Unleashed from their hibernation by the recent summery weather, tattoos are appearing all around us. Even in the famously stylish Cotswolds, I can guarantee you’ll find one on a white shoulder near you. And even when that shoulder is sun-burnished to hot pink, the dark, brooding tones of the tattoo will still shine through.
Tattoos are constantly taking me by surprise. The most unlikely people have been showing me their latest acquisitions. On occasion it’s been as surprising as discovering that a polar bear has black skin – one of the many fascinating facts I’ve learned this term from my daughter’s school topic, “Pole to Pole”.
Taking a dip in a local public swimming pool, I was alarmed to discover that I was the only adult uniformly flesh-coloured. Surreptitiously surveying the other swimmers, I began to feel as undressed as if I’d forgotten my swimsuit. Even the children were not unblemished, thanks to the invention of the (mercifully) temporary tattoo. The closest we had to these when I was a child was “transfers”, all of which were small and square, and we’d buy them in great sheets from the paper shop for sixpence.
My small daughter Laura discovered temporary tattoos on holiday in Greece a few years ago, when she was 3. She spent a happy hour on the beach adorning her parents’ lazy bodies with colourful little pictures. I’ve always liked tiny vehicles for art. I’m a long-term collector of enamel pin-badges and I love postage stamps: Borrowers’ paintings in frilly frames . So at first I found the temporary tattoos not unappealing. Only that evening in a smart taverna did I realise that, to the uninformed observer, there is no discernible difference between the temporary kind and the permanent. The festoons of flowers adorning my husband’s shoulders attracted quizzical looks.
But at least we were on holiday so it didn’t particularly matter. Not so lucky was our friend Ida, who at a dinner party succumbed to Laura’s entreaty to put a tattoo on her forehead. The wine that had made this seem such a good idea at the time had lost its influence by the Monday morning, when she had to sit through an important business meeting, the tattoo still firmly in place. (Sellotape is the answer, by the way, should you ever find yourself in this position.)
I cannot imagine ever being prepared to commit to any one design for permanent adornment. There’s no item of clothing or accessory that I’d wear day in, day out, so how do people choose tattoos? Ignoring the obvious foible of etching your current partner’s name into your flesh (“current” being the significant word here), even a favourite motif might lose its appeal in time. Tinkerbell on a twenty year old’s calf is not quite the same on a sixty year old’s.
But it’s not just the ageing process that takes its toll. I might once have thought a bee would be a time-proof emblem for me. My name is Hebrew for bee, and I am such a busy person that friends buy me bee-themed presents without knowing the significance of my name. But had I plumped for a bee tattoo in my youth, I’d have been heading straight for the lasers once Sarah Ferguson adopted it for her coat of arms as part of her metamorphosis into the Duchess of York. (I reckon that’s why we see so few bees about these days – the supposed bee-killing virus is a myth, they’re just all keeping a low profile out of embarrassment.) I’m very fond of daisies, and my bathroom is strewn with them in various forms, but I’d soon change my tune should Kerry Katona bring out a “Daisy” perfume as part of her new, fresh, clean image. To avoid tattoo traps, you have to expect the unexpected.
But then in Tesco’s the other day (always a fruitful place for the summertime tattoo-spotter), I caught sight of a truly timeless tattoo. A swan-like pair of angels’ wings filled the bare flesh above a young mum’s white strapless vest. “These will see me out,” I can imagine her thinking in the tattoo parlour. “And I’ll be all set for heaven when I get there.” It’s got to be the ultimate fashion statement.
(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser’s May 2011 issue.)