Harriet Walker: To tattoo, or not to tattoo?

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British summertime, and the great unveiling of flesh begins. Some of us have bits we'd prefer the sun never shone on – hairy legs and backs, a tendency to paunchiness perhaps – where others are happy for the world and his wife to plunder the innermost recesses of their troubled psyches. We walk down the street reading their life stories on their forearms, shoulder blades and lower backs.

I speak, of course, of the rogues' gallery of tattoos that emerge when their owners shed their clothes around this time of year. From inscrutable foreign characters and epigrams to swallows and dainty little fairies, here is the modern Book of Kells, a Bayeux tapestry of break-ups, small victories and drunken nights out.

Pictures emerged this week of Kylie Minogue sporting a tattoo sleeve (that's a full arm of them, for the uninitiated) painted on for her new film. After her glitzy appearance at Glastonbury over the weekend, her grungier look came as a shock to the tabloids. It's no surprise that the conservative press don't like tattoos (Untrustworthy! Common! Football hooligan!), but when I found myself quietly thankful that our Kylie would be able to wash it all off at the end of the day, it struck me that body art means a bit more than many of those who opt for it may realise. I don't doubt the validity of a tattoo – they're born of the same instinct that leads us to gossip, brag and, latterly, to tweet. I might sound a bit Californian here, but it's good to share; it's what separates us from the psychopaths. But where there's a healthy amount of self-expression involved in writing, say, a diary entry or an email to your best friend, you wouldn't necessarily want to staple its contents to your forehead.

A while back, I booked myself in to have one, to the horror of most of the people I knew. People, I should add, with finely honed aesthetic sensibilities and fairly well-maintained, finely tuned bullshit detectors. Still I was adamant, after a period of heartbreak, that I wanted to mark my emergence from the gloom by having the word "Satis" carved into my arm. It's Latin for "enough". I know, I know – why didn't I just go and listen to some sad music instead? I already had, and I still didn't feel validated. I was too embarrassed to tell my more acerbic friends at the time, so why I thought it was a good idea I'll never know.

But I'm not the only one to have felt that a tattoo was the way to inner peace; several friends have done it, others have certainly thought about it. The impulse always comes after some period of adversity, some emotional trauma overcome, some sense of a turning point in one's life. By all means, these occasions should be marked – with drinks, tears and pats on the back, with things that don't outstay their welcome. And with no more pain than the average hangover.

Otherwise what are you doing but prolonging the hurt in perpetuity? People don't forget the shaping influences in their lives: we don't need pictorial Post-its flagging them up for us.

A friend of mine had her mother's initials inked onto her wrist after she died, another had one done when his son was born. This proves the rule with tattoos: you have to be sure it's something you really want to remember. Otherwise you risk ending up like Johnny Depp, who had "Winona Forever" altered to "Wino Forever" when Ms Ryder exited the stage. A statement indeed.

When it comes to an everyday sense of permanence, we're all teenagers, really. Every hardship seems the biggest, the most important, the one that will change us forever. But when the really big things happen, they'll knock your fairy or your swallow into a cocked hat.

I never did get my tattoo in the end and I'm indelibly glad. Tattoos, it seems to me, are the sign of a mind on the mend, not a person transformed. I missed my appointment because I ended up meeting the next stage of my life over lunch and lost track of time. And that's when I really moved on.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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