Shop Talk

Tattoos should never just be skin deep

Very recently a colleague of mine decided to have a tattoo. Nothing unusual in that, but whilst he showed it to people, what did occur to me was the fact that he didn’t seem to have much to say about the mark itself. What seemed to matter was the act of getting a tattoo done. It seemed odd that the relevance of the message itself wouldn’t be the reason for getting it done. It then got me thinking about what I would choose as a mark if ever I decided to permanently brand my body. Being a designer creates a different relationship with graphic symbols, illustration and typography. The choices on offer and laboured attention to detail would probably stifle any desire to get one. Sometimes I remain endlessly undecided about a particular shade of grey on a logo, think how indecisive I’d be over an unchangeable mark that I’d have to look at for the rest of my life. This is unless the core idea or message was so strong, the surface detail became secondary, think Guy Pearce’s character in Memento. He managed to look interesting and have a solid reason for doing it. This can apply to most design, cool stuff that’s vacuous, has limited longevity – hopefully this wasn’t my colleague’s motivation. I’m confident I’d never decide on one defining symbol that could stand the test of time. Maybe I’m over- thinking it, but then maybe my colleague was under-thinking it. The reasoning and subject matter should be the driving force, not the act itself. There’s an undeniable attraction to the definite commitment of a tattoo, I’m just not sure that trend and fashion hasn’t superseded this as a motivation for getting one. Is it another example of style over content?

Historically, there were many reasons for having them, but virtually none of them were arbitrary. They range from therapeutic (the treatment of arthritis), to ritualistic practice and the celebration of one’s dedication to cultural tradition. Ever since Captain Cook returned from his voyage to Polynesia, tattooing has become a tradition in the British Navy. Tattoos amongst gangs and criminals nearly always meant something specific. They all had universal messaging, with a strong desire for autonomy and identity. Conversely, nowadays, we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to be individuals, repeatedly expressing ourselves by being different in the choices we make. This has clearly contributed to tattoos making a definite comeback, all classes of people seek the best tattoo artists, raising their reputations to that of fine artists. But have they lost their meaning?

If there is a contemporary function to the tattoo, I think it is the desire to lay down a permanent, stable marker in a world of constant change. We are in a world of high speed consumption, taking in a constant stream of changing information. With access to so much content, we inevitably skim the surface of ninety per cent of it, not having the head space for much depth, at times making things feel somewhat meaningless. The opposite of this seems to be making a permanent mark or legacy that will stay with us until the bitter end, carrying underlying meaning and emotional depth. Doing this on a whim, as people seem to do is pure decoration, and seems a missed opportunity.

James Wakefield