It’s not often you can blame Samantha Cameron, Sandra Howard and Cheryl Cole for a social trend that blights the job prospects of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women, but it’s out there. I’m talking about tattoos, which have travelled like inky climbing roses up the bare legs of countless Brits, from the bottom of society right to the top. Or from the top to the bottom, depending on your starting point. At one end of the social spectrum you have Cheryl Cole with that rose tattoo on her bottom, which she claims cost the price of a small car; at the other, you have SamCam’s little dolphin on her ankle.
I have a feeling that Sandra Howard’s tattoo last year may have been temporary, so doesn’t really count, but still, it’s giving a social sanction to the middle classes trying to act like a bit of rough trade. My grandfather had a tattoo but he was a bona fide seaman and his was an anchor on his arm – that was fine; de rigueur, in fact, for sailors at the time. For professionals and celebs to be going in for it is, at best, a bit sad – that’s them being provocative, you know – and at worst, a shocking and bad example to people who don’t know any better.
There is a bit of a debate going on at present – this being August, it’s not terribly heated – about whether employers are within their rights to avoid employing people who have visible tattoos. A report for the British Sociological Association last year suggested that many managers take a dim view of the phenomenon. Andrew Timming of St Andrew’s University who carried out the research – a fun project, as sociology goes – suggested that there was a ‘stigma’ attached to visible markings. Employers seemed to think that people decorated with, say, motifs from the Book of Kells or the motto, ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ (I’m not making that last one up), might reflect badly on them. So they either dismiss staff who get tattooed or refuse to employ those who already are. And they are within their legal rights.
Cue the backlash: someone once called Matthew Whelan (now known as Body Art), the UK’s most prolifically tattooed man and – wouldn’t you know it? – a Lib Dem activist, has launched an e-petition to safeguard the rights of those with bodily modifications. He was nine, apparently, when he just knew that he was someone with a really enormous tattoo trapped inside a normal epidermis. And he now wants us to recognise the tattoos as an expression of personal identity – a bit like religion. We could sleep easy about all this, perhaps, were it not that, according to the British Association of Dermatologists, one in five Brits now has a tattoo. Mind you, it’s an ill wind, etc. Think of the fees to be gained from surgical removal.
Now if I were an employer with a choice of employing Mr Art or someone who looked less like an ancient Briton in woad I think I know who I’d go for. It’s not just the irritation of looking at a stupid slogan or a perfectly hideous bit of design on someone’s face or neck all day; it’s the thought that the individual who does it is apparently oblivious to the shifting, ever changeable nature of the human psyche. In other words, they are forever (pending expensive treatment) locked in the skin of the adolescent self that thought it a good idea to commission a climbing plant to go forever, distractingly, up their calf, without a thought for the respectable selves they may become.
It’s like tattooing yourself with the name of your first boyfriend. In fact, I think tattoo parlours (which flourish in places like my home town where nothing much that’s actually productive does) should be obliged to inform their clients that the procedure may not just cost around £120 for an inspirational motto but may damage their job prospects in perpetuity. David Beckham succeeded despite his tattoos, not because of them.
Mind you, the other day I found myself looking at a Greek tag on the back of a girl’s neck in a queue at a train station – a really irritating way of signalling that you have an intellectual side – and the annoying thing was, I found myself trying to read it. An invasive procedure, from every point of view.