One in five of the UK population has got ink. Today the inside of my right wrist comes under Pedro’s steady hand and my life as one of the four in five comes to an end. I’m joining the tattooed ranks of the twenty percent.
Why cross the line now, after 42 years, I ask myself, even as the leather curtains are held open and I cross the threshold from magazined waiting room to worn leather chair? The short answer is of course my son, but still and all why brand myself? Why now a mark of permanence on transient flesh unblemished over five decades by anything save an operation scar, long unwelcome years of acne, sundry surface wounds and a steady succession of shaving cuts? A reminder, a note to self? To stake a claim, make a label, write a legend?
I can honestly report that nothing short of the coming of the first born could ever have propelled me from pavement to parlour. Thankfully no ill starred old school tribute to Leo’s mother, lest I now be seeking redress by laser. Five solid stars evenly spaced along the inside length of the forearm – an enduring tribute to Liverpool Football Club’s glorious nights in Europe? Well, I came close. A nice idea, but forever to remain just that.
Pedro prepares the stencil as I recline, casting my eyes about the walls in the private air of the clients-only back room. I savour for a brief moment the faintest frisson of excitement – for proudly embellished though legions of us are, the whole carry on still spells anarchy and subversion to some small, buttoned up, conservative partition in my soul.
Stuff and nonsense, of course – it’s not as if one has to break a taboo to get a tattoo. What was once at best back-street DIY deviance now enjoys new found and hard earned respect as an art form – whether that’s a blessing or a curse for tatooist and tattooee depends on your point of view. In any case tattoos (and in some cases the flesh they embellish) can now be viewed in galleries and museums and even bought and sold on the collector’s market, and have long since transgressed any class or social boundaries – if indeed such confines ever existed.
The late 19th century saw the aristocracy bare considerable stretches of flesh to the needle. George V and Tsar-to-be Nicholas II were both inked on their travels in Japan; George simply following in the footsteps of his father Edward II, whose chest was adorned with a Jerusalem cross. We’d surely be disappointed to learn Prince Harry was tattoo-free, though it would appear the Prime Minister’s wife is not unadorned. Whether or not Churchill’s mother got ink is sadly not established; it seems it may after all the stuff of urban myth that the nation’s saviour’s old mum had a snake applied to wrist.
Today’s tattooed aristocracy largely kick a ball for a living and are probably worth more money. Premiership footballers now carry the flame, in some cases literally, and are now positioned as the prime canvasses for the cream of global tattoo talent, whether practitioners of neo-tribal or old school. So on a planet so heavily saturated with inked midfielders, an inch or two of pigment across my inner wrist seems barely a footnote.
As the single father of a child barely into the second month of his life perhaps this is, after all, mere gesture – no more than a note to self. Life as a dad thus far has been life in a bubble, just me and Leo and little or no scope for the joyous intimacy of sharing – those rights appear to be reserved for a fourth party. Without a partner I’m without an audience, without a sounding board, without someone to oooh with and aaah with. So the impulse to record is urgent, almost as if proof were needed. Just as I reach for the iPhone to snap him and snap me with him, just as I reach for the pen and the diary, so too I reach for the needle to score the event on the parchment of my own skin – look, this is happening – it’s real and here’s the record for posterity.
I can find no deeper impulse, no primal directive, as I observe the work unfold at a right angle to the translucent green lattice of veins visible just beneath my tautened skin. Looking on with the detached interest of a patient viewing his own operation under local anaesthetic, I’m almost disappointed to note the absence of pain, as if I’d hoped that my branding might be paid for with more than just the fold of notes wedged tight in the front pocket of my jeans.
I ride off, inscription tingling beneath its cling film wrap, my thanks ringing in their ears and their careful instructions for after-care ringing in mine. To the chemist then, for the Bepanthen that will conveniently sooth both inflammation of newly etched tissue and newborn bottom afflicted with nappy rash.
Clarity comes with metronomic pedalling back to base through summer evening tailbacks. Perhaps a primitive call has been answered here after all, writ neat in black ink. Sailors tattooed their journeys and stories, logging ports of call, documenting conquests and sweethearts just as any child might mark its own skin given a biro – show and tell.
I too came under the tip of the biro time and again, a biro held gingerly between thumb and forefinger of a lover. Those dedications doodled in bed became faded epitaphs in the next shower. But £50 has bought me an indelible affirmation – my body now a contract, signed for life.
And this newly acquired distinguishing feature, that will be here ’til I die, is a new and enduring story, a legend in three letters presented in Signerica font and bordered by two straight horizontal lines. In black ink, all I believe in, my heart and my life.
– Leo –