Marks out of 10 - In a whorl of their own

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

Tattoos: A Scarred History



Most people, Spikey Bob explains, only have the words "Mum" or "Dad" tattooed on their bodies after their parents die. This seemed an oversight to him, so he had the word Dad tattooed as a tribute to his still-living father. "My dad hates tattoos," he adds, as an afterthought.

Spikey Bob - the name seems less an eccentric oddity and more a functional description when you see him - is one of the interviewees in Tattoos: A Scarred History, a new documentary DVD. And, unfortunately, the level of insight he offers is typical of the entire 90-minute film.

Documentary-maker Sousila Pillay has noticed some people with tattoos - "my fiance has three" - and decided that this represents a social trend. Armed with a camera, she sets out to answer the question: "Why has the once-taboo art form become so popular in today's society?"

A man called Sampa von Cyborg volunteers that tattoos were considered taboo only because society is full of "fucking turds". Another man whips off his trousers to reveal a tattoo of a dragon, stretching across his genitals. The colours, he says, brighten when he has an erection. "People look on it as a work of art, rather than sexual," he adds.

This is tattoo as disguise: something to hide behind, a means of pre-emptively rejecting a society you fear will reject you. But the documentary never quite confronts this point.

Instead, a large section is devoted to interviews with what appears to be the Celebrity Big Brother rejects' queue. Warwick Davis, star of the 1988 film Willow, claims "some tattoos look nice, but not lots of them". Then John Landis, director of Michael Jackson's Thriller video, offers: "I think they're a bit creepy, but I admire the art."

By the time Ms Pillay checks in with her old sociology tutor at Chester University, the project already has the feel of a piece of undergraduate research. One suspects that she has seen some documentaries, thinks she understands how the whole documentary-making lark works, and decided to give it a whirl. What else can explain the arbitrary decision to film primarily in black and white? Or the gratuitous use of the bedroom confessional in an otherwise scripted film?

But, occasionally - possibly accidentally - the documentary touches on some genuinely interesting material.

There is, for example, Mary Gaffney. After a double mastectomy, she has rejected traditional nipple reconstruction: "You're not a cookie-cutter, with the same treatment as the next person." She is searching for a tattoo artist who will recreate her nipples artistically. This is a moving look at one woman's efforts to deal with the aftermath of cancer. Revealingly, it is produced by a different crew.

Meanwhile, a section on the fast-growing internet trade in tattoo kits could make a documentary itself. Children are buying them for #163;40 ("I don't even pay #163;40 for one bottle of ink," says a professional tattoo artist), and mutilating each other in the playground at lunchtime. Their sterilisation procedure consists of dousing needles under a running tap.

It is not only schoolyard tattooists who require a health warning. Third-hand accounts highlight the charlatans: pouring used ink back into the bottle; replacing ink with carpet dye. This is juxtaposed against more celebrity interviews: actor Mackenzie Crook warns against word-based tattoos, while the Scissor Sisters counsel against using the name of anyone living.

People wanting to scare off tattoo-happy pupils, however, just need show them the last 10 minutes. Tattoos having become more or less mainstream, deliberate outcasts such as von Cyborg are forced to seek their thrills elsewhere.

And so the trend of tongue-splitting: an operation to divide the tongue in two. "It's good for kissing and oral sex," says von Cyborg, wrapping one fork of his divided tongue around the other. Then there is scarification: the process of carving tattoos into the skin with a scalpel. The film shows detailed, bloody footage of this; this reviewer suddenly discovered an urgent need to double-check her notes.

Somewhere in among all this are the germs of a hard-hitting documentary. But with the studied equal-handedness of an essay-writing student, Ms Pillay ignores them all. "There are so many views," she concludes. "The answer is probably a combination of them all."

The Verdict: 3 out of 10.

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