What makes a good tattoo by PJ Reece
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What Makes a Good Tattoo?

Article © 2009 PJ Reece

The most pragmatic (and hard-working) tattoos historically would be those worn by soldiers in the event of their mutilated (or even beheaded) bodies being otherwise unidentifiable in the aftermath of battle. These are 'good' tattoos in the most utilitarian sense of the word. Even today in Iraq, the difficulty in finding missing and presumed dead family members has inspired some citizens to tattoo a phone number on their body - a way for their families to be notified. Soldiers have long been well served by the 'memorial' tattoo, the modern version of which probably started with the familiar 'heart' tattoo with a 'banner' through the middle, and bearing the word 'Mom'. This was popular with servicemen who wanted to remember home and what they were fighting for. Military tattoos also built 'esprit de corps' - and sometimes quite the opposite. Greek and Roman soldiers were forcibly tattooed for easy identification if they deserted. Anthropologists have even gone so far as to suggest that the origin of tattooing may be linked directly to war. The history of 'tattoo as functional object' clearly goes back a long way.

photos and photography by Robin Perine

Today's tattoo clients are lining up to adopt tattoo badges of identification, to help them 'fit in' or 'stand out'. Subcultures have historically used the tattoo as a means of differentiating themselves from the homogenous crowd. Tattoo as identity badge. Just as a policeman's uniform announces his identity and provokes a response, so do tattoos. Some of the most heavily tattooed persons praise their tattoos for 'screening out social flotsam', which sounds suspiciously like judging the book by the cover, precisely what they accuse others of. Still, the tattoo is perceived as doing a job - if that's the point, it works. The problem lies in being forever stuck with that identity long after one's grown a new skin, so to speak. Jimmy Buffett wrote a song about it, "Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling".

We can't really call a tattoo 'good', can we, if we regret it for half our life?

Risky, too, is the tattoo that promises to express our individuality - 'to beautify the body and improve on nature's mass production of the plain human body' [thank you, Tony Lawrence]. This is fine, until it occurs to a person that dependence upon outward signs may signify a fragile identity. Oops. And suddenly you're aware that 'mass produced' refers equally well to your favourite tattoo motifs. They're everywhere! What's the fragile ego supposed to do when surrounded by so many people who sport the same carbon-copied badge - or worse - a better and more original version of one's own identifier?

If many of today's tattoos all-too-quickly 'stop working', perhaps it's due to the evolution of tattoo's cultural status -- from that of an anti-social activity in the 1960s to that of a trendy fashion statement in the 1990s. 'Individuality' has become as cheap as a trinket.

Theodore Dalrymple is a former prison psychiatrist who pens scathing reports on British culture, and tattoos especially. Although his flagrant tone and exaggerated style are flags alerting us against taking him too seriously, one of his tattoo diatribes contains this worthwhile warning:

"There is a deeper reason why such efforts at asserting one's unique individuality are pathetically bound to fail: for true individuality does not arise from a decision to be an individual."

[from "Exposing Shallowness" by Theodore Dalrymple, a review of Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community by Margo DeMello.]

Dalrymple draws a parallel with the eccentric, pointing out that he behaves eccentrically because 'it simply does not occur to him to behave otherwise.' We shouldn't try to be who we are not. Is there anyone out there who doesn't understand the ultimate futility of being a poser? "The fate of all people who imitate others to achieve authenticity is to live a lie," says Dalrymple. This is a painful but valuable reminder for those who want their tattoo to hold up under the brutal light of valid scrutiny.

Main reasons for seeking tattoo removal:

- just decided to remove it (58 percent)
- suffering embarrassment (57 percent)
- lowering of body image (38 percent)
- threatens new career (38 percent)
- conflicts with wardrobe (37 percent)
- experiencing stigma (25 percent)
- marking an occasion (21 percent)"

"There seemed to be more societal fallout for women with tattoos," says Myrna L. Armstrong, author of the study, "as the tattoos began to cause embarrassment, negative comments and problems, and no longer satisfied the need for uniqueness."

[from a study done at the School of Nursing at Texas Tech University's Health Sciences Centre in Lubbock, Texas.]

