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Friday, 4 May 2012

Art or Tart - Erin McKechnie

A young woman I know proudly displayed her latest tattoo to her mother and a group of friends, including me.  Roses and fairies twined in pretty greens and pinks across one cheek of her bottom and disappeared; we could only speculate about where the last leaf and thorn were embedded.  I kept my opinion that it would make a lovely greeting card to myself, the mind boggled at the thought of who would receive such a missive.

I wonder at this preoccupation with bodily mutilation.  Not so much that young woman’s, which was small and discreetly tucked away, presumably for the edification of a select few.  It used to be that tattooing was the preserve of criminals, bikies, prostitutes and sailors, maybe others on the fringe of society.  As a child I was taught in clear terms that ‘nice’ people did not get tattoos, which was why we didn’t associate much with our ex naval neighbour , and why my father and his fellow ex air force friends were unadorned.  It’s not the case these days.  It’s no longer an act of rebellion against social mores as it was when my brothers talked loosely about wanting tattoos, sending my mother apoplectic in the process.  A number of my friends have them.  My sister spent the money she’d saved for a washing machine having a tattoo removed from my seventeen year old nephew’s wrist, but when asked what she would liked for her fiftieth birthday, asked her sons to pay for a purple dolphin on her shoulder.
“Times have changed” she said.  They certainly have.
Nowadays people have animals, memorials, philosophical and whimsical thoughts, flowers, and birds and fish splattered on every conceivable bodily part.   Almost without exception I find it unattractive. I recognise the traditional tattooing Maori and others display on arms and thighs has significant cultural and spiritual meaning.   But the prevalence of ‘pseudo ‘  traditional art so many men sport,  frankly, makes my lip curl.  Of old, the tattooing of warriors signified part of the process of maturation and standing in the tribe. Nowadays, it seems it is done without reference to or respect for, tribal values, on people whose only intention is to look macho.

Part of my resistance is the thought of what these masterpieces will look like as their owner’s age.  At a meeting some time ago we were able to see that the stomach of a woman breast feeding was colourfully garlanded.  After settling baby, she happily lifted her jumper and displayed it to the group.  It was a multi coloured masterpiece of birds, plants and flowers, stretching from her breasts as far south as we could see.  She ruefully smoothed sections out so that we could appreciate the artistry more clearly.
“The only time it looks any good now, is when I’m about 6 months pregnant.”
What will society look like in another twenty or thirty years, when all the smooth bodies have gone wrinkly?  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Editor’s note – the importance of good spelling cannot be over-emphasised. You’ll find pages of examples of poor proofreading if you Google  ’misspelled tattoos’!


  1. Totally agree, Erin. I too, find tattoos distasteful except when they are cultural. The mokos on the faces of old people like those painted by Goldie are a powerful statement of who they were. Love him or hate him, today Tama Iti fits into that description. But the young men and women who have tattoos purely for decoration have no sense of what it means, the impact it will have on their working lives or their children to come.
    I worry for my grandchildren.

  2. I have to agree with Erin, tattoos are repulsive and, in my humble opinion, are the "adornment" of people who hate themselves. Why cover the body-beautiful with meaningless scribbles if you respect yourself and are OK with what you have? Body piercing is another way to self-mutilate what was originally beautiful. And, of course, as Erin points out - worse is to come! Aging bodies with tattoos! Ugh! Hopefully sometime in the future someone will come up with an invention that will make the erasing of tattoos less painful and less expensive than laser.