Harriet Walker: Tattoos are as exciting as the clothes sold by Next

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The Independent Online

Middle England is scared of tattoos. It thinks they speak of unparalleled 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 so people put the most silly things all over their bodies." And yesterday brought the report of a salesman at Next, who claims he was forced to wear make-up over the body art on his neck. When that didn't make David Bruce a sufficiently blank canvas, he 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 and tribalism has become one of the most boringly mainstream and sententious faux-alternative choices available, sported by footballers and glamour models, who find meaning in the swirls and curlicues of dodgy Sanskrit and fake Japanese symbols. 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 – before you ask, none of his designs is explicit – 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. You can all buy a T-shirt from them that bears the same irritating, naff and anodyne slogan but dare to deviate from the ill-fitting polyester party line, and you'll be put in the stocks[room].

Next has no interest in creativity or design – so much is obvious from the sort of toot you can buy there.

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? This rule, and the enforcement of it, screams of hideous middle England aspiration – pure Lady Muck-ism – and it's pathetically misplaced. But that's not all of it. When US chain Abercrombie & 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 are 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.

A rich legacy from a poet

The death of poet and pioneer Adrienne Rich this week is sad news not only for the literati, but for just about anyone with an interest in modern mores. Her political stance and championing of gay rights, her integrity, her eloquence in the face of overwhelming opposition and her toppling of prejudices all seem fantastically modern, even though she began her fight in the days before people really recognised many of the causes she stood for.

There are not many heroines like Rich left any more, much to our detriment, but her death on Tuesday should bring with it a re-appraisal of her work: from the brilliance of her poetry to the timelessness of her message, from defying the limitations of gender and protesting against the Vietnam war to refusing to accept an honour from Bill Clinton's government.

The celebration of Rich's legacy is even more vital at a time when certain liberties, from gay marriage to abortion, are under threat, not just in her native country, but on our turf, too.