He was a lovely gentle man; young, as we all were. It was three decades ago, in Australia. We probably got talking in the backpackers’ place, where speaking to others is the norm, the unspoken expectation that reverses as age sets in and the size of the hotel bill increases. Anyway, what mattered about him and what I’ve been thinking about is that he was pretty much completely covered in tattoos. I say ‘pretty much’: even backpackers’ hostels have minimum dress requirements. A sea of reds, oranges and blues, his body was a mobile exhibition of abstract art, a bright undulation of very permanent ink. Only above the neck and beyond the wrists was his skin untouched: in a suit and tie his canvas would be covered, guarding him against even the most conservative employer’s disapproval.
He has been lodged in my memory all these years, but my recollection of him is vivid now when rising temperatures lead even staid commuters to unbutton their swaddling clothes, and the carefree expose more flesh than their parents might consider seemly. Now is the time when tattoos that have slept all winter untroubled and unseen are suddenly made visible. On napes and ankles fish swim and birds fly; sprays of flowers climb up calves, and mythical characters loiter in the complex vegetation that creeps across backs. Children’s names are inked on hand and heart while starbursts fall down arms, and Celtic love-knots never fray.
For all their meticulous artistic endeavour, some people hate tattoos and hold in contempt those who wear them. Perhaps they remember them from the bad old days when tattoos were confined to sailors’ cabins and smoky pubs, with LOVE and HATE starkly emblazoned on fighters’ knuckles.
Or perhaps it is their permanence that puts people off. Despite laser treatments, this filling of pores with pigment is not intended to be temporary, easily erased like an ill-advised shade of green in a back bedroom. This feeds their reputation as the regrettable acts of foolish young men, like Neville in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, who cannot return home to the fastidious Brenda when a declaration of love for the unknown Lotte appears on his bicep after an injudiciously heavy night on the town.
But we have come a very long way since then. Tattoos now grace the pool-sides of the fashionable and wealthy, and adorn the bodies of the beautiful. Luminaries like you, dear reader, shelter an elegant dolphin or a yin-yang in a fine and private place. Even David Dimbleby at 76, limbering up for another General Election, does so with a scorpion basking on his right shoulder.
So I know there’s no excuse for me. Not having even a tiny tattoo feels like cowardice, an almost moral matter, like shying away from the top diving board — or, in my sorry history of belly flops, any diving board at all. It’s just another of the things I never did, like going to a rock concert or having an ear pierced. For me, these acts remain firmly locked behind the door I never opened, where, with flaming sword, the bookish, bespectacled choirboy in me bars my way, uttering his unanswerable No. It’s not the tattoo’s indelibility to blame, you see, but mine.
In the end, this is what all art does. It tells us who we are and what we think. Our delight or dislike (even, perhaps, disdain) for what we see and hear exposes all that normally lies concealed beneath manners and convention. But I do not mourn too miserably. There glides no inky duck across any pasty part of me, but I cope manfully with the deprivation and still have cause to rise each day.
For art is not the only fruit of dedicated endeavour. The slow accumulation of virtue and the steady exercise of love are equally fitting testaments to our nature. They shine forth summer and winter, and are never a cause of regret.