In At the Deep End - 193

Published: 14 December, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 193, December, 2010

In the last two decades the number of people willing to modify their bodies through tattooing has sharply risen, both in number and in visibility. Tattoo imagery is seen everywhere, from couture fashion to coffee mugs.

Some have dismissed this enormous popularity as fashion whimsy, a mere trend that will be sorely regretted when the sea of style changes. But the variety of the people bitten by the tattooing bug is immense. It’s no longer a sub cultural practice, but rather an art of the people. Of course, this popularity means that the aesthetics of tattooing have been hijacked, Jean Paul Gaultier has been working with tattoo iconography for years and the current Chanel advertising campaign features models that appear to have been tattooed with the fashion house’s logo, you can even buy these temporary tattoos for yourself. 

Tattoo imagery utilized outside of tattooing can feel problematic, enthusiasts and artists know that dermal art clearly cannot be compared to hot pants or an asymmetrical haircut but despite many differences fashion and tattooing do share common ground. 

On the surface tattooing is very much like fashion, it is, after all, a set of signs and codes for the like-minded viewer to assimilate and digest. A tattoo fan may well recognise the work of a respected tattooist in much the same way that a high fashion fanatic will identify a pair of Prada loafers. 

But adorning our bodies is opposites in action; it allows us to assert our difference and to illustrate our individuality, in the same way that school children modify their uniforms, tattoo fans alter our skins. We do it to stand up and state that we are no like everyone else. But tattoos are not just about individuality; they also allow us to demonstrate our sense of belonging to an alternative culture. 

Humans wear clothes to satisfy our basic needs, protection, comfort and hygiene. But clothing can also aid our emotional needs, communication, expression and identification and tattoos can operate similarly.

By wearing high heels, or choosing a hairstyle that partially obscures our vision, we choose form over function. The need for expression outweighs practicality. We even like to reappropriate the functional, turning jeans and other work trousers into fashion choices.

But adornment and fashion are not the same thing.  Fashion’s very nature is to be ever changing, it’s a race to possess the next big thing. The signs displayed in fashion are arbitrary and here is the essential difference, tattoos can have personal meaning and can be full of emotional content, yet everything in fashion signifies the same things - I am fashionable, I am current, up to the minute and constantly evolving, I am not static, I am going somewhere. 

So how can anything permanent be seen as fashion? Fashion is a tool used by the upwardly mobile to track their movement through time and social status. Perhaps being a tattooed person indicates a stubborn opposition, an attempt to resist the change. To be tattooed is to be happy with yourself, to be responsible for your choices. According to a book on fashion published more than three decades ago, people with tattoos are those that, “Feel an exceptional need to preserve their individual and social identities and to advertise, if only privately, the would-be permanence of their allegiances, values and beliefs”.

This is a fancy way to state a very old idea, that tattoos are jus for certain groups, the armed forces, incarcerated felons and ladies of the night. It’s true that these people could well feel an exceptional need to preserve their individual identities, but so could many other people. The rise in the popularity of tattooing over the last decade (not just in small tattoos but in the number of people choosing to become heavily tattooed) could be seen as a symptom of an increase in the number of people who feel a desire to demonstrate their individuality. As all high streets become increasingly alike and celebrities look more and more similar, being tattooed could provide not just a way to be different, but also a way of opting out of the fashion merry go round. What was once haute couture (made to measure, one off pieces created for certain person) has descended to a brand name culture. Is tattooing the new bespoke? There is no denying the appeal of the custom tattoo. 

Other forms of body modification are also on the rise, dieting, rigorous exercise programs, cosmetic dentistry and plastic surgery. But all these modifications serve to make us look more alike, they tell us to aspire to an ideal, to be the perfect normal. 

Celebrities have become increasingly homogenous as they succumb to the idea of false beauty. Tattoos have not been immune, some smaller, generic tattoos, like stars, or Cheryl Cole inspired hand tattoos have been subsumed by fashion, perhaps precisely because their mass-produced nature leaves little trace of the individual.

A more extreme example of tattooing can be seen in male celebrities, boy band stars Robbie Williams and Shane Lynch display enough coverage to be considered heavily tattooed, an image at odds with the clean cut, standardised boy next door look for which they were previously known. David Beckham, perhaps the best-known footballer in the world, often appears in mainstream media articles about tattoos. It cannot be a coincidence that a man whose primary role is that of a team member feels the need to assert his difference.

Tattooed people choose to provide themselves with a coherent self-identity, a self that is disembodied from the roller coasters of fashion and fame.  We need not worry if others wear tattooed printed tights but instead can be content knowing that with our collections of permanent art we can consider ourselves outside of the shallow concerns of fashion, we need not fear getting old. We will always be beautiful.

"Fashion fades. Only style remains the same."
- Coco Chanel


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos