ON HIS back there is a picture of a guardian angel; on his neck
there is a winged cross; and on his right side there is an image of
the flagellated Christ. Unless he has recently returned from the
tattoo parlour with yet another piece of body art, David Beckham
has, to date, 40 tattoos - many of them based on religious
The footballer is the fashion leader, but the fashion itself has
many followers. Tattoos were once the domain of sailors and
eccentrics. Tattooing was a discreet and back-street business.
Today, the art is thriving. Shops offering tattoos and body
piercing are on the high streets. Many thousands of "respectable"
men and women shamelessly and openly decorate their bodies.
A modest tattoo might consist of a single design: a lone Chinese
character; a butterfly; a peace symbol such as a dove. Christians
might ask for a fish symbol or, more daringly, the letters J E S U
S and L O V E tattooed on the knuckles.
Some serious collectors have given over their whole bodies to
decoration. There are Goths with huge vampires and spiders' webs on
their faces and upper bodies. Dragons and mythical creatures are in
demand. The pictures selected by tattooists' clients are an
intriguing guide, both to society and to folk faith.
ALTHOUGH one should not normally judge character by appearance, in
the case of tattoos, arguably a different rule applies After all,
the man with multiple body piercings and provocative tattoos of
satanic images has chosen to look like that. He deliberately
presents himself as hostile to the world. The message is clear:
"Don't mix with me."
The sight of someone displaying religious imagery across his or
her body might provoke a different response. It can be
disconcerting to see a crucifixion on a flexed bicep, or the Sacred
Heart of Jesus displayed just above a pair of swimming trunks, but
it is more reassuring than studs and devils.
THERE will be those who welcome such open displays of faith.
Others might wonder whether the walking art gallery truly
understands the significance of what he or she is showing to the
world. If people select a deeply significant moment from the life
of Christ as nothing more than a frivolous decoration, some will
argue that they are committing an offensive act of indelible
blasphemy. It is both creating a graven image and taking the name
of God in vain, thus transgressing two of the Ten Commandments.
Indeed, tattooing is specifically prohibited in the Bible - not
that enthusiasts take much notice. The relevant text, Leviticus
19.28, has even been turned into a tattoo.
It is not surprising that religious-themed tattoos are popular,
in that tattooing appears to have taken on several of the functions
of religion. For a teenager, the first visit to a tattooist is a
rite of passage, often encouraged by, or at least undertaken with
the permission of, a parent. It has become a kind of secular
confirmation, or bar mitzvah, to be undertaken as soon as
the law permits. A tattooist may not accept a client under the age
of 18, but the law is not always observed.
A few years ago, when making a television documentary about
Butlin's Redcoats, I accompanied a young man as he set out to have
his first tattoo. He wanted a picture of Elvis on his torso.
Although over 18, he submitted to paternal guidance and settled for
a more discreet Elvis lightning logo on the upper arm.
MANY of Mr Beckham's tattoos are linked directly with family
events. As a pledge of devotion to his wife, Victoria, he had her
name permanently inscribed on his body. Not wanting a plain English
fount, he asked for it to be written in a Hindi script, but
unfortunately, in transcription, it went awry, and now reads
There was no mistake made when his children's names were
recorded in blue ink. In doing this, the celebrity family was
adopting a practice that is now widespread. I know one woman who
has the birth dates of each of her children on her arm, not as an
aide memoire, but as a celebration of motherhood. The
tattooist, like the civil celebrant, is increasingly replacing the
priest as the professional who helps to mark significant life
Perhaps, too, the tattooist helps to offer absolution. A tattoo
can be a symbol of confession. In 2004, a month after allegations
of an affair, Mr Beckham had a large angel tattooed on his arm,
with the motto "In the Face of Adversity". By way of explanation,
he said: "Everybody's got a way of expressing their feelings, and
mine is through my tattoos."
A TATTOO can be a talisman, a superstitious sign of protection;
but it might also be a declaration of belief, and belonging; thus
football-club logos and national flags are much in demand. In some
respects, having a tattoo is the equivalent of taking a life vow.
At the moment of solemn admission, a new member of a religious
order is making a commitment for life. Marriage, too, is "Till
death do us part". Arguably, a tattoo is a more permanent step; for
abandoning a religious vocation or obtaining a divorce are easier
steps to take than having a tattoo removed.
Being tattooed, I am told, can be uncomfortable; even, for the
nervous and sensitive, truly painful. For some, however, this might
be a necessary and significant part of the process. For subjecting
oneself to the many hours it takes for the artist's needle to
create a crucifixion scene on the body is in itself an act of
piety: a declaration of belief in, and an imitation of, Christ.
Ted Harrison is an artist and writer.