New Tattoo

Roll up, roll up, see the tattooed lady

We were mingling with herds of people last week at Suncorp Stadium (the Broncos won). On the train getting there, I espied an attractive woman in her late 20s, wearing a backless, strapless dress held up by natural means alone. While I was admiring the healthy tone of her skin, the fine down at the nape of the neck etc, she half turned to reveal what in rugby league terms is known as a “sleeve”.
The league boys go in big time for the sleeve – an assortment of tattoos which usually run from the cap of the shoulder to the wrist and rarely if ever leave any skin unadorned in between.
My observational skills and memory let me down now as I can’t recall what she had tattooed on her arm, but it was a new tattoo, very ornate and colourful. As she and the assumed boyfriend exited the train, he gently placed a helpful hand in the small of her back to ensure she alighted safely. This is not the first time I’ve seen beautiful young women, their arms, legs, or exposed areas of their backs thusly adorned so I wasn’t too shocked. Part of the shock factor is that living where we live, women in their late 20s wearing strapless backless gowns walking down the main street are a bit under-represented.
Getting new tattoos is nothing new.
Young people today probably think getting a new tattoo is something new and daring. The earliest known tattoos were worn somewhere between 7,000 and 5,000 BC, as a symbol of group membership or a rite of passage, according to To the Maori and other Polynesian groups, Ta Moko (facial tattoos), were like a history of your achievements, representing status in the tribe. The Australian Museum says it was a huge honour for men and women to have Ta Moko. Tattoos were applied to the face and buttocks of men, and to the chin, lips and shoulders of women. In the 19th century and earlier, Ta Moko was chiselled in using an albatross bone, with gum and dye from vegetation rendered to soot and mixed with oil.
Newly-inked young people might not know there was a time during the 1930s when men and women, desperate to feed their families, offered up their bodies to the tattooist and then went on the road with a travelling circus or carnival. Folks used to pay good money for a freak show.
If it wasn’t a bearded lady, a man with boobs, or a woman with a beard, it would be a sword-swallowing midget or the aforementioned tattooed lady. The latter called for all-over tatts so women (or men) could pose virtually naked, while punters could spend as long as they’d paid for to study the artwork up close.
I know these things, not only because of Dr Google, but because I’m old enough to remember the half-man/half-woman freak shows that existed at travelling carnivals.
Groucho Marx sang about “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in the 1939 Marx Brothers film “At the Circus”, which is just about as tawdry as one might imagine. The original version has made its way on to YouTube, because of the notoriety when it was used as a ringtone for a character’s cell phone in the finale of Breaking Bad.
In the first part of the 20th century, people sometimes used tattoos to launch a new career. The Committee for Skeptical Enquiry (CSI) gives the example of Horace Ridler, a British ex-army officer who was down on his luck and in the late 1920s opted to become a circus star. He had himself tattooed all over with zebra-like stripes (the process took a year). The circus story was that he was forcibly tattooed by New Guinea savages.
Tattoos were a class taboo at the turn of the 20th century. Some middle to upper class ladies indulged in small butterflies or flowers but never showed them outside the house. In that era, women with visible tatts were considered to be “loose”, although why the same distinction did not apply to men is something Germane Greer could talk about for hours.
No regrets?
In 2015, it is hip and cool (and expensive) to get inked. Many musicians, sound guys and roadies I know have tattoos of one kind or another. They tend to be more than vague about why they did it and hell would freeze over before the word “regret” ever passed their lips. No such mystery why rugby league players go in for tatts – it’s a team thing – a bloke thing.
Our son has a couple of discreet tatts. When his mother first heard of this she asked: “Where did you get the tattoo?”
“Thailand,” he replied.
“No, I mean where on your body!”
My late uncle was in the merchant navy as a young man and had expansive tattoos on his chest and back. I can’t accurately recall, but I think one was of a sailing ship and the other a women or a garland of roses. (Sorry if I got this wrong – it was 60+ years ago and my cousin doesn’t do email.)What I do remember is Uncle telling my Dad that every day as he stood at the bathroom mirror shaving, he regretted having it done.
The permanency of tattoos is something the younger generation seem to treat in a cavalier fashion. Oh you can always get them burned off with lasers, they’ll say. Maybe. Typically it can take five to 10 sessions costing around $100 a time to remove just one tattoo.
We know of Holocaust survivors who still wore their ID numbers (tattooed on their arms by the Nazis), as a demonstration of resilience. This is all the more powerful an act when you realise that Judaism forbids tattoos, as per Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.”
One place you’ll see plenty of ink is if you serve any time at all or go visiting in one of Australia’s jails. Getting inked is something a lot of inmates do, to stave off boredom, to become one of the boys, to identify themselves as part of an inner group. Typically, jail tattoos are home-made, using the ink from a biro and a safety pin or needle. Sources tell me infections are common, so too is Hep C, which you sometimes get from sharing needles.
In my police and court reporting days I knew a very tall, very gruff Senior Sergeant. One time he gave me a “Have you seen this man?” bulletin which described tattoos on the suspect’s hands, or to be more precise, between each finger. Sarge confessed he’d made a point of studying felons’ tattoos, under the guise of admiring them, but in reality tucking them away in the part of his long-term memory reserved for “grubs”.
These days he’d just whip out his smart phone and take a happy snap. “L.O.V.E and H.A.T.E?” Gotcha!

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John Wightman
John Wightman
April 17, 2015 7:35 am

Oh dear – nothing to argue about – a) I do not mind other people being walking art galleries – but I hope it does not become compulsory. b) What happens if the tatooist makes a spelling mistake. Just imagine having ‘Laurul I love you’ running down your arm or ‘Waltrude yuo are my Wirlds’ flexing with your biceps everytime you scratch your ear.