The madness of crowds: Tattoos

There was an unfortunate episode this morning as I was on my way back from the school run. Walking from the bus stop, I passed a sullen-looking young woman with straight black hair, wearing blue jeans and khaki jacket and a very slightly recherché nose ring – you know the kind: quite thick, such as you might see attached to a dog’s collar. In a moment of madness, I unfastened the lead from my dog’s collar and, in a move that surprised me with its poise, fluidity and sheer dash, attached it to the ring in the young woman’s nose. Then I gave it the merest of tugs and said, “C’mon, love.”

Frantic, she cast around for assistance – but this is sarf London and no one was paying any, so, sensibly, she shrugged her shoulders and trotted on behind me as I led her to the nearby cashpoint, where I told her to withdraw £100 of her own money. This she did. We next strolled companionably to the local park; here I let her off the lead with this avuncular advice: “Take that ring out of your hooter and go spend this on something that doesn’t make you look like livestock . . .”

Oh, OK, I admit it – that was a fantasy, but it’s one I’ve had so often in the past decade or so that it might as well be real. The mass mania for piercings finally seems to be on the wane – yet there are still plenty of people wandering the streets looking as if they’re pigs, or cows, or even – so many bits of metal are there shoved into their flesh – bulls nearing the end of a corrida. Particularly unsettling is the sight of a grandmotherly woman with a ring in the end of her blue-veined nose, or silvery loops through a pendulous and exposed midriff.

Still, mustn’t be ageist – or sexist; young men look just as grotesque with a face full of ironmongery. It’s a tough call as to which is more upsetting: seeing lovely young flesh so traduced, or sagging old skin so traumatised. I don’t deny that there’s an après moi component to my disapproval – when I was young I had a couple of non-essential holes put in me. The latter was done by a hippie armed with a cork, a burnt needle and a can of lighter fuel for anaesthetic purposes. Needless to say, the piercing became awesomely infected – a golf-ball-sized lump of pus that remained cinched in its silvery loop, such a dedicated follower of fashion was I. Moreover, I accept some blame for the craze. In the early 1980s I wrote the text for one of a series of books called Modern Primitives; these featured photographs of unusual piercings and pseudo-ethnic tattooing. I can’t remember what I said about this body decoration at the time – doubtless some bullshit about individuality – but I know what I want to say now: in the annals of the west’s obsession with primitivism – from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, through Henry Moore, to I’m a Celebrity . . . – nothing gets closer to being asinine than the notion that, by bashing metal through your cartilage, you connect with a more authentic mode of being.

Not, I hasten to add, that I imagine a lot of the conformist-inked or fully metalled see themselves in this light – they’re just doing their thing, man, and who am I to rust their clinking-clanking parade? It is, after all, a free world. That’s true – sort of – but there does seem to be a more than averagely large disjunction between this mode of self-presentation and the mainstream when compared with that of other subcultures.

Or, rather: if a nose ring, why not a penis sheath, or a lip plug – and while you’re at it, why not have your urethra cut out and flayed with a stoneknife in the manner of particularly austere Centralian Aboriginal tribes? To affect the widowy weeds of the Goths or the waxed sagittal crests of the punks is one thing – but the modern primitivism implied by excessive piercing and tattooing stands out because of its sheer irreversibility.

I know that’s why I got tattooed in my teens. I thought to myself: a hole in the ear will heal up, but a tattoo will never be eradicated and so I will never be able to scuttle backwards into the bourgeoisie. How wrong I was! Now, I’m a homeowner, a taxpayer and all the rest – probably because rather than in spite of the anarchist black flags inscribed on my forearm.Still, nothing encapsulates the madness of modernity better than an ill-advised bit of self-mutilation, representing as it does the deranging collision between impulse, permanence – and narcissism. Squeal, piggy, squeal!