A marked man for life

THEODORE DALRYMPLE, a prison doctor, explains why tattoos say you're trouble

Most British criminals are tattooed. It is as if burglary and assault were infectious diseases transmitted by the tattooing needle. Employers fear men with tattoos; so do many employees. That is why the Government last week proposed that financial help should be given to those who want to have unsightly tattoos removed.

There are two main kinds of tattoos: the professional and the amateur. The former are elaborate, usually multicoloured and "artistic"; the latter are crude, monochromatic in India ink, and inexpertly performed. Apart from the surprising number of cannabis dealers who have bright green cannabis leaves professionally tattooed on their cheeks or hands, it is mainly the amateur tattoos on exposed parts of the skin that cause problems.

Last week, for example, in the course of my work as a prison doctor, I saw a man with "f--- off" tattooed on his hand in large letters; one with "f--- it"; and one with "FTW", which stands for f--- the world. All three men bitterly regretted their youthful stupidity in having had themselves thus maimed. They did it, they said, to be like everyone else.

I recall a man who had "f--- off" tattooed on his forehead in mirror writing. The message tended to wake him up in the mornings, he said, when he looked in the mirror.

Young graduates of our youth offenders' institutions tattoo a small blue spot on one of their cheeks, the equivalent of the old school tie: Old Borstalians recognise one another instantly. Unfortunately, just as confidence- tricksters are inclined to wear the ties of guards' regiments of which they were never members, so increasing numbers of youths are donning the blue spot without ever having been in custody. They merely wish to look as if they have.

The practical effects on the lives of those with India ink tattoos is not confined to difficulty in finding employment. A substantial number of people have a dotted line tattooed round their necks or wrists, bearing the inscription "cut here". On a number of occasions, people have been only too willing to oblige: one man had had his neck slashed twice with a Stanley knife (a much loved weapon).

Small men quite often have "no fear" tattooed on the sides of their neck. In a culture of inflamed egotism such as ours, in which many people are anxious to prove how bad they are, it is hardly surprising that this message is often seen as a challenge. One man told me that his skull had been fractured four times as a result of fights provoked by his tattoo.

Tattoos can also be used by men to woo women. We are all acquainted with the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on the knuckles of two hands: but a growing number of men have the letters "LTFC" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and "ESUK" on the other. These appear enigmatic until the two hands are joined together, to spell "lets f---". Men who are tattooed in this fashion approach a woman in a pub and put their hands together in front of her.

"Does it work?" I have asked several of them.

They all reply to the effect that it works often enough to have made it worthwhile. Further research is needed into the question of whether they're telling the truth or not.

Also frequently tattooed on the knuckles of the hand are little blue dots. These stand for the letters "ACAB" (which sometimes also appear on knuckles), which translates as "all coppers are bastards". This tattoo probably does not stand the bearer in very good stead down the station (neither does the tattoo of a policeman hanging from a lamp-post which I have seen on several occasions), but once in the clutches of the law he who has this common tattoo claims it means "always carry a Bible".

Swastikas are not uncommon, and though the grasp of history of those who bear them is rather shaky (they may not, for example, be able to give the dates of the Second World War), they understand that the swastika does represent in decent people's eyes everything that is evil and antisocial, and is therefore desirable in their own eyes.

Many a nipple and umbilicus is surrounded by the words "made in England", a message which is, alas, rendered all too redundant by the rest of the person's appearance and expression of concentrated malignity such as is found only infrequently elsewhere in the world. The Government's proposal is therefore a decent and civilised one. If only prevention were as easy as cure.

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