Body Art - Ink, Metal or Both
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time in London,
Belsize Park and
are considered to
be some of the
most chic and elite
of the capital's
villages) - and
I stumbled on
What a joy! Crouch End is a little
oasis nestling in the green
expanses of North London yet still just a
short train or bus ride to the centre of the
city. Crouch End is becoming the capital's
most avant garde enclave, boasting all the
newest and best in London culture. There are
music, art and performance venues to cover
all tastes, interesting, varied and unique
locally owned shops as well as restaurants to
cater for all tastes. So it was no surprise to
me that Crouch End is now home to a
modern tattoo and piercing parlour. I met
and talked with the owner of North Side
Tattoos, Rod Medina, to get to understand
the background, culture and current status of
the growing fashion of body art.
The earliest examples of the use of tattoos
are not easy to establish. It is known that
over three thousand years ago a form of
tattooing was used by Egyptian pharaohs
and other ancient leaders, not only as a form
of decoration, but also as a way of sending
'secret' messages to their allies and envoys.
A slave's head would be shaved and tattooed
with a message. The hair would then be
allowed to grow back before the slave was
dispatched on his mission.When he arrived
at his destination, his head would again be
shaved and the message read.While it was a
slowish method of clandestine
communication, it was probably still faster,
cheaper and more reliable than the Royal
Mail is today.
Around the same period, forms of
tattooing began to evolve independently in
Europe, South America and Japan. These used
differing techniques and portrayed different
subjects. In the case of Europe, tattoos were
more likely to have consisted of symbolic
representations of gods, icons and real things
such as animals, rather than the motif style
that was to grow throughout South East Asia.
European tattooing was lost for centuries -
probably longer - and it is now accepted by
most scholars that the Iban tribe of
Borneo were the first to employ
the decorative art form that we
The Iban tattoos were
motif based and used,
mainly, to denote tribal
and family allegiances.
From Borneo, their use
spread throughout the
South Sea Islands,
Indonesia and, as
everyone who has
ever watched the
know, New Zealand. So important was the use of
identification tattoos, that modern
anthropologists have studied the
phenomenon in order to trace the migration
of peoples and races around the Pacific and
It was with the European exploration of
the South Sea Islands in the late 1700s that
tattoos as a body-art form were adopted
again by western cultures. Initially, this was
by sailors returning from their long voyages
of discovery. However, as before, the
European use of the tattoo was more of a
pictorial representation - their ships, or
scenes, or birds and animals - than the more
exotic, sometimes esoteric, motifs of the
The down side
Thirty years ago, in western societies, tattoos
had several meanings. Normally they meant
that the wearer had either been in the
Merchant Navy, the armed forces, prison, or a
street gang, or was a heavy metal biker.
Again, they were used as labels of
identification, showing that you belonged to
a certain group. They were mostly simple and
basic, sometimes crude and often applied in
a none-too-expert manner. Many men still
regret having their first girlfriend's name,
along with an arrow through the heart,
permanently imprinted on their bicep in a
grubby shed on the seafront after a drunken
outing to Blackpool, Brighton or Southend...
especially, as they normally split up with said
girl a few weeks later - often because she
didn't like the tattoo!
There was another negative perception
of the tattoo as a result of World War II,
during which tattoos were used to both
identify inmates of the concentration camps,
and also to mark SS soldiers' blood-groups so
as to help with their medical care if injured.
But over the past decade or so these
perceptions have changed. Tattoos are now
recognised as a genuine art form and a
fashion accessory for mainstream and wellto-
do echelons of society. This has mainly
come about through our obsession with the
celebrity culture - most notably, football
icons, pop stars and people who have
celebrity status although no-one quite knows
why.Who isn't aware of David Beckham's
secondary role of being a walking billboard
so that we can all remember the names of
his offspring? Not only this, but the tattoos
are becoming, larger, more complex and
more specialised in design. No longer do they
simply say 'I love mum' or 'MUFC', but are
genuine and intricate works of art.
The demographic background of the
tattooed person is also changing. Youngsters
will still be found sporting a small simple
design of a skull, a heart, an eagle or their
football club crest, but the real growth now
is in the thirty-to-thirty-five and over group
- both men and women. These people are
mature enough to know what they really
want and also have the money to achieve it
- and the designs they commission are
becoming more complex and bespoke.
The art is moving away from simply
picking a standard image from a sample book
to working with the artist to create the
custom look that you really want - and may
have thought about for a few years before
committing to it. Increasingly, tattoo artists
themselves are becoming more specialised.
Rod in his parlour in Crouch End, while
offering custom designs, has his basic work
very much derived from Polynesian and
Japanese influences. Other parlours may
specialise in animal images and others may
have a more Gothic feel to what they do.
