Tattoos have been commonplace in societies around the world since the Neolithic Age. The first can be dated back to around 3300 BC and belonged to Otzi the Iceman, whose body was unearthed in 1991 around the Austrian Alps. In some religions, tattoos are seen as ungodly, preventing the soul of the person from ascending. Interpretations of the Torah are known to explicitly forbid tattoos. But for some, tattoos are important markings within their religious beliefs, with some seeing them as pseudo-passports for the forgiveness of sins.
For others, tattoos are a formative experience; a rite of passage to signify adulthood. Some get tattoos to represent special moments in their lives – to become a walking tableau of their passions and their experiences.
For Britney Spears, her new snake tattoo – now forever imprinted on her lower back – appears to represent her impending divorce from partner of six years, Sam Asgari (but, as she says in an Instagram post from 18 August, she isn’t here to explain why they’ve broken up). As is often the case with Britney, people are keen to project their interpretations onto her behaviour.
It’s often found in tattoo and body modification culture that the process has origins in poor mental health, with some tattoos designed to signify mental health issues. Begun by Project Semicolon in 2013, the semicolon tattoo has become a symbol for suicide and mental health awareness. For myself, as somebody who has struggled with poor mental health over many years, tattoos have become an important part of my life.
In 2019, my grandmother passed away from cancer. It was her fourth type of cancer in 10 years. To represent it, she had a tattoo designed of a phoenix wrapped around a Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon. Her reasoning for getting the tattoo was to symbolise her “rise from the ashes” of cancer, having had a mastectomy for breast cancer and a hysterectomy for ovarian cancer. She was a fighter, who I miss dearly.
In 2021, once tattoo studios were allowed to open again post-Covid, I went to a local tattooist and requested my own version of her tattoo in her honour. Over the years that I knew my grandmother, she was always a rock when it came to my mental health. One time, after disclosing a bout of self-harm to her, she took me aside and calmly scalded me.
She was disappointed that I had not come to her for help with the various aspects of my life that had caused my mental health to plummet to the point of feeling suicidal. I got the tattoo on my forearm, in the same place that I would self-harm, as a brisk reminder of her stern words. When I look at it, if my mental health ever returns to those depths and I feel the intrusive compulsion to hurt myself, it has the ability to ground me.
It’s important in society that we don’t turn our noses up at tattoos or body modifications. More often than not, the tattoos/modifications that people have are just there because they’re pretty. They may have just picked the image out of a book, and purchased them because they liked them.
But sometimes, tattoos invoke deep and evocative feelings in the person proudly showcasing an artist’s work. You never know what history and memory is attached to a piece of art that a person has allowed to be stabbed into their skin. If anyone is willing to go through physical pain for something then, to them, it’s worth it, and we’d be a better society for not judging.