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Pretty in ink: getting under the skin of tattoos

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Cultural tradition, fashion trend, drunken mistake or form of a therapy - tattoos can have very different meanings. 

Tattoo artistThe trend for body art has been growing in popularity in the UK, although the practice is frowned upon or even taboo in some environments. Meaningful and decorative? Sinful and ridiculous?

No one is really sure how it all started but tattoos come from a rich cultural history; the oldest one ever found belongs to a 5300 year old iceman Oetzi. His tats were not very creative: a bunch of horizontal and vertical lines was all he got inked  with. In fact, rumour has it the tattoos were created as a form of acupuncture to relieve painful joints and not to express his deep inner feelings.

The popularity of tattoos, like every craze, has had its ups and downs but it is one of the very few trends that, for a long time and in many communities, has been a subject of taboo. They used to be the symbol of demonism, cannibalism and paganism, to be then associated with sailors, criminals and circus performers, back in the day when those characters were on the out reaches of society.

In many places they are still very controversial. I grew up in a rather conservative environment where tattoos used to automatically pigeon-hole a person as a gang member/drug dealer/devil’s next-of-kin (yes, the environment was quite religious too).

I could have gone with the flow and be prejudiced. Or be rebellious and get one. Neither side was convincing enough though. I was friends with guys with tats and although I thought some of them were actually quite cool, I never considered myself an ink person. Until a couple of months ago.

It wasn’t a spontaneous decision and I wasn’t a teen doing it just for the thrill; the idea had been growing in my head for a while. It was a painful 15 minutes but with each stab of the needle I felt more in control. I often do things because people expect me to.

This no one expected from me; more, I knew some would judge, but in a way it was liberating. This little act of independence gave me a lot of confidence in the time when I was lacking it and made me appreciate that I am a 100% responsible for everything I do.

Some family members were not impressed but there wasn’t much of a storm either. I guess the times are changing even in small conservative environments.

In the rest of the world, the cultural status of tattooing has evolved from that of an anti-social activity in the 1960s to that of a trendy fashion statement in the 1990s. The last decade has seen explosive growth of tattooing and it is said that the Generation Y is the first one to make tats mainstream.

To an extent it is caused by celebs proud of their tats who settle a cultural behaviour pattern. But I like to think there’s a bit more to it than just wanting to have Rihanna’s stars.

Ironically, in the time when we have more means of self expression than ever, we are running out of unique ways to bring the personal out to the public eye, and the pigments of imagination become a statement.

Tramp stamps. Sweet 16/18 mistakes. A proof of love. Or hate. Art. Even fingerstache, which to my surprise is a thing.

Yes, for some it will forever only be a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling but for many others a tattoo can mean much more: a boost of confidence, a piece of art, a symbol, a bookmark of a chapter in their life. And that’s what makes tattoos so great: essentially, everyone makes it what they want it to be.

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