Ink It Like Beckham, or Do You Tattoo?

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Lydia, oh Lydia,
Say, have you met Lydia?
Oh, Lydia, the tattooed lady?
-E. Y. Harburg

Mr. Beckham in an ad for H&M
Mr. Beckham in an ad for H&M

News Flash: Kelly Osbourne has tweeted that, three years after declaring she regrets some of her 15 tattoos, she’s having them removed.

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Nevertheless, there’s no question that tattoos qualify as fashion. There’s also no question that at the moment tattoos are fashionable in the States-all the rage, as the old saying has it. Look at the clothing-related terms used in describing tattoos-“sleeves,” “body suits.” Look at the statistics. According to a July 2012 Pew Research Center study, tattoo spending for the year just ending was $1.63 billion. Not chicken feed. The total of Americans with at least one tattoo was 14 percent, or 45 million. Americans 18-25 with tattoos was 36 percent-or slightly above one-third. Tattooed Americans 26-40 was 45 percent-or nearly half.

According to the study, there were 21,000 tattoo parlors in the States. The percentage of people with tattoos claiming to be addicted to ink was 32 percent. Those who think their tats make them feel rebellious were 29 percent. Those who think their tats make them feel sexy were 31 percent.

Mid-20th century, the numbers were far fewer, don’t ya know? You saw someone on the street with a tattoo and immediately assumed he-it was almost always a he-had to be a sailor. (But not a naval officer.) And the tattoos generally were one of three or sometimes all three-a mermaid, “Mom” (maybe within a heart”) and/or an anchor. Always remember that Popeye the sailor man was the anchor-variety enlisted man.

Writing about the stateside evolution of tattooing on Prezi in 2011, Mike Loggie noted that by the late ’50s and ’60s “the criminal element, mostly outlaw bikers and the mentally ill,” went for tattoos and that shortly thereafter “prison tats” became popular. He writes that tattoos in that population “indicated to some people that you were a tough, ignorant, convicted felon.”

Robert Mitchum - Night of the HunterCertainly, that would have applied to the “love” and “hate” Robert Mitchum’s character had emblazoned across the knuckles of his hands in The Night of the Hunter in 1955. It might not have applied to the rose tattoo Alvaro Mangiacavallo has in Tennessee Williams’s 1951 play, The Rose Tattoo, that’s so fetching to the heroine, Serafina Delle Rose.

But nowadays? As the above statistics verify, tattoos are ultra-ubiquitous. Hyper-ubiquitous. On a walk I took today, I saw a man with a tattoo on the back of his left hand that looked like something an Indian bride might flash, only in henna. On any walk around New York City, you see tattoos covering arms, adorning legs, crawling up necks, on the backs of hands or decorating faces. (Mike Tyson is only one instance of this sort of face work.)

(Sports question: Is the time coming when in order to play in the NBA or the NFL, players will be required to have tattoos? Second sports question: How soon will David Beckham complete his full body tattoo?)

You see tattoos in lush floral designs. As florid geometric designs, you see them often on shoulders. (In homage to Nolan Miller’s Dynasty ensembles?) And speaking of knuckles, as we recently were, chef John Daley of Manhattan’s New York Sushi Ko, has the words “rice” and “fish” tattooed on his in Japanese ideograms.

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It may be that Jews are increasingly beginning to be tattooed. For many years, they avoided it-not within concentration camps during the Holocaust, of course-under the belief that tattooed Jews couldn’t be buried in reputable cemeteries. But there’s no truth to the contention. For a 2008 New York Times article, Kate Torgovnick interviewed eight rabbinical scholars who concurred that it’s an urban myth. In the same article, filmmaker Andy Abrams reported interviewing Jews for his Tattoo Jew documentary. He said that of the many tattoos, religious references like Jewish stars often showed up.

Curiously, you see tattoos on actors-more on stage than film, where they can be, uh, masked by expert make-up artists. You see them, even when the actors portray characters from periods where tattoos weren’t in fashion-or if they were in fashion, then the tattoos aren’t representative of the time in which the play is set. More curiously, producers, directors and casting directors don’t seem to object. Maybe they have no choice.

Groucho and Lydia
Lydia, the tattooed lady,
and her friend Groucho

It’s probable that tattoos fascinate me because I’m not a person who makes commitments easily. The thought of acquiring a tattoo immediately turns into a concern that the rose tattoo I get today will not be the image I prefer tomorrow. Or, if it still is, I’ve had it appliqued in the wrong place. Or both. And there’s a worse fear: the beloved’s name I have inked on Tuesday may not be the name I want etched on Wednesday.

Imagine if Romeo-who’s convinced he adored Rosaline at the outset of William Shakespeare’s tragedy-had had “I heart Rosaline” planted on his biceps the morning before he met Juliet. Imagine if Juliet had spotted the tattoo and wondered just how faithful the seemingly fickle Romeo would remain, decided not to chance it and took a romantic Pasadena. No star-cross’d tragedy as we know it would have followed.

(But wait! Did William Shakespeare have a tattoo? In the painting of him at London’s National Portrait Gallery, he does have a pierced ear. Incidentally, appropriating Shakespeare quotes for tattoos are evidently very much in vogue, but maybe don’t quite run to a paraphrase such as “Tattoo or Not Tattoo?-That is the Question.”)

The 2012 Pew Research Center findings say that the number of people harboring some regret about getting a tattoo comes to 17 percent. Furthermore, the number of people who’ve had a tattoo removed or are thinking of having one removed is 11 percent.

It’s highly likely that the 11 percent figure will grow. The way of the world is that what’s currently fashionable will be unfashionable in the near or maybe slightly less-near future. The time is coming, it can be predicted, when today’s tattoo parlors are replaced by tattoo removal parlors.

They’re already appearing, which may be a word to the wise investor. In a July, 2011 Washington Post story, Tom Jackman announced the arrival locally of a business called Zap a Tat and mentioned the widespread high cost. Jackman also reports that only in Los Angeles is there any concentration yet of removal establishments. (One chain is dubbed Dr. Tattoff.)

In the more dermatologically oriented Med Page Today, a March, 2013 article noted that more men than women regret their tattoos-and that it was younger men who expressed second thoughts. Apparently, Kelly Osbourne is among that smaller female number.

But, say, didn’t Angelina Jolie have tattoo(s) removed after her Billy Bob Thornton days? Was the procedure done at a Hollywood shop? Did she patronize Dr. Tattoff? Was it painful? Maybe not, since lasers have improved the process.

If that’s the state of tattoo affairs, could the day be that far off when very few people-a percentage in the single digits-have tattoos and those who do will be described as looking so early-21st-century?


Fashionisto! is a pseudonym for someone with a rather oblique connection to the industry in question.