Getting a tattoo
Firstly, you have to be able to show that you
are eighteen or over. Next, decide why you
want one and consider the design. To help
you decide, there are a surprisingly large
number of specialist magazines that explain
everything you need to understand before
even approaching an artist - and they also
contain galleries of various design types to
inspire you. Titles include Tattoo, Skin Deep,
Skin Shots, and Urban Ink.
The next stage is to go to a parlour and
discuss it with the artist. A good practitioner
will counsel you in detail before starting any
work, to make sure that you have really
thought it through and are certain that it is
what you want. Remember; like a dog, a
tattoo is not just for Christmas, it's for life!
(Tattoos can be removed, but it's a long,
slow, painful process and cannot be fully
guaranteed to remove all traces, and the skin
will always have some degree of marking. It
will also be expensive. (Under some
circumstances, the NHS can offer certain
removal procedures if a tattoo is visible on
normally exposed parts of the skin and could
affect the wearer's ability to obtain certain
employment - but don't count on it.)
What can I expect to pay?
There is no real answer to this. You will get
nothing for less than £50, and this will
only be a tiny standard mark - such
as a very, very small motif. Not
only is tattooing highly labourintensive,
it is carried out by
talented and highly-trained
artists. The equipment used is
not cheap, and expensive
needles have to be
discarded after every
session so the parlour
overheads are high.
From here on, the
sky is almost the limit.
Mostly, you will pay by
the hour and, typically, this will be £70 to £80 per hour.
This will normally apply to the initial
counselling and consultation as well as the
production of artwork for a bespoke or
customised design. An artist will usually give
an estimate of the time the work will take,
and if it's a very big commission, the rate
may be discounted.
Does it hurt?
Piercing - raising the bar?
Almost always, it seems, if someone has
body piercing done, they will have previously
acquired at least one tattoo. The opposite
does not apply, and many people with
tattoos wouldn't contemplate piercing - ears
excepted, of course. So to go for a body
piercing is really upping the ante.
However, a single piercing is a much
cheaper form of adornment than a tattoo,
and can start from as little as £20 in a
specialist parlour - and even less for a single
ear-stud administered in a pharmacy.
A piercing is also far more flexible and can be
used to hold not only a wide range of
decorative devices but, in some
circumstances, functional ones as well. Also,
if you decide you have had enough of it, you
can remove the stud or whatever, the flesh
usually heals over, and it is gone.
Typically, a standard piercing will not
cost more than £50 unless you're asking for
more costly jewellery or you and the piercing
After ears, the most common places are the
navel, the tongue and the nose, followed by
eyebrows.While, fewer in number, nipple
piercings are also quite common.
Genital piercing is much rarer and
altogether a different kettle of fish (I think
there's a joke there somewhere!). Not only
that, many body-art parlours will not carry it
out. There are highly specialised practitioners
for this type of work, which more resembles
superficial surgery than simple piercing.
Aftercare can be more concentrated and the
risk of infection, obviously, is much higher.
Unlike tattooing, the age of people
having piercings remains relatively low, with
most new devotees being in their late teens
to mid-twenties.While virtually all
demographic groups now have their share of
tattoo-wearers, those who are body-pierced
have a tendency to be either from the BDSM
fraternity or the Goth brigade.
Body art is now a growing and
increasingly acceptable form of fashionstatement
for everyone - but whatever you
decide to have done, take time over the
decision to be sure that you get the result
you really want.
The tattoo images (below and
the main background design
in the article) were supplied by
Rod Medina from North Side
Tattoo of 32a Middle Lane,
Crouch End, London N8.
Tel: 0208 340 7743
or take a look at his Blog:
You can try a temporary tattoo, just to see if it really is what you want
before committing to the permanent version. These are really just skintop
inks and will last, typically, for around two weeks. It is a good way
of assessing your commitment, decorating for a party or to give you
flexibility to change your 'war paint' as the mood takes you. However, it
is not the real thing and will not be as defined. This is, effectively, body
painting and could be a place to start for you if you are unsure. For
more information have a look at one of the major suppliers of these
products, Jagua, at www.jaguatattoo.co.uk They, notably, do not use socalled
'black henna' - para-phenylenediamine - a potentially harmful
chemical, but a natural dye extracted from the fruit Genipapo American
- known in South America as 'jagua'.
Lastly, there is the semi-permanent version. This method uses a
needle process and temporary stains that can last for between three
and five years. However, they do tend to fade and the
image blurs quite quickly.
The sound advice is to ask
your artist and they will
advise whatever they think
is best for you.