.
Tattoos exist in our society, in fact they are even beginning to flourish, but when you look at the society in which they are a part of, it is clear that they do not quite fit. The problem though is not with the tattoos, it is with the society itself. If couples did in fact remain together forever, if trainers did not fall apart after a few years, and if we weren’t constantly bombarded by advertising telling us to “upgrade” and “get the latest”, would we really see permanent art on people’s skin as such a controversial topic?
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This article was originally published in Skin Deep issue 242.