Yesterday’s headlines in the tabloid press made my point about the mainstream news agenda in rather glorious Technicolor. According to The Sun et al, the most important story of the day was WOMAN DRAWS FLOWERS ON HER OWN BUTTOCKS.
And before you say, stop moaning Number6 you don’t have to look! I really really had little choice. Browsing the racks in the Gatwick WHSmiths, my eyes were magnetically drawn to the very vivid sight of Cheryl Cole’s backside, splashed over several front pages, looking for all the world like the kind of pinny even my granny would have rejected as garish.
Now, just to clarify, I am not drawn to the keyboard to judge the editors of the newspapers in question, or mock the readership either. I am not denying that this was a compelling spectacle indeed, and one that will stay with me for some time – so compelling in fact that I could do nothing but stare for about thirty seconds; even now, 24 hours and several thousand miles away, I can still see those overblown, blowsy blooms whenever I close my eyes.
The other thing that struck me was the subheading – something like, would you be happy for your daughter to have this done? A pretty boggling question to accompany a pretty damn boggling piece of body art.
Even in 2013, when even the most run-down high street seems to have at least a couple of tattoo parlours, these tattoos are spectacular – huge, extensive and reportedly agonising.
When I was a kid, tattoos were still a very unusual sight, certainly on women. They were usually only seen on the meaty biceps of ex-forces men, and were confined to some pretty sketchy symbols and basic messages about how much these chaps loved their dear old mums.
In my year off before university I worked on a fairground for a while and there I saw, close up for the first time, some pretty impressive efforts; one man claimed to have a pack of hounds down his back, chasing a fox which was disappearing just, erm, out of view. (For the record, I can only offer hearsay evidence, as I never took him up on his offer to show me this work of art.)
Tattoos these days are very different – worn as body art and, from an observer’s point of view, intended to portray something about the person’s identity – a tribal marking or belonging , or a sign of individual identity, or often both at the same.
If caught without a book on a bus or in a bar these days, I can pass the time by reading the tattoos on the exposed flesh of those around me.
They are also pretty much ubiquitous, a fact which I only grasped fully a few weeks ago when, during one stuffy and enlightening lunchtime, I viewed various parts of my work colleagues that I had never seen before and found, somewhat to my surprise, that mine was the only flesh left uninked. (Whether this makes me a raging square or a wild rebel is – I guess – a moot point.)
I don’t have any tattoos and the chances of me getting one are about as high as me voting UKIP; I don’t have any piercings either, apart from one, long healed over, in each ear. Like many in my generation, I first mutilated my body at the age of 11 with a sewing needle (sterilised in Dettol, don’t worry), in the privacy of the phone box* about half a mile from my house with the help of a cork and the steady hand of my hard-nut friend Yvonne.
Unfortunately we made such an outrageous hash of it that I was forced to mumble into the Adam and Eve hairdressing salon on the high street two days later to try and get my lobes straightened up; I walked out proudly sporting some very mainstream ‘gold’ studs to twiddle for the next six weeks. Rebel rebel.
So I can’t really imagine what possesses someone, celebrity or not, to make such radical changes to their body in such an incredibly permanent way. It can’t be an act of rebellion these days; tattoos, like piercings, are the opposite of punk, the absolute mark of belonging to mainstream culture. Today’s real punks and rebels are probably wearing the Marks and Spencer Classics collection with matching wimples.
A work of art, then? Well I have seen some very beautiful tattoos in my time, and Ms Cole’s is not one of them. A statement? If it is, I can’t read it from here, but maybe my pop culture receptors are all wonky. A publicity stunt? If so, a very very effective one.
So, to answer the (probably rhetorical) Sun headline, WOULD I be happy for my daughters to get their bums inked up like a pair of sub-Kidston sofa-cushions? The bottom line (sorry) is that, if they were over the age of consent, it would be profoundly none of my business. Their bodies belong to them, as mine does to me.
And it’s Cheryl Cole’s choice too, of course, though this is a complicated area. In the celebrity culture where she makes her living, women’s bodies are public property and subject to comment, whether positive or negative; she markets herself and her physical appearance, and a crackingly lucrative product it is too – her skin, her hair, all of her, has been sold or at the very least rented out on a very long term lease.
The underlying assumption in the question, though, is that Cheryl Cole is, or should be, a role model for young girls – a question I think I will have to return to.
In the meantime, I ask Gothic Daughter as neutrally of possible if she would think of getting a tattoo. She gives it some considerable thought before replying, ‘Maybe a skull and crossbones. Dripping with blood. With “mum” underneath in flowy letters.’
Oh bugger, now I’ve put the idea in her head. Better get the kid some better role models, sharpish.
*As Simon Armitage notes in his fabulous book ‘Gig’, where do this generation go for a bit of privacy, now that the era of the mobile phone has put paid to the unsanitary sanctuary of the phone box?