An Eye Is Upon You - 206: Children of the Revolution

Published: 09 December, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 206, December, 2011

Late one summer, as I dashed to my local shopping precinct to purchase some seemingly necessary item, I noticed a young girl in a sleeveless summer dress, not unlike my own. Her little arms were tanned brown, farmer style, and dotted all over with tattoo transfers.

She looked at me, I looked at her, she looked at me some more, and I dashed into the chemist with the over-riding feeling that I had just seen a future tattooed lady.

Having children and being tattooed can sometimes feel like a difficult negotiation. It’s easy to imagine issues and problems, cast as we are into a different social sphere – a world of playgrounds and parents evenings instead of punk rock; baby groups and breastfeeding instead of bad ass-ery. We imagine judgment from both sides, accusations of settling down and selling out, or criticism for choosing a lifestyle perceived to affect our children adversely.

When my son, Nate (now 11), was very small, he concluded, in the style of Occam’s razor, that the universal truth was a simple one – that all mummies, not just his, were covered in pictures. He was shocked (and rather disappointed) to discover this wasn’t the case when he started quizzing his fellow nursery-goers as to what featured in their parents tattoo collections and was met with blankness and confusion.

Since then, his feelings towards his tattooed momma have alternated wildly between intense, heart bursting pride and utter, spirit crushing embarrassment. Initially mortified by his mother’s insistence at having his name tattooed on her knuckles (instead of the classic Western traditional ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’, I sport ‘Love’ and ‘Nate’), his horror has now mellowed into secret, couldn’t-possibly-be-admitted satisfaction.

Babies, children and immense parental pride often inspire tattoos, from simple names, to portraits, to seemingly random images that elicit memories or private, familial jokes. There is an identifiable impulse to commemorate the permanence of a parent/ child relationship with a permanent artwork. and the closeness of that bond is conceptually acknowledged by the tattoo, which is surely the most intimate of art forms. We hold our children in our hearts and demonstrate this to the world by having images in their honour etched on our skin.

Recently, whilst waiting in our local chip shop we were innocently quizzed by a member of staff as to why our son didn’t have tattoos, when his parents so obviously did? On the surface, this query was quite amusing, but it was also thoughtful. We are not born with our tattoos, they are not brightly coloured birthmarks, but instead they are life marks. We cannot yet confirm or deny if our little blank caterpillar will become a tattooed butterfly; if tattooed people of the future will be the outcome of tattooed parents in the present. But it is interesting to think of the tattoo collector as something you become, not something you intrinsically are.

Becoming something is a journey – birth, childhood, adolescence and onwards – to be tattooed is to punctuate some of  those traditional seven stages of man, to arrest them momentarily, to ask questions of our physicality and highlight our mortality. Becoming a parent works similarly, we stop, reflect and continue our journey as if with new eyes, the same, yet different, altered forever. It’s natural then, to mark these alterations and to celebrate them, even to attempt to preserve them.

I have a tattoo of one of my son’s drawings, a multi-limbed fantasy being rendered in the way that only a small person can, naively and without giving a fig for proportion or scale. It’s charming, I adore it and I am not alone here, sharing a visual language of love and commitment with other tattooed parents. To have a child’s drawing tattooed feels so natural – to take what was only intended to be a scribble, a never to be repeated moment and memorialise it, is to cherish it, to hold onto that time, like a treasured childhood snapshot.

The attitude required to live as a tattooed person could be described as naive or childlike, we must give scant regard to imagined consequence, preferring to act on our instincts, collecting beautiful images the way children gather interesting stones, coins, or rubbers, displaying them proudly, but on our flesh, not our windowsills (I’m glad I’m not the only parent with an insane collection of rubbers littering the house. Ed.). We must proudly live in the moment.

I’ll leave you with my favourite child/ tattoo anecdote, a statement from a young chap, around the age of eight, who looked me up and down and declared that I “must have eaten a lot of bubblegum”.

This month’s column is dedicated to Nate and Ivy Clementine, and was written somewhere between the maternity ward and yet another nappy change.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos