I had a new anxiety dream the other night. For a few years, inexplicably, my anxiety dreams have been about Ray Davies of the Kinks (you wouldn’t believe the stress of finding him the perfect taupe polo neck before he goes on TV). The other week, though, I had a new one. I imagined a tattoo was sliding down my arm, from my shoulder to my hand, until slipping off completely and leaving a muddy, inky stain on the sheets.
I had my first tattoo last October, aged 52: a large, full-colour rendering of a bird – a red kite – on my upper left arm. For years I had been one of those tutting inkphobes who didn’t understand why anyone would mutilate themselves. I would have agreed with a recent article in the Times by Melanie Phillips (paywall) in which she described tattoos as “a kind of desecration, the corruption of something that is pure, precious and the very quintessence of integrity”. Maybe not in those words, perhaps – I’d have just called them ugly – but the thought would have been the same.
But something changed in middle age. Call it a midlife crisis, if you want – my sister-in-law calls it a “manopause” – but at least it was cheaper and safer than buying a Ferrari. My wife had been following tattooists on Instagram for a while, because she fancied getting ink herself. She would comment often, and approvingly, on footballers’ arm designs, ignoring the slide-rule pass that put the striker in on goal. And though I had loudly and frequently dismissed tattoos, I had started looking, too, having noticed other people’s – not in any specific way; I had no tattoo role models – and appreciated them, particularly nature-based ones. I saw the beauty in many, though not all – there are lots of tattoos I don’t like, and I promise never to have “Only God Can Judge Me” tattooed on my throat – but enough that I started to wonder how I would look with ink.
Something else happened last year, though, without which I wouldn’t have made the step. I lost quite a lot of weight. I am not and will never be svelte; I will always be more comfortable with clothes that have an X on the size label, but at least I can stick to one X these days. I got rid of my belly, and some of my chins; my trousers became dramatically looser and I had to punch new holes in my belts. For the first time, I started to be pleased with the way I looked: I was able to buy nice clothes because nice clothes actually fit me.
After the weight loss and the clothes, I wanted to carry on looking different from the schlub I had been, and tattoos seemed the next step. They were not armour, not protection; they were projection.
For the middle-aged, tattoos seem not to be whims. They are markers of change, commemorations of events. Rebecca Vincent, whose beautiful floral line drawings have made her something of a superstar in the tattooing world – a waiting list of a year; 171,000 Instagram followers – sees a lot of middle-aged women at her London studio. “I should write a memoir with the stories I’ve heard,” she says. “People open up because they’re in a vulnerable place, and a lot of the time that first tattoo has a significant reason. Sometimes they are flowers to mark a birth; sometimes they mark a loss – a memorial tattoo. When you start getting them, they are so significant, but after two or three tattoos it becomes, ‘Ah, just have another one’.”
Sometimes the very insignificance counts. Beverlie Manson, 76, a children’s book illustrator, got her first ink in her 70s, after meeting the heavily tattooed man who would become her third husband. She, too, had not been much of a fan until she saw her husband naked. “The first time he and I got our kit off, I was shocked,” she says. “But it’s so aesthetically interesting.” His tattoos were random – she mentions the words “special fried rice”, in the relevant Chinese script, inked on his leg – and she decided to follow suit, with a line heart on the front of her left shoulder. But don’t read too much into it, she says. She deliberately avoided having something connected to her art (her specialism is drawing fairies). “The idea of having something meaningful didn’t sit well.”
Murray Chalmers, a 62-year-old veteran of music PR, started getting inked at 59 (friends enquired if he might regret it when he was older). Two relationships had ended, one after the other; he had moved back home to Scotland, and like me he wanted to mark change in his life. “I had spent a lot of my youth experimenting with clothes and fashion, and they are quite important but they’re ephemeral, they are transient. Tattoos are there for good.” As they did with me, they changed the way he saw himself. “Sometimes I wake up and see my arms and I can’t believe it’s me. The tattoos have become a document joining up different parts of my life. It’s an emotional commitment as well as a physical one.”
