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8 February 2022

Tattoos have more meaning than their critics dare imagine

Knee-jerk repulsion tells us more about those who disapprove of body art than those who embrace it.

By Rachel Cunliffe

If I ever have a baby, I am going to go to Poland. There is a tattoo artist there called Andrey Lukovnikov, whose designs feature magical, otherworldly creatures – dragonflies, eagles, griffins – overlaid with vibrant scenes from nature in a swirling riot of pulsing colour. I want to make my skin a canvas for him.

The Poland plan is directly tied up for me in the idea of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. As a woman in her thirties, I’ve thought a lot about the notion of becoming a parent. I know I want children; I also know that, were that to happen, the adjustment would be sharp. I can envision panic taking hold, the feeling of my identity slipping away in those first months, the shock to my body and the fierce realisation that what I was isn’t me anymore. I know how anxiety works – I know how I work. So the idea is to counter-balance that: to escape to Poland in that first year and reclaim my sense of self underneath Lukovnikov’s needle, to prove to myself I can be a mother and a person by fulfilling an intention I’ve had for so long.

Not everyone is going to approve of this plan. On 7 February, the Times columnist Melanie Phillips has written of her “profound revulsion” to other people’s tattoos, which she puts down to an “existential crisis of humanity in the post-religious West”. She argues they “advertise our own lack of intrinsic value as human beings”.

The column has predictably evoked outrage online. Many have pointed out that the hook for it – a woman on Mumsnet “devastated” by her daughter’s tattoos – is essentially a suggestion that parents should be able to control the choices of their adult children indefinitely. But in a way, I understand where Phillips is coming from: my own parents share her reflexive distaste for tattoos, and no doubt grappled with similar unease when both my sister and I opted to make permanent alterations to our bodies. There has been a cultural shift in how body art is viewed, and the ubiquity of something that used to be associated, at least in the UK, with “navvies, convicts or soldiers” (and, of course, King Edward VII) takes some getting used to.

But unfamiliarity is no excuse for prejudice. And in her assumption that her disgust is near-universal, Phillips reveals a worldview that is staggeringly limiting.

It’s true that many cultures have taboos against body modification. I was always warned that the tattooed cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery (although it turns out this is a misconception), and some interpretations of Islam also argue against them. Religion matters in other ways too: for European Jews of a certain age, tattoos will always be tarnished with connotations of Auschwitz. It is curious that Phillips never mentions how her own Jewishness might have shaped her aversion, even as she writes as though it is an undisputed fact that “any mutilation of the body – including self-disfigurement – is surely a violation of the supposedly treasured self”. That’s a view I remember arguing relentlessly about with my parents, who sharply resisted me getting my ears pierced for precisely this reason. (“All the other Jewish girls at school wear earrings!” I would scream at them, my flawless logic falling on unsympathetic ears.)

Yet in other faiths, body art is a celebrated part of the culture. It can be a way of tracing one’s own lineage back through generations, a form of intimately artistic heritage (a sentiment I imagine Phillips, as a traditionalist, might approve of). And for the secular, tattoos hold infinite potential for self-expression and liberation. I’ve heard of survivors of abuse using tattoos as a way of recovering their bodies, transforming horrific scars into works of art or simply proving with a needle that sites of past trauma are once more their own.

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So I’m not sure it holds that there is something objectively transgressive or offensive about the practice of turning one’s body into artwork. Where Phillips sees only “desecration” and the “vandalising of the self”, others find hope, reclamation, even spirituality. Not everyone who sees someone’s tattoos will interpret them how the bearer intends – but in a free society, that’s a risk people are free to take. And knee-jerk repulsion tells us more about those who disapprove of body art than those who embrace it.

If anyone ever questioned me on my tattoo choices, I would welcome the chance to explain them: the post-natal trip to Poland I’ve sketched out in my head, and the art I already have, nestled just above my hip where it’s only visible if I choose it to be. Like the vast majority of people who ink permanent lines on to their bodies, my tattoo has a story behind it. It’s a rather long story for what amounts to a patch of skin barely the size of an espresso cup. And like all good stories, it starts with heartbreak – there’s a song and a symbol that turns into a promise, a relationship that goes wrong, and the fulfilment of that promise seven years after making it. I consider it an act of defiance: my commitment to myself that I wouldn’t let despair and depression take hold, a pledge of faith in my future self.

“Some of us try to make ourselves unique by etching artificial meaning into our skin,” Phillips writes in her piece – and no doubt wanting to be special or different does play into some people’s tattoo decision-making (although I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that). But I struggle to understand what she means by “artificial meaning”. All meaning is inherently subjective, something we create for ourselves. The meaning behind my tattoo might seem artificial to others, but for me it is pin-prickingly real.

And since it’s my skin that it’s on, surely that’s the only meaning that matters.

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