Harriet Walker: Nothing to fear from tattoos

Middle England is scared of tattoos. It thinks they speak of deviancy, murky criminal subcultures and broken Britain. A barcode, if you will, to sort out the wrong 'uns.

Dame Vivienne Westwood had a pop at the inked classes this week. "I hate them because we have no culture," she said, "and people put the most silly things all over their bodies." And yesterday brought a report of a salesman at high street store Next, who claims he was forced to wear make-up over the body art on his neck and, when that didn't make him a sufficiently blank canvas, was rusticated to the stockroom.

If the Queen of Punk is off tattoos then you know they've lost their meaning. What was once a mode of rebellion has become one of the most boringly mainstream and sententious faux-alternative choices available, sported by footballers and glamour models. I once very nearly got a tattoo; I regularly thank the people who stopped me. Westwood is quite right to say they're silly.

But, like them or loathe them, tattoos are not a social ill. They are not a moral problem. So to single out a tattooed employee is embarrassingly narrow-minded and retrograde.

Which is, of course, exactly what Next is anyway. The company has declined to comment, but the message is clear: this most bland and boring of shops caters to the most bland and boring of people. But can its customers really be so parochial as to be offended by the sight of a tattoo? Next should give them the benefit of the doubt at least; would they also turn away clients with tattoos? And just who do the management of this company think they're selling their clothes to?

But that's not all of it. When US chain Abercrombie and Fitch transferred student Riam Dean, a girl with a prosthetic arm, to their backroom, she successfully sued them for £9,000. It is hard to imagine any store asking an employee to cover up or work behind the scenes if they were black, say, or had ginger hair or wore very thick glasses.

Tattoos are no longer subcultural, they're a fact of life. If you don't like them, don't have one. That doesn't mean I don't condone giggling at some of the more ridiculously earnest ones. But moral fervour? Please. Being outraged by tattoos nowadays is provincial in the extreme.