Grace Dent on TV: My Tattoo Addiction, Channel 4
Roll up, roll up! See the tattooed man with no job and £71 a week to support his whole family
A new gong at the National TV Awards should be created for Light Entertainment Show Most Likely to Turn the Viewer Into a Roaring Judgemental Heap. C4's What Happens in Kavos would be a strong contender for 2013 – teenagers in neck braces projectile-vomiting up chlamydia antibiotics – same too for C4's Dogging Tales where a lorry driver in a novelty owl mask prowled picnic areas searching for emotionally broken women, wearing bleak mock-nylon lingerie. I bellowed a lot of sanctimonious backchat at the television during these shows, feeling momentarily and comparatively like a really strong, noble example of a human being. Because, after all, it's not hard to be “better” than “owl-mask Scratchwood Services wanking man” or a Kavos bartender drinking a glass of urine as punishment from chums for sleeping with the same woman three times. Monogamy is banned in Kavos. It wasn't even his own urine.
And it's not hard to feel like a more evolved human being than Paul, an unemployed father of six who began two years ago to colour his entire face in with permanent meaningless daub, on this week's My Tattoo Addiction. There was no general theme underpinning Paul's tattoo work other than “no bare patches of skin, thank you” and an unconscious aim to look like a cheap alien off a late 1970s Dr Who episode if the make-up department was low on budget and down to felt tips. Or one of those Olympic closing ceremony steam punks who nobody enjoyed.
Brilliantly, up until two years ago Paul had no interest in tattoos; in fact, I have lipstick in my make-up bag I'm more committed to as a facial enhancement than Paul is to his tattoos, but this hasn't stopped him disfiguring his face, rendering himself unemployable and left supporting his entire family on £71 a week. Some judgemental, unprofessional wench down at the Jobcentre dared to point this out to him but Paul swiftly identified this as prejudicial. How dare employers say that Paul – who from five metres away resembles a bespectacled bruise – might frighten the customers.
If I too sound judgemental then perhaps that's because I'm so judgemental about Paul that by the first advertisement break of My Tattoo Addiction I'd changed out of my nightie, into a wig and black damask gown and was using the remote control as a gavel. Whenever Paul feels a bit blue about his terrible and not-at-all self-inflicted misfortune, his wife, kids and OAP mother club their savings so he can have more of his face coloured in. Paul was bullied at school, he says, but his tattoos make him feel much better.
It doesn't take a trained psychologist to suggest that Paul was using facial disfigurement both to gain attention and to hide his previous self, which was backfiring spectacularly. Paul was literally addicted to tattoos, he saw the bursts of joy he gleaned from colouring in his body as the answer to his existential angst, but didn't seem to grasp he only had a finite amount of skin.
“I have an addictive personality,” Paul says. “Clearly not addicted to the concept of going to work or birth control,” I shouted at the television. But that's the beauty of these shows, they bring out the heinous, interfering busybody in even the saintliest souls. My Tattoo Addiction also visited a tattoo parlour in Magaluf that, each evening, plasters the arms, arses, necks and genitals of visibly inebriated teenagers with awful artwork. One girl elected to have a “Where's Wally” symbol put behind her ear.
“Imagine?!” she tempted us, “I can say to people, 'where's Wally?', and it will be here BEHIND MY EAR!” The documentary crew found her the next morning suffering the type of hangover where shooting oneself with a whale harpoon gun to stop the pain would be preferable, and now sporting a black-and-red striped splodge, not behind her ear, but on her neck. It was the least gratifying game of Where's Wally ever.
“I don't think my employer really likes tattoos,” she muttered. Maybe she could live with poor misunderstood Paul and his six kids, and the lad we met who loved Eminem so much he'd had “SLIM SHADY” tattooed on his right and left arms, without remembering he was left handed so his natural arms-folded pose spelled out the nonsensical phrase “SHADY SLIM”.
This is Britain and these are the really stupid people that make us Great, this documentary seemed to be saying, in a very roundabout sense. But all I could hear was the ubiquitous Joan Collins in her book The World According to Joan. “My grandmother,” she said, “paid to take my mother to the circus to see the fat lady and the tattooed man, but now you can see them for free whether you want to or not – they're all over the place”. They're mostly on Channel 4.
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