The art of the social outcast

Now on her second tattoo, argues for body art as a form of expression


Now on her second tattoo, Sian Turner argues for body art as a form of expression

The waiting room is silent. Opposite me, the only other occupant of the room looks over and smiles. “Is this your first?” he asks. “No,” I reply proudly, “my second.” The man opposite me is knocking sixty and getting the next stage of a large design extended across his upper back and shoulder.

I got my first tattoo, an Arabic inscription across my stomach – in typical teenage style, the day after my 18th birthday. Today, I am getting my second on the inside of my left arm, already formulating the design for a third. But what is it that makes me pay out £60-£100 a time to decorate my body in quite a painful way associated with punks and rebels? Tattooing as a form of body modification and art (however you view it) dates back 4000 years, with famous individuals to succumb to the lure of the ink including George IV, who was tattooed in Jerusalem in 1862, and encouraged his sons (including the future George V) to follow suit.

The more recent history of tattooing has been dogged by social taboo, especially during the last century. Considered the domain of social outcasts and as a form of bodily desecration associated with prisoners, criminals and counterculture, the tattoo industry was often forced underground. Instead of being considered art, the practise was actually made illegal in mid-century New York. Today, however, tattoos have become more popular than ever, and what was once the shady domain of the outcast has become far more mainstream and socially accepted. Techniques and hygiene are vastly improved, and tattooists are viewed as craftsmen worthy of their own niche in the artistic community. This revival can be traced to the cult of celebrity, with stars like Angelina Jolie and David Beckham making it fashionable for people to adorn themselves with what was once considered a cheap and hideous form of bodily graffiti.

Despite this shift in public perception of tattooed individuals, tattoos still fascinate me, and the way in which people act when they discover your decoration. Early in my first term at university, I was discussing the subject with a fellow tattooed housemate when a friend piped up that he couldn’t understand what we saw in them. On my return home with my new design freshly inked yesterday, I asked him again what he thought. “I can see why people get it, as a form of decoration, but I wonder whether it’s worth the money and the pain. There are other ways of making yourself beautiful, so I don’t see why this way is necessary.”

My friend’s words sum up what seems to still be a prevalent view amongst the non-inked. There is still an air of mystery and intrigue as to why individuals like myself feel it necessary to adorn the body in way culturally descended from and often still associated with society’s outsiders.

The use of tattoos as a form of gang identification has been employed for years – members of the infamously violent Filipino B N G (Bahala Na Gang – translated as “Come what may”) gang have question marks tattooed on their bodies, and it is common practice for Californian street gangs to have tattoos of their area code. As well as a form of identification, these tattoos are highly symbolic of a dedication and commitment to certain people, be they gang members or best friends from school. The lifelong nature of tattoos illustrates your connection with and feelings towards the individuals they relate to.

As a tattoo snob. I believe all tattoos have to in some way ‘mean something.’ My first, the Arabic inscription, is a personal mantra written by a close friend. My latest consists of three stars, each a different design, symbolising the different characters of myself and my two sisters. Although the aesthetic appeal of my tattoos is, of course, important, what they represent is of far greater significance to me.
The lifelong nature of tattoos is the aspect most questioned by those who don’t have them. The idea of a lifetime commitment is daunting, and the fear of a change of heart or attitude towards a design often puts people off. “Yeah, when I’m old and flabby, I probably won’t really like mine very much,” my friend Annabelle claims, “but it’ll have aged with me, as my friends’ will have done too, and it will still remind me of them, and that’s what matters. It’s the association rather than the image itself.” She is flexible in her attitude. “Until I had mine done, I always subscribed to the view that they had to mean something, hence mine. But now I realise there are two different types of tattoos. One, you get not because you want something to show off, but because it means something, and the other is a tattoo as an art form.”

Tattooing for merely decorative purposes, although hardly a new phenomenon, has gained credibility and popularity, with a surge in tattoos in recent decades. The plethora of butterflies adorning women’s hips proves tattoos can be simply an attractive ornamentation. First year student Claire Kirby described how she feels these are the safest option when getting a tattoo. “I got mine done for my 18th birthday. I wasn’t too sure what I wanted, just that I wanted to get something done, so I looked at some design books and described the kind of thing I wanted. I don’t believe tattoos have to mean something, and sometimes in the long run it’s better for it not to have a really significant meaning. Feelings can change so easily, but with a design that you just like, you can simply enjoy it forever and it it’ll never get old.”
I realised that beyond the emblematic and decorative functions of tattooing, there is another, social function. What started as a brief chat about body art between friends soon became an afternoon’s discussion, as we wiled away two hours and alienated all our other housemates from the room. I realised that in getting tattooed, you join a community of people, that by inking your skin, the marks act as a social signifier that you are part of a group who have all also taken that step into alternative adornment. And it is the alternative nature of tatoos which truly seduces.

Whatever pretty little stars Sienna Miller gets inked onto her perfectly curved shoulder blades, the legacy of tattooing will always remain in the ‘alternative art’ category, connoting social rebellion, deviance and outlaw. In getting a tattoo, one shares in this legacy and feels part of a defiant, highly individual and expressionistic culture that few of us ever partake of otherwise. It’s the novelty and thrill of self-expression through such a medium that holds such an appeal for us.

And so, sitting in the waiting room of Ruby Arts at the top of a Micklegate studio, politely conversing with a tattooed pensioner, I feel thoroughly out of place yet utterly thrilled with my new adornment. We should all experiment with this intriguing art sometime.


  1. Wow, didn’t know BNG was that well known. Great article.

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  2. 30 May ’08 at 5:17 pm

    The Historical Fact Checking Fairy

    Given that George IV had been dead for over thirty years in 1862, are we to assume that he was exhumed, and taken to Jerusalem specifically to be tattooed?
    Additionally, for George V to have been George IV’s son would have required some impressive nineteenth century sperm-preserving techniques, given that the former was born in 1865, the latter having died in 1830.
    These revelations would probably have come as a fairly unpleasant surprise to his hitherto supposed father, Edward VII.
    No historical fairy cakes for you.

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  3. “As a tattoo snob. I believe all tattoos have to in some way ‘mean something.’”

    Of course they mean something, it’s “HEY! LOOK AT ME!!!”

    It’s all about phony edginess masking self-esteem insecurities leading one, with few to no exceptions, to the most insidious forms of attention whoredom. In a post-modern world where almost everything that is everything has been accomplished, people scurry about trying to get through the game without being insignificant; indeed, insignificant is the NEW significance.

    Plus, the whole “body art” (lol) gang are the biggest load of undeserving self-backpatters on the planet! Imagine the canvas-maker claiming high-levels of artistic grandeur based on the efforts of Pollock, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Mondrian, Miro, Picasso, Whistler, Rubens, or Basquiat; if not completely ignored, they’d be greeted with howls of derisive laughter! [Sidebar: that’s 10 universally renowned artists off the top of my head, and I’m not even an arts expert; I defy ANYONE to come up with 10, no 5, no ONE tattoo artist of similar note! I rest my case.]

    Finally, there’s nothing that SCREAMS conformist lemming more than a self-proclaimed non-conformist. When you have people of all walks, from the most powerful corporate moguls on Wall Street to lowest ghetto/trailer park plebe, sporting ink; I think the edginess card flew out of the window long time ago.


    Those who aspire to the above are the real non-conformist as everyone is content to be the benefit reapers instead of the benefit makers.

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