Beauty is skin deep

I don’t have any tattoos or body-piercings. The problem, I guess, is that as doctor, I can’t get past the extraordinary paradox that we live in era when blood-borne diseases are more rampant, probably, than at any other time in human history, and yet body-piercing and tattooing are embraced fanatically.

I don’t know the latest statistics, but I’m fairly confident that your average tattoo parlour or body-piercing boutique doesn’t abide by hospital sterility guidelines. I’ve seen too many people with HIV, hepatitis B and C, and infected piercings to think otherwise.

It worries me that this dilemma exists, but it doesn’t surprise me. Mainstream as body modification may have become, those who get a facial tattoo or a pierced nipple do so to cock their nose at society. Lots of the establishments catering to the trade are owned by motorcycle gangs. Many tattoos are done at home or acquired in prison.

There is an ancient tradition of tattooing in Japan, and Japanese tattoos are characterised by magnificent artistry, yet it not respectable to have a tattoo. Indeed, a tattooed person is not allowed to travel on public transport in Japan. The most elaborate and extensive tattoos are displayed by gangsters, the Yakuza. Geishas, too, were sometimes tattooed, often with erotic shunga images.

Similarly, in western society, tattoos have traditionally been the hallmark of seamen, soldiers, criminals, misfits and other fringe-dwellers. Maybe , nowadays, the term “fringe-dweller” has become much more embracing.

Then there are cultural tattoos, as among polynesians and maoris, and the body modifications practiced by some cultures, such as neck-stretching, lip-plating or foot-binding. I haven’t worked out whether the rationale for these practices is, in any way, preferable to current notions such as freedom of expression, the body as canvas or the making of an indelible fashion statement.

I really do admire some tattoos and piercings as exquisite works of art, but unfortunately, though the ink may be permanent, the skin on which it is etched is going, eventually, to be a lot the worse for wear, and the older you get, the less hip you look.

On the positive side, tattoos and body-piercings do make it easier to identify a corpse washed up on a beach, or mangled in a car-wreck, which might be of some consolation to grieving relatives.

Just walking down the street, too, has become a much more diverting experience, with the advent of all this wearable art. I find myself, sort of pruriently, I suppose, wanting to ask that pretty girl with the tattooed breasts where, when and why she had the work done, not just so as to know and, perchance, to better understand this phenomenon, but because I honestly feel that anyone who undergoes such a procedure does so for a purpose, and must surely be desperately trying to communicate something important to the world at large.


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