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Ninth International London Tattoo Convention

Man's upper body tattoos (close-up)

A lecturer talks about her fascination with body art

Ninth International London Tattoo Convention
Tobacco Dock, London
27-29 September

I never thought I’d mention Cheryl Cole in any capacity, let alone in the pages of Times Higher Education, but the recent coverage of her rose-tinted bottom makes a perfect lead-in. This weekend, 300 famous tattoo artists, including Cole’s American inker, Nikko Hurtado, will descend on London’s Tobacco Dock to inject some local colour. In the run-up to this exciting event, I have been contemplating my own fascination with tattoo culture.

Being raised in ultra-orthodox Judaism, where tattoo equals taboo, probably helped to fuel this interest. It’s Bad Luck to Die, the first story in Elizabeth McCracken’s iconic 1993 collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, begins: “Maybe you wonder how a Jewish girl from Des Moines got Jesus Christ tattooed on her three times.” It goes on to chart the poignant tale of a successful 20-year marriage between an 18-year-old girl and a tattoo artist, 30 years her senior, who covers her skin with his masterpieces and renders her a living shrine to his talent. As she puts it in the last line, “I am not a museum, not yet, I’m a love letter, a love letter.”

Blood Games, the latest volume in Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus thriller series (one of my guilty pleasures) to be published in Britain, features a teenage romance between child prodigy, pimp’s son and musician Gabe and sheltered, opera-loving Persian Jewish girl Yasmine. Gabe has Yasmine’s name tattooed on his shoulder, so I wondered whether this was meant to emphasise the cultural gulf between them.

But when I asked her, Kellerman said: “The tattoo was more a reflection of teenage impulsivity, a major theme of the book. I don’t think he even realised that this was considered taboo in Jewish culture. It was just something a 15-year-old trying to impress might do. Of course, Yasmine was impressed, which led to her willingness to consummate the relationship. Again, this emphasises the impulsive nature of adolescents. It was more or less my homage to Romeo and Juliet.”

Perhaps my job also has something to do with my fascination. I have got the interdisciplinary title of lecturer in chemical biology, a field that seems to have as many interpretations as it does academics. Yet tattooing is an excellent example of chemical biology since it involves applying pigments, metal salts, carbon nanoparticles and solvents to the skin’s dermis, the long-lived layer of cells found between the epidermis and the subcutaneous tissues.

Matt Lodder, newly appointed lecturer in art history at the University of Essex, and long-time friend of the convention, is himself an ever-evolving colourful canvas and expert on the theory and practice of tattooing which underlies much of his academic research. His mission is to shift the philosophical focus from the tattooed to the tattooer by exploring the motivation and inspiration that drive tattoo artists.

Substantial narrative is invented after the fact, he claims, when people are asked about their tattoos and feel compelled to tell an interesting story. These often evolve in response to life events, as in the case of a tattoo for a lover who has now moved on.

I came across some of this tattoo myth-making at a conference in Australia, where there was a circulating Chinese whisper about the origins of a Maori Koru symbol tattoo on the back of Juliet Gerrard, professor of biochemistry at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. It was said that she had always wanted a tattoo but that her mother told her she would regret it when she was 40. Once she turned 40, she realised that she still wanted one, so her lab bought it for her as a birthday present.

When I decided to fact-check this with her, however, Gerrard responded: “Well, that is the most interesting thing in my in-box this morning! Actually, the story is slightly different. I had never even thought of getting a tattoo. When I got made a professor, just before I was 40, my research group had a collection and one of them was tasked with going out to buy a large bunch of flowers. On the way, he passed a tattoo parlour and decided it would make a better gift. I have told my children that they shouldn’t get a tattoo until they are 40, and have had enough time to think about what they want, and make sure they can live with it when they get to an old people’s home.”

That Australian conference was also the setting for my least salubrious tattoo experience. During a break in proceedings, my friend Beth and I went for a swim in the hotel pool. In the changing room I admired a tattoo on a stranger’s bikini line – which I probably ought not to have been looking at – that read, in beautiful calligraphy, “Mi padre para siempre”. For some reason I misinterpreted this as meaning “my father is the only man I can rely on” and started laughing. But she told me off in a frighteningly aggressive tone: “You think that’s funny? Well, I don’t, because my father died last year.” Despite my profuse apologies, she continued to look daggers at me throughout our swim and we were relieved when she exited the pool. When we emerged ourselves, Beth’s glasses, which had been left neatly on top of her clothes, were nowhere to be found, so we think they were stolen in a misplaced act of revenge.

Despite this experience, and my promising Beth I’d never admire anyone’s tattoo again, in the weeks I have known I’d be writing this article I have accosted numerous strangers on the London Tube and asked to photograph their spectacular tattoos. Happily, the responses have been unanimously positive and I now have a stunning collection of images and stories. A fire station near my workplace in Borough has supplied particularly rich pickings, including my favourite of those I have collected – a beautifully fine greyscale scene of the Virgin Mary intertwined with angels and flowers.

Christianity and tattooing have a long-standing historical relationship. In fact, Lodder explained that, despite prohibitions levelled against tattooing by the Church in Rome, it was Christians who kept tattooing alive in Western Europe. From the mid-15th until the 18th century, the principal source of evidence we have for a sustained tattoo practice is the records of pilgrims to the Holy Lands, who were often extensively tattooed in cities such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Nazareth to commemorate their pilgrimages. Others were tattooed before leaving home, perhaps as a way to identify their bodies and ensure repatriation should any ill fate befall them.

The appearance of professional tattoo studios in Britain coincides quite neatly with the pilgrimage of Edward VII (then Prince of Wales) to Jerusalem in 1862, where his diary records a visit to a tattooer – he had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his forearm. The drive to ape the fashionable prince created a demand for permanent tattooing establishments in this country.

Lodder says you either understand tattoos or you don’t. So I asked him, “Oh, is it like Marmite, then?” – and he told me he has a Marmite tattoo! Of course I photographed it. I’m not sure where I stand on Marmite, but I know I love tattoos and don’t have any. (Then again, I am not quite 40.) Since the weather has now turned cold as we approach the convention, I probably won’t get a chance to find out whether the tabula rasa of my skin renders me irrelevant or fills the artists with an urge to hold me at needlepoint.

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