Getting ink

Edison’s 1877 Stencil-Pen – the precursor of the tattoo gun

The past 15 years or so have seen quite an unusual demographic phenomenon: the rapid expansion of tattooing outside its traditional male working-class niche. I don’t think anyone knows why. But it has rapidly made inroads into the mainstream, to the point where for a while our city library had a female staff member at the desk with very nice full-sleeve work. Even so, quite a few people have expressed surprise that I (middle-aged, middle-class, mild-mannered) have several, and recently acquired at that.

It’s quite complicated. When I was little, living on a working-class street in a small seaport town with a strong Navy and Army presence, it was unremarkable to see male tattoos. For instance, a bus conductor we knew had swallow tattoos, and LOVE/HATE on his fingers. But as I got older, we drifted more and more toward middle-class. My mother was a single-parent school secretary, with mostly school-related friends, and you didn’t see tattooed grammar school teachers in the 1960s.

The only tattooed person around was my stepfather Joe, who constantly exhibited a ‘school of hard knocks, never did me any harm’ attitude, and had on his forearm a fairly naff Highlander-and-thistle tattoo surrounding the word “Ray” – nothing to do with me, but a girlfriend who had jilted him while he was away in the RAF. I loathed the man (who I called Wee Dim Jockie behind his back) and I think that was the seed of my long-running prejudice against tattooed people. The seed grew and flourished when I worked university vacations with the council. As a timid and nouveau-posh teenager, I was terrified of a co-worker, coincidentally also called Ray, a tattooed gravedigger who had a bad-boy reputation that he fostered by riding a motorbike with a coffin as sidecar.

That prejudice could easily have stayed with me for life. But times change, and I changed. Decades later and married to Clare for 18 years, living and socialising in a small town with a very wide social mix slowly altered that view. Quite a lot of my friends and acquaintances had tattoos, and the idea became thoroughly familiar, and even appealing. On top of that slow sea-change, I was doing a lot of work (therapy, in fact) to dispose of family influences that had left me with a mess of confidence and anxiety problems. Finally a point of epiphany arrived: I wasn’t going to be ruled by prejudices and fears acquired when young. I designed a red-and-black mathematical spiral – maths is another enthusiasm I won’t bore you with – and discussed it with Clare; she has been brilliantly supportive (which fazed her mother, who assumed she’d automatically disapprove). On recommendation, I went to The Hidden Jewel on Fore Street, the folksy part of Exeter, and came home with an upper-arm tattoo. It was a terrifying and liberating moment – and, despite all the horror stories you hear, it scarcely hurt.

Once you break through a huge psychological barrier like that, I guess it removes inhibitions against doing it again. I’ve since had, on the same arm, three more tattoos, all representing powerful life events. There’s a stylised map of the Isle of Wight (commemorating meeting my father Morris for the first time at 50 – a story in itself); a button-keyboard logo marking the moment when I realised my accordion playing was going to be a lifelong part of me; and a text tattoo saying TAR AND THE RO, which marks the surprisingly affecting experience of revisiting a now-eroded monument on a ‘lost road’ (again, a story in itself).

Have I given in to fashion? (I know it’s a common criticism of tattoos). Only to the extent that the acceptability of tattoos made the public side of the decision – how it feels to be seen as tattooed – considerably less of a concern. Has it affected how people view me? Quite probably, but I don’t know precisely how. My untattooed friends were curious, but not hostile. My employer doesn’t mind (I did ask her if she preferred them covered, as I work front-of-shop in a quite genteel bookshop), and even said something to the effect of it showing “that even nice people can have tattoos”.

Has it affected how I feel? Yes, again in ways I don’t fully understand. When I was reunited with my father’s side of my family a few years ago, I found that many of them had tattoos – my brother Jim is the most tattooed person I know in real life. Discovering we had this in a common was for me a small extra thread in the connections we have – and oddly, I even had a strange feeling that some shared nature explained why I’d felt drawn to the idea of having them myself. They’re part of my feeling that at last I’m connected to my original family roots.

And I do definitely feel more confident for having tattoos: not because of any silly alpha male thing, but because of having broken free of a large piece of programming about class, lifestyle, appearance, and what tattoos mean about a person. Will I have more? I’m sure that Clare will be relieved that there’s no danger of my turning into The Great Omi, but updates are … not inconceivable.