My lecture on tattoos for ME4 Writers live event

Photo: Sam Hall reads at ME4 Writers event

Sam Hall reads at ME4 Writers event

I delivered this ‘lecture’ as part of ME4 Writers live literature event on 5 March. You can find out more about ME4 Writers at

Trend it like Beckham

Deciding to permanently alter your body is the ultimate statement of self-possession.

For centuries people have altered the way they look – temporarily with clothes and make up – or more permanently with tattoos, scars and piercings.

This body is mine and I reclaim it from fashion and fad by making the additions and refinements that please me.

The first piercings and tattoos were used for the dual purpose of ritual and decoration.

Giant holes in the earlobes of the ancient Mayans signify not only high standing, but also participation in the important religious ceremony of piercing.

In Africa scarring on the face represents a complex language in itself.

An old Maori endurance ritual involves being tattooed from head to foot with no anaesthetic.

Sailors of former and latter days used tattoos and earrings as a corporeal chart, their bodies mapping their voyages in a secret language.

The swallow is similar to the bluebird tattoo in that they both represent hope, but the swallow is also considered to be a nautical tattoo.  Sailors would celebrate after seeing a swallow as it meant that their journey was almost over and that they were close to land.

For many sailors each journey would be represented by another swallow on their sleeve and a swallow with a dagger through it would mean that they had lost a friend at sea.

Across the globe people have reshaped their bodies – by removing ribs, elongating necks, or flattening foreheads in the attempt to transcend the everyday into the holy.

It was perhaps the ultimate empowerment: this body is mine and I can do with it as I please.

But what of modern body art? We have transformed these early individualistic, ceremonial urges. The desire to have the same tattoos as Robbie Williams or David Beckham.  Is that a work of living art? Is that holy? Does it tell you a secret about you?

We have decided to stamp our lack of individuality on our skin, like a brand. Brand it like Beckham. A trend no more extreme or ritualistic, but simply mundane.

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