Youth are especially likely to post their current hormone levels on the message board of their body, and while high-end clients may demand art, younger kids are likely to just want a tattoo. Tattoo as adornment, full stop. As long as it 'works' (pleasures the self), it may appear to qualify as a good tattoo. In his university thesis "A Tattoo Is For Life", Tony Lawrence mentions a 'body halo effect', which suggests that "the more attractive a person is perceived to be, the more likely he or she will be attributed with other positive characteristics such as wisdom, intelligence, generosity etc." The key phrase here is 'perceived to be'. The beauty is in the eye of - the other person.

More ambitious tattoo designs may express a philosophic statement, religious belief, and group allegiance or romantic bond. But we know from the growing number of tattoo removals that even profoundly premeditated tattoos come with no guarantee. The problem, of course, is 'philosophy', 'religion', 'allegiance', not to mention 'romantic attraction', since to be human is to evolve through a hierarchy of such high adventures. The question is this - is the tattoo good enough to survive the inevitable change of heart and mind brought on by our life's journey?

Flavio Cabelo is one tattoo artist who stands guard against reckless tattoo decisions. He refuses client who are under the effects of drugs or alcohol. "If the person just happens to be passing by and drops into the studio and has no idea what they want in a tattoo, I'll discourage them as well. The person will usually regret the tattoo if they don't approach it in a more meaningful way." A spontaneous tattoo decision usually means an 'off the rack' design, whereas "people should research and develop their own ideas about the tattoo theme they want," says Cabelo, "Not copy their friends, or pop stars."

Cabelo believes that tattoo artists should accept some responsibility for a client's choice of design, starting with an in-depth knowledge of symbolism. "There are very few cases in which we don't understand what we are tattooing. Sometimes, tattooing a symbol whose meaning you don't understand, can affect the quality of the tattoo." He also warns against mixing themes. If you start with Japanese tattoos, stick with them, at least on that part of the body. "Mixed themes make everything look like a giant salad," says Cabelo, "or worse, a child's sticker book." Cabelo tosses out another piece of advice - about price. "Price and quality are often related." Succinctly put, and possibly the single most important piece of advice to avoid a badly crafted tattoo.

Flavio Cabelo is leery of clients whom he suspects of wanting a tattoo as a status symbol. Often, the design of the tattoo barely figures into their request. "Some people are bragging about the name of the famous artist who inked the tattoo. For some people, the size of the tattoo lends them status, and for some it's the hefty price they paid. These people are looking for some attention in society."

As dubious as such tattoos are, Flavio Cabelo sees them as performing a function and thus empowering their owners. The question a tattoo hunter needs to ask herself is 'for how long?' How long before our goals shift and we must redirect our energies? A tattoo has no mind of its own, of course, it powers on in the same direction, repeating its message over and over ad nauseum like a department store Christmas Carol in an economic recession.

Perhaps the best job description for a tattoo is one that's vague as opposed to sharply focused. Erotic tattoos tend to have a precise job description - 'turn on, seduce' - and are consequently vulnerable to losing their potency over time. (see: Erotic Tattoos: Manufacturing Desire)

"Tattoos can be very sexy, yes they can," confirms Brazilian fashion forecaster, Adriana Maria Zimbarg, "but speaking honestly, they can be very off-putting. That's why I don't date tattoo artists. Can you imagine - when he took his clothes off I would forget about sex and get distracted looking at the lines, colors, drawings. It can be really disturbing."


Sita Mae Edwards is a portrait photographer in Los Angeles whose subjects have included artists who are themselves highly tattooed. She has observed that the most common theme for these tattoo professionals is 'tattoo as symbol', usually an ancient motif whose meaning has nourished cultures for eons. Symbols are often vague yet always graphically compelling - sometimes specific but usually suggestive of an ancient archetype, like the spiral, the cross, or the fish. Fifteen years ago, Edwards had her body tattooed with the Kanji symbol for 'Joy'. "It's a reminder of the kind of person I'm striving to be," she says. "It was something to hang on to in tough times." Tattoo as psychic lifejacket.


Sita Mae Edward's other tattoo is a bumblebee, which, for her, represents the impossible. Nobody told the bumblebee it was aerodynamically challenged, so it flew away on the wings of its own blind optimism. Never mind that the story is a delightful scrap of apocryphal nonsense, Edwards insists that it doesn't have to be true in order to be meaningful. And empowering.

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