Making your mark: The world's most bizarre tattoos

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It used to be a sign of spirituality or a symbol of your clan. Now, the tattoo is just a way to make a statement. And the more unusual – or embarrassing – the better

On 11 December 1787, part of a French naval fleet led by Commodore Comte de la Perouse became stranded in shallow waters off the northern coast of Tutuila, in the South Pacific. The sailors had set off from Brest two years earlier, on a tempestuous voyage to Australia; as they reached the area now known as American Samoa, the sailors started to search for a piece of land on which to lay their flag.

But for many of the would-be colonists, the journey came to a fatal end. The sailors attempted to step ashore not far from where their marooned vessel had landed when a band of natives attacked, leaving many of the men dead on the beach. Those who survived later described their aggressors as a band of strange looking creatures, their skin adorned with elaborate geometric designs, giving the men the appearance of being clothed, though they were in fact.........  f naked. Some years earlier, Captain Cook noted similar markings adorning the skin of indigenous tribes of the Marquesas Islands. These instances were the first recorded sightings of the "tatu" – a Haitian term meaning "to mark" – and what was for the people of Polynesia an ancient practice with a deep cultural significance. The markings were said to represent a person's spiritual being, to indicate one's social status and herald an allegiance to a specific belief system.

While sailors returning from the South Pacific are said to have brought this Polynesian tradition back to Europe, there is evidence of body art in Britain as far back as the 6th century within ancient Celtic culture. Clansmen inscribed their skin with various knot-like symbols – using a blue plant extract known as woad – as a tribal emblem. In Africa and South America, too, tattoos have long been used as a badge of identity.

Today in Britain, tattoos remain a popular signifier of allegiance, taste and culture. In fact, they have never been more prevalent in our Western culture. We now have a number of genres to speak of, and each fulfils an important social function. Among the most popular is the "partner" tattoo. With these, a person permanently inscribes the name of their lover on to a (usually very visible) piece of their flesh. An indelible way of saying "I'm yours", the tattoo can also serve as a memento of happy times, to be cherished once the relationship has irreparably broken down. Then there are Asian symbols: Chinese, Japanese, Nepalese – it doesn't matter, as long as the tattoo (apparently) means "Om" or "Tiger" and it is done on a beach in Thailand – or in Camden Market. These scream "life-experience".

Finally, there are those belonging to the "other" category, like the ones exhibited on these pages. These include the "Swayzaur" – a tuxedo-wearing Patrick Swayze depicted as a Centaur – and the "I'm Gonna Kill You, Ray Romano" promise, not to mention a handless arm adorned with a tattooed fingernail, or a game of Pac-Man etched on to a man's posterior. All of these spectacular creations are part of a series showcased in a book which claims to examine "the greatest development of human artistic expression: the objectively awful tattoo".

'No Regrets: The Best, Worst & Most #$%*ing Ridiculous Tattoos Ever' by Aviva Yael & P M Chen is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy at the special price of £11.69, including postage and packing, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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