The sweet seduction of the tattoo

22:12, Feb 17 2013
INK WORK: This fake butterfly tattoo is as close as Sharon Stephenson can bring herself to get to the real thing.

Back when I was a baby journalist, I wrote a story about the opening of a tattoo studio in a small provincial town. That article generated so much business the owner offered me a free tattoo – of any type and size, and wherever on my torso I so desired it.

I was keen to accept his kind offer: I could totally rock an understated, discreetly located and wittily conceived tattoo. Until, that is, I discovered it would involve a sharp needle piercing my epidermis more than 150 times a minute, for an extended period of time. Realising the levees of my pain threshold would quickly be breached, I declined. 

But millions of others around the world haven’t let a bit of discomfort get in the way of permanent body art. A staggering 45 million Americans have turned themselves into human inkwells, while in the UK it’s closer to 20 million. Kiwis are also pretty adept at surfing the ink tsunami: almost one in five of us has something up our sleeve.

Once upon a time, getting a tattoo was seen as an act of rebellion, the preserve of sailors, psychopaths, gang members, rockers, rebels or guests of Her Majesty, who often acquired them at a back-street parlour in a fit of macho bravado. It was borderline deviant behaviour.

These days, tattoos are about as subversive as Sunday trading.

But while the rest of the world has moved on, my fear of pain has not. The trouble is, I still lust after body art. So I do what any other 40-something woman with too much time and not enough sense would do – I slap water on a temporary tattoo and, voilà, I’ve set up camp on Cool Island (for a couple of days, at least).

It takes some time to choose a design that won’t look totally ridiculous, such as the smoking rabbit or misshapen cheese grater that casts serious doubt on the sanity of the target market. I also steer clear of trendy Eastern symbols, having once overheard a conversation at the hairdresser where a bloke assumed the collection of exotic symbols he was having etched into his forearm read ‘Serenity’, only to later find out it actually meant ‘motherly beast blessing’. 


The options, both online and in-store, are bewildering in their variety and size. And, frankly, in their ugliness. Do I really want a vivid Japanese koi carp swimming along the tide of my ribcage? Or to adorn my right bicep with a multi-coloured canvas of rutting unicorns, skulls and lunar landscapes? Or how about the deeply unironic face of Spongebob Squarepants playing peek-a-boo with my cleavage? The word ‘tasteful’, I fear, has never brushed up against the world of fake tattoos.

I finally settle on an anorexic red butterfly with an odd, pincer-like tail, partly because after half an hour of looking, I’ve been rendered functionally blind, and partly because it’s the most innocuous thing I can find.

It’s a bit of a faff trying to get the positioning right and wondering how much moisture I need to apply (lots or only the merest flirtation with a damp sponge?). When I peel back a corner, only half the design has transferred. The whole process is an exercise in teeth gritting, but I add more water and eventually it takes. 

I change into a sleeveless top and go downstairs where my husband is watching TV.

‘‘You know how I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo but have always been too scared? Well, I finally did it,’’ I say, brandishing my arm like The One Ring in his face.

He clamps down on his gag reflex. ‘‘Are you kidding? Why the hell did you go for a butterfly?’’ And the kicker: ‘‘Isn’t it a bit wrong at your age?’’ 

The fact he thinks it’s real makes me question the quality of lighting in our house. And whether buying eye glasses in a Shanghai backstreet was a good idea. ‘‘Look closer,’’ I advise him. He does and admits it isn’t a bad fake.

‘‘But can you go wash it off now because it’s ridiculous?’’ I flounce out of the room, telling him I’m not so much defying my age as stomping all over it. 

I spend three days of every working week in the Valley of the Deeply Conservative, where suits register high on the approval meter. While body art isn’t openly discouraged, either my colleagues are adept at concealing theirs or everyone is as boring as me.

It’s a warmish day but I endure eight hours sweltering, rather than taking off my blazer.

This is how a conversation goes, when I escape to the ladies to cool down: ‘‘What’s that on your arm? I’d never have picked you as the tattoo sort.’’

Me: ‘‘I’ve always wanted a tat but aren’t brave enough so I’m test-driving this temporary one.’’

Her: ‘‘It looks real enough. And wearing it at your age is pretty brave.’’

I lose the jacket to eat dinner in Cuba Street, where I’m usually the only one infringing the bylaw that everyone must be inked at least three times. Although I feel like a fraud – these people can spot a fake a mile off – it’s as though I’ve found my tribe.

I end up having a long chat with the waitress about the red and green dragon that meanders down her left thigh; fortunately she’s so self-obsessed, we don’t get around to discussing mine. And the multi-tattooed barista, with the beard that would make any of the Mumfords, or their sons, envious, doesn’t get close enough to call me on it. But he does give me the kind of eyebrow salute I almost never get.

The next day, while out dog-walking with a friend, I show her my rapidly-fading tat. She laughs so much, I worry that her off button may be broken.

‘‘What were you thinking?’’ she asks, gulping great big breaths of air. ‘‘I can’t believe you’ve been walking around for two days looking so silly.’’

And although I pretend not to hear, I know she’s right. With my tail tucked firmly between my legs, I lock myself in the bathroom and fling soap and water at the offending mark.

I still love tattoos and am in awe of anyone brave enough to offer their flesh up to the gun. Sadly I lack both the commitment and the arsedeness to get one myself. My cool bag, it appears, will never overfloweth.

Sunday Magazine