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A craze that disgusts

27 September 2013

THE world's most tattooed person is Tom Leppard, from the Isle of Skye, who has 99.9 per cent of his body covered in a leopard-skin design. The only untattooed parts of his body are the skin between his toes and the insides of his ears. Tattoos are a contemporary craze - with a long history of Christian disgust.

Everyone has a tattoo these days. International cricket players display whole arms covered in them; David Beckham has a good number; and recently Cheryl Cole spent £4000 on a rose tattoo that spans half the length of her petite frame. One fan said: "Why people want to mutilate their bodies with tattoos is beyond me."

Dr Edel McAndrew, a clinical psychologist, echoes this: "Self-expression is healthy, but there are always some who take things too far. In fact, some psychiatrists even refer to tattooing as a form of mutilation."

Some also regard it as a bit working class, although some of it is surprisingly posh. Caesar, in the first century AD, reported that all Britons stained their body with woad. King Harold's corpse was identified after the Battle of Hastings by his tattoos; and, in 1862, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm on a visit to the Holy Land.

With such royal approval, the practice became fashionable with aristocrats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - including women. Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had a snake tattooed on her wrist. It was an expensive process, but later, as costs came down, tattoos became a hobby for society's lower classes, and the practice fell out of favour with the posh.

Christians have never been keen. In 325, the Emperor Constantine banned facial tattoos among believers, as they disfigured God's image; and in 787, a council of churches in Northumberland banned all body markings as pagan, advocating instead the veneration of holy images.

A thousand years on, missionaries in Polynesia condemned the practice, which was deeply ingrained in Maori culture, quoting Leviticus 19.28: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead, or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord." In a practice known as "holy stoning", they would try to remove tattoos by rubbing the skin with sandstone. This involved scouring the body raw. Today, laser surgery offers a less painful option for the removal of unwanted markings.

The deep stain of tattoos is a cry for permanence in an impermanent world; or the search for external identity where an internal sense of this is shaky. This leaves the pressing question for all tattoo virgins: if you had to have a tattoo, what would be your mark of choice?

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