Body Art - Ink, Metal or Both

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Having lived, during my time in London, in Hampstead, Belsize Park and Highgate (what are considered to be some of the most chic and elite of the capital's villages) - and been generally unimpressed - I stumbled on Crouch End...

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 history

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 know today.

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, reaching Polynesia, Indonesia and, as everyone who has ever watched the All Blacks' Haka will 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 Australasian regions.

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 southern hemisphere.

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.

Tattoos today

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 somewhere 'special'.

Piercing points

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:

Non-Permanent Options

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 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.