Picture a heavily built man with a vicious expression on his face stepping in front of a raucous mob. They scream at him shoving and striking out as he takes a wrathful stance infront of them, arms spread wide in a gesture for the mob to "bring it on". His arms are sleeved from shoulder to wrist in tattoos making them look like weapons. But this isn't the scene from a prison gang fight or a bar brawl. The figure described above is not a criminal or a hoodlum, he is a modern day hero for a generation of hardcore punk/metal rockers. The man we are talking about is M Shadows, frontman from Avenged Sevenfold, one of the most heavily tattooed bands in the world. The band's style has been influenced by their own musical idols but nowadays with a new wave of tattoo styles and fashions, bands like Avenged Sevenfold are part of a new breed of fashion icons leading younger generations to cover themselves in body art.
There has always been a great deal of stigma attached to tattoos in western society. Many still believe in the social stereotypes that tattoos are for criminals and sailors but these views are not shared by burgeoning numbers as modern fashions have adapted and trends indicate that they are becoming hugely popular.( Harris Poll, 2003, estimates that 36% of those aged between 25-29 have one or more tattoos but only 24% of Americans between 18 and 50 have them. These figures emphasise the obvious growth in popularity of tattooing among the younger generations). The stigma still exists though and the stereotypes are not completely false. Many marines are still branded at sea and gang members from the USA and the Western Cape in South Africa tattoo themselves to show allegiance to their group. Some criminals in prisons and penitentiaries throughout the world still tattoo themselves to symbolise how many murders they have committed signified by teardrop tattoos under their eyes. While these practices still exist in the world is it possible to get rid of the negative views many people still have of tattooing?
I spoke with Derrick MacNish, a 39 year old photographer from the Glasgow area, about his views on the modern tattooing and the body modification culture in Scotland. Derrick is a heavily built man with an array of large tattoos on his arms and legs. His passion for body art became apparent when he spoke about the motivation behind getting his first tattoo 11 years ago.
"I think it was all down to my impetuous nature. I am a very spontaneous person and I tend to do things not really thinking about the future. At the time I suppose it was more about fashion than anything else." He continued, "The reason behind getting my first tattoo is not the same as the reason I get them now. I think it is an expression of your inner-self. I feel extremely passionate about my ink. It is a symbol of freedom of expression. However as passionate as I am about it I do realise that there are those who are equally dispassionate about them. I realise that there are people who hate tattooing or any form of body modification and that is fine. Each to their own, as long as people do not judge you by what they see. Anyway, my kids love it".
I tried to explore the disadvantages of having visible tattoos by questioning Derrick about whether or not he felt people treated him differently because of them.
"Yes people do treat me differently. My mother hates them for a start. I find that alot of people are still affected by the stigma that tattoos have and its not just the older generations. The stereotype is still alive and kicking with young people just now. Depending on the way they were brought up of course".
Derrick spoke of instances when he had been discriminated against and treated badly in social situations because of his tattoos. He also spoke of the interference they cause with his working life. "I constantly have to think about whether or not i need to wear a long sleeved shirt depending on who is going to be there. I know that some people in work dislike them. It makes it difficult".
As we explored this subject further it became obvious that Derrick feels that the discrimination and social outcasting that people with tattoos can suffer is unjustified.
"People getting tattoos isn't really that much different from people buying themselves expensive fancy clothes to express themselves and make themselves feel and look good. The difference is that when they take off their clothes there is no significant difference between them and their neighbour. My ink makes my body unique and it will be with me until I die".
He spoke with disdain about people who have offensive tattoos and the bad tattooists that keep the stigma alive. I picked up on the fact that when Derrick spoke about good tattooists he referred to them as artists but the bad ones were merely tattooists.
"Throughout the lifetime of tattooing the artistry with which they are applied has grown tremendously. Not every tattooist is as skilled and professional as the next. Badly done tattoos of inappropiate designs or symbols do nothing to help the acceptance of inkwork as a true artform. Getting great ink is costly but for the most part you get what you pay for. Great artists can charge a higher fee for their work and will have a long waiting list as they will be able to pick and choose those people and designs that appeal to their nature and chosen style. Like any self respecting artist they don't want to be associated with bad or derogatory work. On the flip side those who are not so good or have less moral standing will tattoo anyone and anything in order to make a living. There will always be those who have offensive tattoos and that in itself is a reflection on them and does nothing to reduce or eliminate the stigma attached to tattooing".
Derrick is not alone in his opinions. There are a huge number of subcultures in which tattooing and body modification are very popular. M Shadows and his team of tattooed fashion icons have proved that. But what if tattoos go out of fashion? You can't just bag your tattoos and give them to the charity shop. It is a huge decision, you have to live with it forever. Tattoos are getting larger and more intricate and colourful. However, in spite of the growth in popularity and new advances in techniques and styles there is still a large portion of the population whose views are unfavourable and there is no evidence that these views are dissipating. People do judge others based on their appearance and unfortunately people do still treat others based on these judgements. Regardless of the meaning behind one's tattoos, how intricate they are or how accurate an expression they are of one's emotions and personality, there doesn't seem to be any social propensity for tattoos becoming completely acceptable anytime soon. Nevertheless, as Derrick emphasised earlier "I'm not asking everyone to like them, I'd just rather people wouldn't judge me because of them". Not an unreasonable request and a view shared by many I'm sure.
You can see some of Derrick's work at http://www.myspace.com/derrickjphotography