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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

    Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

    £24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

    Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there