Sunday, 27 May 2012

Football, David Beckham and the rise of tattoos

The biggest question raised by Manchester City’s Premier League success is not whether the balance of power in English football has swung decisively from Salford to Manchester itself, nor whether throwing money at a team is the only way of guaranteeing success these days.

No, the key issue is whether or not Roberto Mancini is going to get another tattoo.  In 1991 the then-Sampdoria player got the Italian club’s crest tattooed just above his left ankle to celebrate their Scudetto and when recently asked whether he would repeat that if City won the Premier league Mancini replied insightfully “I have another leg”. (Foreigners, eh? Never give you a straight answer.)

These days tattoos are de rigueur for footballers whether it’s, their own name like Fernando Torres (in case he forgets?) or half or full-sleeves which look intricate and beautiful close up or like a large bluey-green splodge if you’re sat in row Z.  Several players from both Atlético and Real Madrid have artwork featuring Tengwar the Elvish language invented by JRR Tolkien and I believe Sir Alex Ferguson has just had “Rock of Gibraltar” covered over by an image of an Orc.  Ok, I made that bit up but you get the point.

The man with two legs
The growth in popularity of tattoos among modern footballers mirrors the rise in their acceptability in society in general demonstrating once again that the sport plays a key role in understanding any society’s culture.  Similarly, the history of tattoos in many ways mirrors the history of football.  Both have a disparate pre-history before gaining social acceptability among the country’s upper class in the late 19th Century.  Then in the early 1900s a shift occurred and both became the preserve of the working class and both were to an extent demonised before, in the latter years of the 20th Century gaining widespread acceptance in the middle class.

You might think it’s all down to David Beckham but the Picts were the first Brits to get tattoos.  Julius Caesar came, saw and noted that the Britons “stain themselves with woad” and in particular the Romans referred to the Scots as Pictii which means ‘painted ones’ due to the elaborate body art of the Northern Britons.  In the third century AD Herod of Antioch wrote that "the Britons incise on their bodies coloured pictures of animals, of which they are very proud”.  Not for the last time, however, the church came along and pooped the party by banning tattoos in 787AD.

The next mention of tattoos in the history books – and it’s the first Royal entry follows the death of King Harold II whose corpse could supposedly only be identified following the Battle of Hastings because he had the words “Ealdgyth” (Edith – his wife) and “Englaland” (England) tattooed on his chest.  It’s enough to make John Terry weep with pride before claiming he hadn’t meant to shoot Harold in the eye, it’s just the king checked his run down Senlac Hill and, well, it does look bad on the tapestry but he’s not the sort of soldier to intentionally hurt anyone.  He raised his bow and arrow, which maybe he shouldn’t have done in hindsight but hopefully people who now him as a man will know he’s not that type of soldier, Geoff.  (Unfortunately the incident meant Terry was suspended for the Battle of Agincourt but he still celebrated the victory in full battle armour.)

The banning of tattoos by the church, which believed any unnatural marks on the body defaced God’s ‘pure’ creation in his own image, meant that tattooing all but died out in England until the 16th and 17th Centuries when the practice was ‘discovered’ by several explorers.  Sir Martin Frobisher brought back to England an Eskimo woman who had chin and forehead tattoos while British settler John Smith recorded in his journal that the tribe which nearly killed him, before adopting him, had their legs, arms and faces covered in black dots.  As a nod to this, Pocahontas is the only Disney princess to have a visible tattoo although I bet Snow White’s got a tramp stamp (it’s always the quiet ones).

In 1691 William Dampier, known for being the first Englishman to land in Australia, brought back to London Prince Jeoly the so-called ‘Painted Prince’ from the island of Meangis in the Philippines.  Dampier sold Jeoly who was exhibited by his new owners before dying of small pox just three months after arriving in England but in that short time the crowds had flocked to see him and he had become the first in a long line of tattooed attractions.

It was the journeys of Captain James Cook nearly 80 years later which really cemented tattoos back into English culture.  The naturalist Sir Joseph Banks who travelled with Cook, studied tattoos among the Polynesian natives introducing their word ‘tattow’ into the English vocabulary (although it became bastardized into tattoo a pre-existing military term).  Following his second voyage in 1774, Cook brought back with him two tattooed Tahitians Omai and Tupia.  While the pair had served as guides and translators for Cook in Tahiti, they quickly became little more than attractions in England being displayed in pubs, museums and fairs (making the moral of the story clear: Never trust anyone from Middlesbrough).  Anthropologist Ted Polhemus says that tattoos thus became “inexorably linked with the exotic – something that strange people in very distant lands did to their bodies".

For he's a Jeoly good fellow
While people were fascinated by and paid good money to see these ‘exotic’ people, tattoos were still seen as “marks of savagery”.  At fairs, “primitive” activities such as tattooing were displayed alongside examples of Western technological advancement implicitly creating a narrative that tattoos were what distinguished the ‘primitive’ peoples of further a field from 'civilised’ Europeans. It is this that created the perception of inferiority surrounding tattoos which still lingers today.

