Expunging the Simply Inexpungeable

It is “The Who” who sing it on the album The Who Sell Out (1967):

Welcome to my life, tattoo
I’m a man now, thanks to you
I expect I’ll regret you
But the skin graft man won’t get you
You’ll be there when I die

(And they sing it so sweetly, too: just savor the descending harmony at the end of this chorus. If you don’t already know it, you can get some of the melodious flavor of the song from Amazon with Windows Media Player and with Real Player, although unfortunately these extracts don’t include that stretch of harmony of which I speak.)

Ah, but it doesn’t have to be the “skin graft man” anymore – these days tattoos can be erased by a procedure involving a laser. As it happens, and as the lead to a recent article in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel reports (Bleibende Schönheit, or “Beauty That Sticks Around”), “Many British want to be rid of their tattoos.”

(Just before we go “under the fold,” let me add that The Who Sell Out was quite a remarkable concept album, one of the first of that genre, with station-jingles and faux commercials interspersed between the individual songs. The schtick was to make the entire album sound like a pop music program from one of the “pirate” radio stations, broadcasting those days from ships out in adjoining international waters, outside (or so they thought) of UK regulatory jurisdiction. Consistent with all this, the front and back of the LP/CD cover features the boys of the band individually posing for mock product advertisements: Heinz Baked Beans, Odorono (some type of deodorant; probably fictitious), etc. Later on, in the late 1980s, the band would embark on “reunion tours” actually explicitly sponsored by companies such as Budweiser. But then they had also sung “I hope I die before I get old” back in 1965 – and three of the four original band members made it into the 21st century thirty-five years later. One’s attitudes often tend to change as one grows older, I’m given to understand.)

So is this Bleibende Schönheit piece just a bit of tit-for-tat for all those weird stories about the “Krauts” coming from the UK tabloid press all the time, or is there actually something remarkable about the British and their tattoos? All of the above, of course! The (unnamed) Tagesspiegel correspondent in London certainly makes an ironclad case for the solid, even mainstream status of tattoos in British society. He/she quotes “The Observer” that every eighth Englander has a tattoo, a statistic that puts the country at the head of the line over every other European country in this category. It’s not only the well-known figures that have tattoos – Robbie Williams, David Beckham – but increasingly even people in their forties who have chosen to decorate themselves with their favorite motifs. You can even buy a Barbie decked out with a tiny tattoo on her plastic abdomen!

No less than King George V (ruled 1910 to 1936) had had a dragon tattooed on his arm while visiting Japan (well before he ascended the throne, of course). Did that 19th-century event give some sort of aristocratic cachet to tattoos, and thus start them on their way to widespread acceptance in the UK? Unlikely: for tattoos had been associated with sailors, ever since Captain Cook’s sailors returned home with the first tattoos back in the 1700s, and one hundred years later the then-Prince George was having a solid career as an officer in the Royal Navy before becoming the sovereign. That metamorphosis of tattoos from being something mainly for sailors to being something for everyone must have happened much later, and in fact this article doesn’t really go into the causes.


For whatever reason, they are now widespread, but this has led to the pendulum swinging back: if “everyone” has one (and it’s not “everyone,” but you have to admit that one-out-of-eight is pretty impressive), then they’re no longer particularly distinctive. More and more people want rid of them, it seems, as a couple of quotes from proprietors of “lasercare clinics” seem to indicate, talking about their drastic increase in business in recent years from people coming to get their tattoos taken off. Often it’s the businessman who went on somewhat of a binge one weekend when young, but now wants to be able to wear short-sleeved shirts again without having to hear snide remarks or suffer other embarrassment. And of course there are the many, many cases of names of ex-lovers being brought in for erasure. Actually, the article states that two-thirds of those seeking to get their tattoos erased are women between the ages of 25 and 50.

“Welcome to my life, tattoo/We’ve a long time together, me and you”: Still, for some there’s just no way back. Indiscretions, whether youthful or not, seldom come without any sort of penalty, and tattoo-removal with a laser is not only costly but rather unpleasant, as in “painful.” Plus, it generally leaves scars and/or discolored skin behind, so that for David Beckham and others who have made of their exteriors walking tattoo-galleries, removal is a hopeless cause – unless and until there’s yet another break-through in the medical technology, of course. Meanwhile, for those seven-out-of-eight Englishmen and -women still on the outside looking in: the “technology” for impermanent, removable skin decorations these days is also pretty good.

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