“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past”.
These words were spoken by Jack London, the author, journalist and social activist who gained worldwide fame through the medium of commercial fiction way back in the 19th century. Yet here we are, over a hundred years later, pushing deeper and deeper into the 21st century, and tattoos are still so often associated with a stigma of regret, of poor decision making, of a generation who want everything now and give little to no thought of the consequences of their actions. It is time we had a re-think on ink.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that not all people look down on tattoos – there’s a huge variety of people who see the very personal decision of permanently marking your body as the ultimate expression of individual freedom that it is. People in positions of great power and persuasion have visible tattoos, and the latest research indicates there are over 1000 tattoo studios in Australia. Yet for every look of admiration or encouraging comment, the simple truth is that those with tattoos are still looked down on with derision and disappointment, seen as time capsule mistakes just waiting to go off. Friends, family, employers and bystanders stand with mouth agape, wide eyed and incredulous at the folly of your decision making process that led you to put something permanently on your body. This needs to change.
My name is Alex. And I have tattoos. There – I said it, and it feels so good to let the truth out. I have the word “Flash” on my left foot. I have 88 MPH on my left ankle. I have two lines of Latin script on my left ribs. I have a pinup on my right shin. And I have a full sleeve from right shoulder to right wrist. 5 tattoos. Thousands and thousands of dollars spent. Hour after hour after hour spent in the chair. When I walk down the street in a singlet and shorts I see people look; older women stare and shop owners watch me, as if the markings on my skin are the first clue that I will assault them and steal everything. To the person on the street I’m just another one of the ever growing army of Gen Y who sports body art. I become part of a stereotype – my identity recedes and is replaced with the image of an individual so lost in their own existence that they seek validation through tattoos. With no chance to defend myself against these silent judgements I become everything they wish me to be. So where does the truth lie, and why should people be more understanding of the personal decision to get tattoos? To answer this we need to rewind slightly…
I am in remission from cancer, I lived in hospital for close to a year while I had Leukaemia and now I don’t and no more needs to be said on that. Before I was diagnosed I lived and breathed soccer; it was my passion and I was damn good at it. My nickname was ‘Flash’ because I loved to show off and be the centre of attention. But when I was released from hospital I found that I could no longer play like I used to. I was a little bit slower, a little bit more reserved. The young man who simply ached to show off was replaced with a wearier, world worn one, who was so afraid that the breathlessness and pains of a normal game were signs of relapse that he never again played to the level he once did. I got the word “Flash” on my foot as a constant reminder of the person I used to be, as ever present encouragement that I could be that person again, one day, if I worked hard enough.
My 88 MPH tattoo is from Back to the Future. As any fan of pop culture knows, it’s the speed needed to send the Delorean hurtling through time. I love that movie, and watching it in hospital gave me laughs that otherwise would have escaped me. It gave me the joy that I so desperately needed, and that small throwaway line on my ankle will forever remind me how the littlest things can bring so much joy when it matters most.
My Ribs say ‘Through difficulty to greatness – After darkness comes light’ in Latin. I was forced to defer a history degree due to my illness and years later I graduated, gaining a qualification in the discipline I so love. The Latin is for my history passion, the words themselves are just for me, personal and private reminders that there will always be a better tomorrow to chase.
The pinup on my leg is one of my favourite images. This one is simple to me, it’s an aesthetic image that resonates with me and every time I see it I am reminded of the beauty in the world around me. A world that I almost lost which only makes me more willing and open to appreciating beauty wherever it may be found.
Finally, my sleeve. A collection of images that reflect and refer to my time spent afraid and alone in hospital. A Bible quote from Isaiah 40:31 cuts between numerous guardian Angels. Swirls of cloud separate a powerful warrior wing that gives me strength. Every single drop of ink put forever on my body not to intimidate the old lady who pulls away from me in culturally induced fear. Not to frighten the family on the bus who sit a little straighter in their chairs. These images are not for anyone but me. These images are not designed to make you feel weak, but to make me feel strong.
Now that you know the meaning of my body art, does it make you think differently? Only you can answer that question. Here’s food for thought in the words of home-made porn star/philosopher Pamela Anderson, who once said ‘tattoos are like stories – they’re symbolic of important moments in your life’. I think that’s something we could all take to heart. At the end of the day I don’t expect my decision to be inked to be understood by every man, woman and child I encounter in my life, and I don’t anticipate my tattoos will be universally admired or revered. What I do ask though is that people take a moment to consider that the tattoos they see on the street, at work, even in their own family, mean something far more than simply ‘mistakes’ or ‘regrets’ waiting to happen. They’re the culmination of hopes and dreams, lessons learnt and stories told. They’re the ever-present reminders that individual liberties will never be silenced no matter how great the opposition and the powerful messages of those who don’t otherwise have the words to express themselves. They may not matter to you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter at all.
Then again some people do just get shitty tattoos.
Alexander Porter will continue to ink his body and defend that decision with great verve and vigour.