I’d like to say I carefully researched everything before going under the gun. I didn’t. There’s a tattoo studio called Flamin’ Eight round the corner from my home. I Googled it, and saw Time Out had recommended it as one of London’s best studios. I went in for a consultation with one of their artists, Dale Frame, in October. We went through a selection of photos, from which he would draw a stencil. We discussed placement (good studios are reluctant to give first-timers something that can’t be covered up with clothing) and price, and I was told to have a good breakfast before coming in a couple of weeks later.
Dale warned me the first tattoo would hurt. It was large, it was colour, it would take five hours, and it would be painful. To be honest, it really wasn’t – just a little uncomfortable. It turns out – forgive me for simplifying the science – that those of us blessed with ginger hair feel less skin pain than the rest of you. Something to do with pigmentation, but you’re better off asking a dermatologist. I was warned it would itch like hell as it healed (“Remember, a fresh tattoo is an open wound” is not a reassuring sentence). But it didn’t itch either (my wife, who has just had her first tattoo, of ivy tumbling down her shoulder, reports the itching is infernal).
A week later I was back for a second tattoo. Then, early this year, for a third and a fourth one, each time with Dale. After the second tattoo, a friend had said: “No one gets two tattoos. They have one, or they don’t stop.” Well, we’ll see how far it goes – I like the symmetry of two on each arm – but having tattoos is an addictive feeling. Not the inking itself, which is neither here nor there to me, but seeing the ink on my skin. Goodness knows it’s not cheap, though, which might be the main barrier to my keeping on. Four tattoos is already into four figures, and I look at people covered in ink and wonder how the hell they could afford it.
What I have on my body does not define me, but each piece represents some small part of my world. My first piece was the red kite, with a wingspan of around 20cm. I love red kites: it’s not that they symbolise the freedom to be on the wing, unencumbered by society or anything like that. I just love them and am fascinated by them. The third was a beautiful bare tree – one I walk past on Hampstead Heath several times a week, and had photographed (I had a tiny rendering of my cat put into a hole in the trunk, so she is on my skin for ever) – on my upper right arm. The fourth was four oak leaves, one for each member of our family, on the inside of my lower left arm.
The second is the most personal, perhaps, and the hardest to explain without sounding like an idiot. It’s a small black sheep, a detail from the cover of the record Out of Step by the hardcore punk band Minor Threat. I am not a huge devotee of hardcore – I like it more than the average, but that’s not hard. Minor Threat are not my favourite band, and Out of Step is not my favourite song of theirs: it’s a defiant yawp of pride about being straight edge (“I don’t drink / Don’t smoke / Don’t fuck / At least I can fucking think!”) and the only time I was straight edge was when abstinence wasn’t a lifestyle choice but the result of being a teenager. What’s more, as a straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class man, I’m about as in step with the world as anyone could be.
But I loved Minor Threat’s insane dedication to personal liberation through rock music, and the moments when I feel least trapped by my own self-consciousness have come through rock’n’roll: the times when I dance and sing and talk to strangers and come home much drunker than I really should. That little black sheep represents those moments when I can be the version of myself I enjoy most. I suppose all four tattoos do in some way, but that one matters to me more.
What Melanie Phillips didn’t understand is that while, yes, it is nicer if other people like one’s tattoos, that’s absolutely not the point of them. My tattoos make me feel physically confident for the first time in my life. I don’t mean I cowered away from people – I’m 6ft 3in and I know my physical presence is big – but that I was embarrassed by being an overweight, ginger lummox. Tattoos changed that, in a huge and significant way. I do not actually care what other people think of them (my 21-year-old daughter hates them and calls them “those marks on your arms”, which makes me laugh) because they’re not for anyone else.
They’re for me. And I love them.
Michael Hann is the author of Denim and Leather: The Rise and Fall of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, published by Constable.