After writing recently about footballer Raheem Sterling’s controversial gun tattoo, I want to delve further into the cultural significance of modern tattoos.
Footballers like Sterling are a good place to start. He is now pretty much “sleeved” – the term for when tattoos adorn the naked arm so densely it appears covered by a sleeve of ink. He will end up full-body tattooed, like many other footballers.
At the royal wedding, David Beckham’s neck tats poked up above the collar of his Christian Dior suit, spoiling the outfit. His entire chest, arms and back are a sea of black-blueish ink with familiar tropes – religious iconography, Jesus on a cross, wings, writing in foreign languages, his kids’ names. All rather dull, as you might expect from Beckham. He’s a nice man, but not brimming with ideas. He commercialised and ruined football and now he has ruined a perfectly decent body.
A week later, Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos lifted the European Cup after dislocating Mo Salah’s shoulder. Ramos’ multiple tattoos are hideously bland. A lion’s face, a wolf’s face, some Native American feathers, an eagle across his neck not dissimilar to the Nazi emblem and, yes, Jesus.
Why? They can probably give you reasons. But still… why? Why have they done this? Why hast God forsaken them?
The deeper questions are ones that footballers cannot answer. They are at the frontline of a millennial fashion craze that will forever mark them as victims of an image-obsessed time. Trap rappers may have more extreme tattoos – on their faces, eyelids, lips, even eyeballs – but their lifestyle is fundamentally nihilistic. Their tattoos speak to an idea of non-conformity. Footballers are conformists. To be tattooed is to conform to society, not kick against it, as in the past. People tattoo themselves because it’s fashionable.
It won’t be fashionable forever though. One day, tattoos will be deeply unfashionable, just like flared trousers, zoot suits, shell suits, thigh-high socks, perms, beards and platform shoes. Fashion moves in waves. You glide in when the water is calm and clamber back to shore before the tide drags you under.
The difference between tattoos and shell suits is that you can take off the shell suit and set fire to it. Unless you are prepared to self-immolate, you are stuck with your tattoo suit. You will be stuck in the early part of the 21st century, ad infinitum. In 2050, when you are 70-something and the very concept of fashion will mean something utterly different, something technologically advanced beyond our current comprehension – you will have the equivalent of bellbottomed trousers permanently attached to your body.
They are not entirely irreversible, of course. A friend who designed 90 per cent of his own tattoos – all tasteful, interesting and discreet – is having the Hindu deity Ganesha lasered off his calf. He is not a Hindu and is concerned that it might offend Hindus. The removal process will take four sessions and cost $3,000.
I am not anti-tattoos. I find them fascinating from an anthropological perspective. I was impressed recently by the skill of a barman’s Maori facial tattoos. At Coachella music festival in California, I met two US marines with remarkable tattoos. These young men had sculpted abs and zero body hair and were nice guys, which is an interesting thing to say about men who have killed on foreign soil.
On one marine’s back was the stars and stripes with five inkless silhouettes of soldiers – his fallen buddies. The other guy’s arm was a black horror book comic strip of a dystopian city haunted by demons – like the inside sleeve of Guns’n’Roses Appetite for Destruction LP, but without the misogyny.
In Las Vegas, I photographed young Americans sporting a range of grotesque, off-the-shelf tats and titled the project Las Vulgar.
I also love TV shows like Ink Master – where the tattoo artists refer to people as “canvasses” – and Get Your Tatts Out, about drunken British holidaymakers on the Greek island of Kavos making serious style choices, often on their bums or boobs, while inebriated.
In May, after accidentally stumbling into the Great British Tattoo Show in London, I met a man in his 50s whose body was a shrine to Nottingham Forest Football Club. The quality of the tattoos wasn’t great, but his commitment, and his wife’s tolerance, were admirable.
Another man attending the show told me he’d wanted to get tattooed for ten years but was still an ink virgin because he was afraid of making the wrong decision.
Here, among a sea of weirdly decorated people, I had found an island of calm reflection. This man loved tattoos but didn’t have one – the exact opposite of impulse tattooing.
I should have shaken him by his millennial head and shouted, “don’t ever do it!”
But it was a tattoo fair, so probably inappropriate.