The V&A wants to see your etchings

The museum of decorative arts is collecting them. Academics are studying them. It's the rise of the tattoo
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There's a man at the Victoria and Albert Museum who wants your body. If you've got a tattoo, that is. Simon Fraser, a course director at Central St Martin's School of Art, heads a project that seeks to document an unregarded art - the kind that can increasingly be found etched into British skin. And he's not just after people who have the Battle of Waterloo and the Wreck of the Hesperus inked all over their torsos. "I want girls from Essex," he declares, with zealous fervour. "If there's three of them, and they've all got a tattoo on their thigh because they're friends, I want them. I want people who have just a little butterfly. I want middle-aged men who got their tattoos done in Cyprus or Rio de Janeiro or the Far East. I want them all!"

Skin art has never been more popular. A new, scholarly book, Written on the Body, states that Western culture is experiencing a "tattoo renaissance". The pages of Hello! magazine certainly bear this theory out. David Beckham has baby Brooklyn's name tattooed on his back; Sporty Spice has "angel" carved on her midriff, and the Chinese characters for "woman" and "strength" (girl power, geddit?) on her right shoulder. Johnny Depp and Roseanne Barr have also spent time with needles stuck in them (for aesthetic reasons).

"We're living in a golden age of tattooing," Fraser says. "In the past there have been fashions for tattooing in different groups of society - like criminals or aristocrats - but nothing like this has happened before." Pick up a tattoo journal like Skin Deep, for instance, and you can read about people with bar-code tattoos that encrypt the name of a lover; about the film fan who had Alfred Hitchcock's face, the Bates motel and a few angry-looking ravens pricked into his back; and the man who has Popeye etched into his shaven groin so that he and the jolly spinach-loving cartoon sailor share a penis.

Fraser argues that the transformative possibility offered by the tattoo is one of its most powerful qualities. "You could be a nice, sensible girl during the day, and you could go out at night in your black rubber gear with tattoos all over your back and arms. And people would say 'That is one outrageous vixen'."

I know what he means. As a child, I imagined that a piece of paper which came free with a packet of bubble-gum would turn my arm into a multicoloured expanse of pirate ships and fleurs-de-lis - no matter how many times I ended up with a green smear which looked more like the work of a vindictive seagull.

The reason? The tattoo has the power to turn a nobody into a somebody. Take the case of Horace Ridler. He was born in Surrey in the 1890s, joined the Army as a young man, saw a bit of action in the trenches, and married a nice girl called Gladys. There was nothing very remarkable about him. Then, in 1922, he booked himself into a tattoo parlour. After five years of appointments, ordinary old Horace had become Omi, the Zebra Man - the most tattooed attraction in the world. He spent the rest of his life touring Europe and America, using lipstick and nail polish to enhance the effect, and signing his pitch cards "Barbaric Beauty". Just before he died in 1969, he told an interviewer: "Underneath it all, I'm just an ordinary man."

Jane Caplan, professor of European history at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, and editor of Written on the Body, is a bit of a lightweight in comparison with such figures. "I got mine partly because some friends said they wanted to watch me being tattooed. But there's a big difference between people like me who have small,discreet tattoos in a very demi-mondaine way, and those who reproduce the vigour of tribal tattooing in all its full-body glory."

Discretion is still an important factor. Despite its popularity among the Victorian aristocracy, tattooing has usually been regarded with unease. Prejudice against the practice comes from its association with three sources - seamen, criminals, and "primitive" societies. But this relationship with heathens, crooks and drunken sailors is also one of its attractions. As Caplan asserts, "Current tattooing is evoking the new tribalism."

But we shouldn't flatter ourselves that the adoption of Polynesian-inspired body art by twentysomething Londoners means that our attitudes to indigenous peoples are any healthier than those of our ancestors. In many ways, it's a sign of our triumph over such cultures: evidence that the process of colonisation is now complete. In the popular imagination, tribal people with full-body tattoos are more likely to be making charity records with Sting than pan-frying missionaries in their own juices.

The V&A's interest in the subject, however, indicates that some sort of official recognition of tattooing as an art form is on its way. Which raises an obvious question. Does this stuff meet the aesthetic standards required to qualify for inclusion in a national art collection?

Well, let's be honest, shall we? If they were transferred to paper or canvas, most tattoo images would be pretty miserable things. The nudie lady on a Harley-Davidson emblazoned on the biceps of your average hairy-arsed biker has as much claim to artistic greatness as those paintings of Donald Duck that you see on the side of ice-cream vans. "The visual repertoire of tattooing is fantastically promiscuous," argues Jane Caplan. "It can be the most kitschy stuff or something quite beautiful. But it's interesting that the V&A has chosen to incorporate tattoos in its collection because until a few years ago they would have been found only in museums of ethnography or police museums. It means that attitudes towards them are changing."

Any tattooed person who turns up at the V&A's Exhibition Road entrance on 29 April will be given free entry. Five photographers with digital cameras will be standing by to snap any decorated flesh that members of the public care to flash at them. Sean Coles of the V&A's prints and drawings department (dolphin on his left shoulder, little circular design on his right arm) insists that discretion is assured. "If it's in a place they'd rather not reveal, we'll take their word for it - but they will have to show it to the photographer..."

If the tattoo day is a success, the V&A may consider making a survey of a similar aspect of contemporary British body modification - piercing. "But the fashion for genital-piercing might make that a little more, er, difficult," says Coles. A quick glimpse of a tattooed ankle is one thing - a parade of blokes whopping their clinking genitalia on the table is quite another. But perhaps Coles, Fraser and their colleagues should take the bull by the horns. You might argue that they have a duty to their founder to explore this undocumented aspect of British life.

The Christmas tree and the trade exhibition weren't the only innovative additions made to British culture by Prince Albert. He was reputedly the proud owner of an impressive brass ring that went through his urethra. Go to a piercing shop and ask for a "Prince Albert" and they'll know exactly what you mean.

Would the V&A have the balls to take on this contemporary decorative art? Maybe... if David Beckham gets one done.

'Written on the Body' is published by Reaktion Books