Tattoos - under their skin

They used to be worn by sailors, rebels – and criminals. Now, they've become a middle-class must-have, says John Walsh
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The Independent Online

Helen Mirren's had one for years. Daniel Craig has a Peruvian condor on his right shoulder. Samantha Cameron's got a dolphin just below her shapely ankle. Jude Law has a circle of ants on his inside right arm. Anna Kournikova's got a lovely sun symbol on her back, just above the knicker line (though she told the press it was "a heat patch"). Felicity Kendal, aged 64, recently upset a Spectator writer when she announced she'd had a moon and two feathers emblazoned on her leg (he hinted darkly that this indicated "a desire to hold desperately on to youth").

Tattoos. They're everywhere. Hardly a day goes by without someone in the public eye proudly revealing the Hindu love chant inscribed on their upper thigh or a Masonic symbol circling their navel. The coolest model around, Freja Beha Erichsen sports 15 tattoos on her lissom six-foot frame. Last week Daniel Radcliffe voiced his relief that, now he's finished filming Harry Potter, he can go out and get tattoos all over his body. Last month Jennifer Aniston, America's perennial girl-next-door (now 42) had the name of her deceased Welsh corgi-terrier, Norman, scratched on to her right foot.

At civilian level too, we could be forgiven for wondering what's going on. Why have both my lawyer friend Dan's two sons (18 and 20) suddenly gone in for those spikily tribal tattoos you associate with Mike Tyson? How come the bloke in the bank has a purple gecko crawling under his Tissot wristwatch?

"Tattooing is definitely getting more middle-class," says Sion Smith, editor of Skin Deep, Britain's best-selling tattoo magazine, which sells 20,000 in the UK and 46,000 internationally every month. "Yes, it's mostly bought by people who drive forklift trucks and say, 'Hey look at my tattoo.' But the most interesting letters we get are from surgeons who say, 'I've been living for five years with this huge tattoo on my back and no one knows, I'd like to show it to you.' As for the full-arm tattoos, we get pictures coming in on headed paper from bank officials – they're the kind of people who are getting them done now."

The shift in the cultural apprehension of tattoos is a relatively recent phenomenon. Tattoos have been dubbed "chav stamps" with those worn by ladies called "slag-tags" by censorious folk. It's as though the simple act of having a mark on your skin makes you a vulgarian. When Robbie Williams and David Beckham began to acquire multiple inkings in the 1990s, you could hear middle-class mutterings of "Breeding will out".

Footballers, cricketers, singers, actors and television stars all started to adopt biker-chic illustrations on their flesh. It didn't make tattoos seem classy; but it made them seem cool. When Amy Winehouse appeared with new tattoos, the trashy girls splashed on her arms were the quintessence of British proletarian sauciness.Vogue published an article in 2008 suggesting that tattoos were becoming ubiquitous and unstoppable among the posher classes. And when in 2010 the Prime Minister's wife started showing off her epidermal porpoise, it became hard to convince the world that tattoos are still the province of criminals, sailors and white van drivers. The history of the tattoo is more complex and polycultural than you'd think, however. From Siberia to Italy, from Egypt to Japan, as much as 5,000 years ago, mummified corpses have been found with dots, dashes and geometric patterns inked on their skin. It's generally held that the Polynesians perfected the most complex and accomplished tattoos of the ancient world. The word tattoo comes from Tahiti and entered the English language in the captain's log on Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour. So many sailors returned to England bearing tattoos, so many explorers came home with Polynesian tribesmen, to exhibit them at fairs as "painted savages", that a vogue for self-inked adornment began. By the 1860s, most British ports could boast at least one professional tattooist. It was a vogue to which even royalty became attracted. In 1862, the Prince of Wales, later to ascend the throne as Edward VII, extended his brawny arm and had a Jerusalem Cross tattoed on it. Soon everyone was showing off their tats.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have had an anchor tattooed on his arm, and his mother a snake tattoo around her wrist; but for most of the 20th century, the tattoo was mostly the mark of lowlifes, matelots, circus folk, prisoners anxious to assert their identity, and gangsters avid to announce their loyalty.

"There's two types of tattooed people," says Smith. "The people who've got one small one, and that's enough for them, and the other people, those of us who think, 'I like this, I'll build on it,' and become serious collectors." Aficionados will get the chance to be inked by the stars when Tattoo Jam 2011 opens its doors tomorrow. From Friday to Sunday, 300 internationally renowned tattoo artistes will bring their inks, brushes, buzzing needles and blood-stanchers to set up for business at Doncaster Racetrack. Tattoo parlours used to be dingy, badly-lit establishments. Now they're much more up-scale. "There've been TV shows in America called LA Ink and Miami Ink which showed tattooing in very posh studios," says Smith. "Once the public saw they were nice, friendly places, they felt that getting a tattoo was suddenly a possibility."

Everyone will tell you how ill-advised it is to have your beloved's name inscribed on your body. Jude Law must regret the time and pain he spent having "You came along to turn on everything, Sexy Sadie" tattooed on his left arm. But otherwise, the only thing for the newly tattoo-bound to avoid is being a cheapskate. If you're going to do it, do it properly.

"Put it this way," says Smith. "If you've got a tiny horseshoe the size of a 50p piece on your ankle, then people may label you, unfairly, as cheap. But if you have a back piece done, which has taken someone days and cost you hundreds or thousands of pounds, people will be awestruck. They'll say, 'I think I'll get one of them, because it's a perfectly formed piece of art.'" Indeed. Go for it, chaps. Don't think – get some ink.