I sat down intended to write ‘half a mile’ but then I thought I better check my facts on Google Earth. The radius of the circle I drew was 86 metres. That’s 718 metres short of half a mile. 718 metres of being plain wrong.
The 86 metres is the distance between a succession of local shops that have opened in the past couple of years. Would it surprise you to know that in this small working class town, population not much more than 20,000 people, there are no fewer than five tattoo parlours, all contained within that circle drawn with an 86 metre radius? We don’t have that many doctors, dentists, or vets. We have no bookshops (Tesco’s bestsellers don’t count), no stationers, and now we no longer even have a further education college which was recently demolished along with three quarters of our library (now just one room mainly devoted to romantic thrillers). We used to have two bicycle shops but they both closed down as did our specialty sweet shop. We've had a succession of We once had a jewellers but that disappeared about five years ago. A long time ago we had a general hardware store where you could buy nails and wood but not any longer. Blockbusters closed this year, so there’s now no video store. We once had a cinema but that closed its doors back in the 1970s and was later destroyed by fire. Local rumours hint at arson. The cinema had stood derelict for a decade or more, some kind of preservation order on the old façade which was of historical significance stopping the site from being redeveloped into ‘luxury’ apartments. But like I said, that’s just local rumour.
On our high street, it’s impossible to buy books, treacle toffee, lengths of wood, a watch or necklace, or leads for a mechanical pencil. Yet the same town can support five independent tattooists, all no more than 172 metres of one another.
The fact they have become so ubiquitous is an interesting modern phenomenon which probably says something deeply revealing about our culture. Perhaps they are symbolic of a culture that no longer values the spiritual or the intellectual and instead has embraced materialism and a totemic obsession with the body. Perhaps they have something to do with our false illusions of individuality.
I think that begins in school. Schools are supposedly about educating us but I’m sure they’ve always really been about breaking youthful spirits. Riding past a junior school yesterday, I saw the kids peering out though the railings. It’s probably a clichéd observation but it’s one I hadn’t made before but I realised how those railings don’t so much protect the children from the world as protect the world from the children. The iron fences keep the kids inside as if the world can’t operate normally with youth running around. School teaches us to stop being youthful and to conform to certain lifestyle patterns: the nine to five routine, our place in a hierarchy, the repression of ambitions, dreams, and foolish joy.
Of course, life after your school years has changed. Perhaps it’s no wonder that people do choose to adorn themselves with tattoos when the world is increasingly alienating, where there are fewer ways to be unique and individual.
I was in Wilko yesterday and a guy in front of me was covered in various names and mottos. He was also bald and on the back of his head he had a big tattoo written in the usual flowing script. ‘One Life’ it said and beneath that ‘Live it’. I immediately thought: live it with a tattoo on the back of your head? Live it doing something as extraordinary as shopping in Wilko wearing a vest, tracksuit bottoms, and lots of gold chains?
But I guess it’s easy to mock these ridiculous aphorisms and note that most expressions of individuality can be found in the standard tattooist’s sourcebook, available from Amazon. Yet what other opportunities do many of these people really have for expressing themselves? They are defined by family, football, and celebrity: all of which feature prominently in tattoos. Some also have God or, in God’s place, some esoteric wisdom, reduced to a cryptogram written down a forearm. Beyond that, what else is there?
Not many years ago, there was a time when people engaged in hobbies. A person would learn to play a musical instrument or learn a foreign language even if they didn’t have a reason or particular desire to travel to that country. A person would make things in a shed or take up drawing or ballet or join a rock and roll band. I guess these things still happen but I suspect they’re increasingly rare, especially in working class England where music shops have closed, libraries disappeared, colleges turned into flats, theatres demolished. Life is increasingly dictated by the strip of American style fast food operations that line the main routes between our towns. Cinemas have moved into retail parks, impossible to get to without a car, prohibitively expensive even if you can drive. Between Thatcher and Murdoch we now have sport available to only those who can pay for it. Movies and culture too are for those with the means to buy them. The BBC News reported just a few nights ago that culture spending in the UK is £69 per person in London, £4.60 for the rest of us. Given that the majority of my £4.60 will go to art in regional cities like Manchester and Liverpool, what is the actual cultural budget around here? I suspect it’s pence and that definitely shows.
So instead of hobbies and culture, we have Twitter: the constant babble of people wishing to sound significant. And that, perhaps, is the key similarity. Perhaps tattoos aren’t such a surprise. Perhaps like Twitter, they’re a collective scream, part of some deep nihilistic urge to sanctify the self and to give us all meaning. They are the affirmation of lives increasingly devoid of any significance. Perhaps tattoos are to individuals what blogging is to cowards: a way of writing something meaningful for a world of individual spirits increasingly deaf, distracted or simply defeated.