However there was a flip side.  The link with the exotic briefly created an aristocratic fad for elaborate, artistic tattoos, kick-started in 1862 when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) got his first of several tattoos - a Jerusalem cross on his arm - while visiting the Holy Land.  Some 20 years later his sons would also get tattoos by the same artist as well as dragons done in Japan.  In this period, for Westerners, tattoos represented wealth - in both time and money.  It demonstrated who could afford to travel or to bring a tattoo artist to England and who had the time to undergo the tattoo process, still then painstakingly done by hand.  Even Winston Churchill, following a family trend established by his mother who had a snake tattoo on her wrist, had an anchor tattooed on his forearm.  In 1898 Harmsworth Magazine estimated that one in five of the gentry had a tattoo however, following the invention of the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, which reduced the time it took to draw them and thus their cost, tattoos began to lose their exclusivity.

Tattoos were already prevalent among sailors (in 1789 Captain Bligh recorded that 21 of the 25 sailors who mutinied on the Bounty had been inked) and different tattoos had different meanings (for example an anchor tattoo meant the sailor had crossed the Atlantic).  In the early nineteenth century Field Marshall Earl Roberts, himself tattooed, encouraged every British Army officer to be inked with his regimental crest to promote morale and, helpfully, aid the identification of bodies.  Through such links tattooing became an integral part of working-class life.  Margo DeMello in her Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community argues this cultural acceptance came about because of “the lifestyle of sailors and what this represented to working-class men back home: adventure, travel, exotic lands and people, and a free spirit”.

However, the upper classes abandoned tattoos, re-establishing the cultural barrier between them the 'lower' social classes and so tattoos lost their sense of prestige and were re-associated with primitiveness.  Tattoos were pushed further to the margins of acceptability following the Second World War due to their use by Nazis as concentration camp identification numbers and their links with supposedly deviant sub-cultures such as biker gangs and skinheads as well as criminals.

However, just like football, over the last 20 years tattoos have gained social acceptably; a survey conducted in 2010 estimated that one fifth of all British adults have a tattoo (rising to 29% among 16-44-year-olds of both sexes.  At the turn of the Millennium there were about 300 tattoo parlours across the UK, now there are about 1,500.  Selfridges set up a temporary tattoo stall in 2003 which was so popular it became permanent and is still there today.  Just as football is no longer a cultural enclave restricted to working-class men, so tattoos are no longer a cultural symbol restricted to same demographic.

How did this shift happen?  Well, the media plays a large part in two ways.  Firstly, it determines how much exposure tattoos get and secondly it determines the nature of that exposure thus framing the received perception of tattoos. Perhaps unsurprisingly the US led the way with shows like Miami Ink which first aired in 2005 and LA Ink two years later.  These led to London Ink and all three brought the practice out of the backstreet and into the living room thus breaking down a significant cultural barrier.

The writing's off the ball
Furthermore US sports stars were at the vanguard of the process of acceptability.  In 1998 the Associated Press found that 35% of NBA players had tattoos as opposed to four per cent of the general population.  Two years after that survey the NBA’s official magazine put Allen Iverson on its cover and airbrushed out his tattoos.  Iverson responded by saying: “Who gives them the authority to remake me?  They don't have the right to try to present me in another way to the public than the way I truly am without my permission. It's an act of freedom and a form of self-expression.”  The NBA apologised and tattooing had gone from being a sign of a troubled individual to a sign of positive individualism.  Since then the percentage of regular Joes in the US with tattoos has tripled while the number of NBA players has not even doubled.

While it took time for the prevalence of tattoos among English footballers to become wide-spread, crucially at around the same time, in 1999, one man had a chat with Mel B’s then-husband Jimmy Gulzar and decided to celebrate the birth of his first child with his first tattoo. That man was David Beckham (who else?) and while the sarong thing didn’t catch on, this did.

A year later the petulant kick in St Étienne had been forgotten and Beckham had been bestowed with one of the greatest honours in English cultural life, he became England captain and if it was OK for the England skipper to sport a tattoo, well…  So, one of the key figures in the recent gentrification and commercialisation of football became the key figure in the recent gentrification and commercialisation of tattooing.

Tattooing was further cemented into English sporting culture when Freddie Flintoff got three lions tattooed on his right arm in 2006 (although Daren Gough had beaten him to it but, let’s face it, he’s no David Beckham).

Since then, the focus on people with tattoos in the media has been less on those from the margins of society and more on people such as fashion icons or teachers and bankers, white, middle or upper-class women like Samantha Cameron.  This manufactures a distorted perception as well as what Audrey Porcella calls a ‘positive feedback loop’ – the type of sub-group engaged in tattooing affects how society perceives it, society’s perception increases the amount of that sub-group which acquires tattoos, which reinforces the general perception. (Conversely when tattoos were marginalised a 'negative feedback loop' was created.)

Now tattoos are everywhere.  Take your kids to the Wacky Warehouse and there’s probably a machine selling fake tattoo transfers.  There’s a tattoo Barbie (I know this because I have two daughters and not because I have a dubious interest in girls' toys) and tattoos are becoming part of mainstream advertising culture through the use of both tattoo-style fonts and tattooed models.

Above all, I think it’s interesting to note that while Joey Barton’s mentor Alan Shearer (a no-game ban for kicking Neil Lennon in the head) and his tiresome golf buddies got all hot and bothered about footballers wearing snoods, they’ve had little to say about the rise of the tattoo among players, but then whatever else tattoos have represented over the years, they have – particularly due to their military links - represented masculinity and patriotism.  Snoods, well, they’re ‘effeminate’ and ‘foreign’ and we can’t allow that now, can we?

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