The arrival of summer has made my eyes water, though not with hay fever.
Most of us are revelling in the novelty of throwing caution to the north wind and going outside without a duffle coat. Park benches are filling with people normally found at home hugging radiators, and everyone looks happier. So what's not to like? For me, just one thing: a great deal of bare flesh is on show.
In itself that's not a bad thing, although it means that even when there's a covering of cloud, sunglasses are necessary to protect against the brilliant white one sees all around – this must be where Dulux got its inspiration. But what I find astonishing is that where in the past a tattoo was something you only saw once a year during the Edinburgh Festival, now they're everywhere. Swathes of the human form usually hidden by sweaters and tights are suddenly revealed, and even the most douce looking citizens' shoulders and legs and backs are crawling with ink. Indeed, so many living canvases have walked past me on the street of late, it's as if Banksy has abandoned walls for bodies.
I come from a fishing town where the only denizens who sported tattoos were sailors. The stretched, fading images on their freckled forearms fascinated me as a child, but their owners were not the sort I dared quiz on their buxom mermaids and bleeding hearts. These images no doubt held a sort of masonic significance, but for those not of their ilk they said only one thing: don't mess with me.
I once worked in the geriatric ward of a hospital, and saw at first-hand what time and gravity do to this kind of artwork. The modesty of tattoos in those days, however, was positively puritanical compared with today's full-limb, total-torso fetish. No doubt PhDs are being written on the causes and significance of this explosion of human graffiti, but I blame David Beckham. Beneath his chic apparel and suave personality lies a seething forest of design, whose tendrils creep over his Armani collar as if they were triffids slowly trying to strangle him. And where Becks goes, the herd follows. The results in some cases are so alarming that if the owner rushed into a police station and cried, "Look what they've done to me!", a panda car would be despatched immediately.
Of course, when even Samantha Cameron has a tattoo, it's clear this has become the most inoffensive of embellishments. But while a bird on an ankle or a rose on a bicep is fine, the jungle of images and statements now scrawled on individual bodies is ugly in more ways than one. There's something about its proliferation that goes beyond decoration. We're getting into tribal territory, and it's not only unsightly, it's intimidating, and meant to be.
The Mayor of Osaka in Japan would agree. Earlier this month he caused outrage by demanding the city's public employees declare all tattoos, no matter how private. He then insisted that those in view were either covered up, or their owners moved to jobs out of the public eye. If any objected, he said, they "should go to the private sector". This decree was triggered by a worker at a childcare centre who was accused of frightening a child by showing his tattoo.
In Japan, tattoos are closely associated with criminals. Even here, some gang members and convicts stamp themselves with secret symbols that render business cards and small-talk redundant. I don't see anything very wrong with that; after all, it's the same principle as an old boy's club tie. What I find suspect, however, is the primitive act of using the body as a noticeboard. In so doing, a person crosses a significant line between the private and the public. On the one hand they are revealing something intimate about themselves, assuming one is able to decipher it; on the other, they have chosen an aggressive method of disclosure that is as much a statement of how they see the world as about themselves. This makes it less a form of adornment than a political statement. In that sense tattoos might be seen as a modern version of war-paint. Only worse, because at least woad washed off.
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