What we can learn from David Dimbleby's tattoo

In the same week that a natural disaster has decimated the lives of thousands in the Philippines, mainstream media has been wetting itself with excitement at the chance to gloss over 'depressing' news with some light-hearted controversy. That arrived when David Dimbleby was tattooed during the filming of a new BBC series on maritime history. I think it's great that David Dimbleby got a tattoo. Why? Because it shows some kind of societal acceptance for tattoos now? Because I love the art he's now baring on his right shoulder? Because I think old people with tattoos are just awesome? No, no and no.

David Dimbleby
David Dimbleby

I think it's great because Dimbleby chose to get his tattoo as a culmination of his learning around naval history and the culture for tattoos in that world. His choice of design, a scorpion, is a reflection of his star-sign, Scorpio and is tucked away discreetly on his back. The tattoo was something he 'always wanted' and getting one was a 'dream come true'. He took a decision, after potentially decades of desire, to get his tattoo despite the potential controversy and criticism he'd receive as a person in such a position.

This is the stark opposite of the modern day tattoo recipient. Disclaimer: I love tattoos. Tattoos are great. I can talk for hours to the handful of friends I know whose tattoos are meaningful, thought-out pieces of work, and every inch of their body has been crafted into something that they have desired, planned, and is for themselves.

Sadly, the counterweight to that handful of friends is a boatload of others whose tattoos are an expensive, lifelong mark of a short period where they thought tattoos would serve to get them noticed, and maybe the occasional comment of 'nice tat bro'. The exact opposite of Dimbleby, these people hop onto Google Images, type in the idea that they woke up with that morning, print off the image and get it tattooed onto the most in-your-face (sometimes literally on their face) area of their body that they can find at the nearest walk-in tattoo parlour (a problem that perpetuates the issue, sure, but there's no question of chicken/egg scenarios here - walk-in parlours are merely catering to this audience). The pinnacle of this being a few years ago when someone showed me his latest tattoo: A gorilla's face. On his hand. Why? Because 'it looks sick'.

Dimbleby's tattoo shouldn't be viewed as a sign that tattoos are finally acceptable in mainstream society. It's a sign that we should curtail our obsession with tattoos. Tattoos should be meaningful. They should have more time spent on them in planning than it takes for you to eat your morning bowl of Cap'n Crunch. But most of all a tattoo should never be for anyone but yourself. It's your mark, and it's going to be with you for life. Make sure it counts for you. If your tattoo is anything less than a 'dream come true', then don't do it.

I enjoyed the Guardian article about a future of tattooed OAPs, but it suggests that in a few decades time young people will be avoiding tattoos in fear of looking like their grandparents. I hope that never happens. Instead, I hope tattoos become part of our culture in a deeper way. They are a method of telling our own narratives, and that's something everyone needs to understand, young and old. Deeper meaning in the art we put on our bodies will bring deeper meaning to the culture itself. Let's not view Dimbleby's tattoo as anything other than a confirmation of this.