Gone are the days of stereotyping tattoo-wearers. An inked anchor once meant the wearer had hopped straight from the seven seas; tribal patterns came hand-in-hand with a squaddie’s reputation and bulging biceps; St. George’s cross represented the skinhead in all his unabashed glory. Tattoos were undeniably a mark of social background, the lasting, unabashed (and sometimes offensive) symbol of a certain community, a certain demographic. No longer.
In 21st century Britain, tattoos are everywhere and on almost every body. Tattoo parlours have boomed over the past twenty years, springing up in corners of every city. The demand is justified. With a stigma against ink that is slowly and continually fading away, tattoos are being given their righteous place as a means of expressing, permanently, personal identity.
There are – and perhaps will always be – tattoos that people come to regret. Tattoos are – perhaps justifiably – worn by most in areas that are easy to cover, so the stigma has not totally vanished. But for the growing number seeking out their nearest parlour, inking offers the chance to articulate thoughts, memories and ideas of belonging that clothes and words do not.
The motives behind tattoos vary wildly, but are intrinsically linked to expressions of identity, whether brash or humble, colourful or dark.
Biographical journalism is a common theme. Story-book characters and fairytale sequences are individual efforts to recognise the childhood escapism and happiness that can be carried through adult life. Certain scenes, figures and iconic landmarks are used to represent moments and feelings from a special time, whilst for some, defining events are captured in the abstract. This reflective record has significant value. Inking the record onto the skin makes the past more than just a memory.
For others, tattoos are a connection to culture. Maori and Polynesian patterns visually resemble a tribal ancestry. Japanese artwork, hieroglyphs and Chinese lettering connect the wearer to an ideology. Some designs – from Lord of the Rings’ Elven scrolls to colourful Manga – are a flamboyant homage to past-times and creative endeavours.
In some cases, tattoos are used to express feelings of loss, grief and inner turmoil. Humble symbols, dates and short sentences humbly remember a lost one. Symbolic pictures – from dark skulls to dreamy skies, buddhas and flying birds – help the wearer detach, or perhaps more intimately acknowledge and move on, from intensely personal issues.
The scope is vast. Textured wonderfully by individual tastes, tattooing styles and the whole strata of human thought and feeling, tattoos are a phenomenon we can all learn from. A traditional practice now catalysed by modern demand and the growing excellence of its artists, tattooing has never been in a better place.
Tattoo UK is my ongoing photography and investigative journalism project. Primarily a social documentary, portrait-based body of photographic work, it seeks to explore the psychology behind wearing tattoos, and the place of tattoos in the modern world.
Follow me on dickensonbamptonben.wordpress.com and instagram.com/bendbampton for regular updates. If you’re a tattoo wearer and would like to be involved, please get in touch.