Ink and Identity image

Ink and Identity

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To understand the discombobulation of modern British males, you need only to go and sit in the kids swimming pool at CenterParcs.

That’s not why I went, obviously. I went because it’s probably the place in the world where my children are happiest. But it’s hard to sit there without noticing the attempts at self-discovery, identity quests and proclamations of the preferred self that exist all around you. They are everywhere - of all the middle-aged men I saw in the week, I was one of a tiny number who didn’t have one - and their ubiquity and polyvalence testify to exactly the sense of alienation and confusion within modern males that The Economist wrote about so thoughtfully last week. I refer, of course, to tattoos.

Matt has written previously about the relationship between ink, self-design, corporeal malleability and gnosticism, and his basic point strikes me as right. The preponderance of tattoos is not intrinsically sinful or idolatrous - and pastorally, there are far bigger fish to fry - but it may also reflect an anthropology in which the soul is real, fixed, an end, and the body is transient, adaptable, a means. So I was not surprised by the number of tattoos in the swimming pool at CenterParcs, even as I felt slightly left out for not sporting one myself. No: what interested me were the attempts at establishing male identity that they represented.

Designs fall into several groups, and I kept myself amused by proposing an (enormously speculative and uninformed) exegesis of each. Least common are the traditional pictures, like the roses, lions, vehicles or flowers that bikers (fathers?) had drawn forty years ago. My guess is that these indicate a desire for historical continuity and perhaps class identity: this is the sort of tattoo that men like me have traditionally had. Much more popular, for those who want images without words, are the eastern-looking squiggles of fire and fury that presumably represent danger and intrigue, and aim to project an identity of a dark side and an understated threat, but always look to me a bit like the symbol that Prince changed his name to in the early nineties. Artistically I quite like them, but any darkness or fear they might otherwise engender is surely vitiated by the fact that, since they generally appear on shoulder blades, they can only be seen in swimming pools - and is there anywhere safer, lighter, more middle-class, more middle-aged or less threatening than the kids swimming pool at CentreParcs?

For many men, as you might expect, identity is found in fatherhood, a fact clearly attested to by the number of men whose children’s names and birthdays appear on their bodies. More surprising, to me, are the symbols of nationhood: flags, bulldogs, the word “England.” (It may say something about the ongoing viability of the Union that I did not once see “Britain.”) Then there are the obligatory fortune-cookie words or phrases in other language scripts, usually Chinese or Hebrew but occasionally Arabic or Sanskrit - let’s face it, they do look cooler than Cyrillic, Burmese or (God forbid) Latin - which I can only assume are intended to communicate a blend of well-travelled experience, philosophical originality and oriental sagacity, as well as the aesthetic good taste to have it printed in a script in which even nursery rhymes look deep. And finally, at least in my amateur catalogue, are the easiest to expound: the lines of wisdom or poetry in English, rhythmic and pithy words scribbled across the pectorals in the same way they might be scribbled across a schoolboy’s desk. These, presumably, provide a sense of identity like a motto or a mantra does: I am the sort of person who believes and lives by this sort of principle, whether wise or not (one rather large man had chosen “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”, and I wondered whether he knew in whose mouth Milton had placed this line).

The tattoos at CentreParcs, then, look to me like they bear witness to a variety of ways of defining and projecting male identity. Despite my apparent rootlessness, I am a man with historical or class solidarity. Despite my smile, childcare responsibilities and office job, I am a man with a dark side. Hey, I have a nation. I have children. I have eclectic worldwide words of wisdom. I have a motto to live by. I know who I am. Do you?

In light of all this, it’s fascinating to think that one day, history will be wrapped up by the only man who has never suffered an identity crisis, and he will have words written on his body, declaring that identity to the world: King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the only one in whom all our conflicting concepts of self, purpose and destiny make sense. You made us for yourself, O Lord, and both our hearts and our identities are restless until they find their rest in you.

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