A group of heavily tattooed men were in court today…

tattoo-workThe title of this post appeared in an ABC news story this morning, and it immediately reminded me of my parents’ prejudice about tattoos, or more exactly, those who had tattoos.

They believed you could identify the less desirable elements of society simply by the presence of tattoos. So, according to my parents some 50 years ago, who had tattoos?

  • Convicted criminals
  • Criminals yet to be convicted
  • Criminals who had served their sentence or who were on parole.

Oh, and I almost forgot, boxers.

I don’t think they thought about (or knew?) other cultures, such as New Zealand Māoris, that have a long tradition of tattoos.  And at that time there were no advocates of body-rights: “It’s my body and I’ll disfigure it if I want to.” (Woops, there’s my inherited prejudice showing through.) Nor were the health risks understood: tetanus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

In my parents’ day there were no bikie gangs. There was no talk about tattoo parlours being used for gang money laundering, nor were tattoo parlours being torched, bombed or shot at from passing cars.

In fact I don’t think there was such a thing as tattoo parlours, unless you considered prison as one big tattoo parlour.

So moving forward fifty or sixty years, how does our community regard tattoos today? Who is wearing tattoos in 2014 in Sydney Australia? It’s a bit more widespread now; you’ll predominantly find them amongst:

  • Criminals serving time
  • Defendants in court
  • Friends of defendants in court
  • Bikie gang members
  • Professional and amateur boxers
  • Cage fighters
  • Tattoo parlour operators
  • Bouncers outside clubs, pubs and casinos
  • New Zealand tourists and immigrants

In the last decade or more there’s also been a fashion-led increase amongst younger people. This seems to align somewhat with the body-rights movement: “It’s my body and if I want to reduce my employment opportunities then that’s my right.”

The key term here is “fashion”. The trouble with fashion is it’s fickle. It may be fashionable amongst your peers, but if two people are competing for the same job, the one with visible tattoos had better be damned good!

It’s all about our prejudices. These are things we pick up from our parents, our friends and our experience in our community.

Here are some examples that are in our face all the time:

  1. On the TV news report of a murder trial, the friends of the defendant coming out of the courthouse have heavy tattooing. The lawyers don’t have tattoos. The Judge and the police guarding the witnesses don’t have tattoos.
  2. The man carrying your new two-door refrigerator into your home without using a trolley is covered with tattoos. The man who sold it to you didn’t have any. Nor did the owner of the shop.
  3. In your local mall, the young men dressed in blue shorts, singlets and thongs have tattoos. The shop owners don’t have tattoos. (Thongs are very casual Australian footwear.)
  4. TV journalists don’t have tattoos, but the story may describe a crime suspect who has tattoos. (And don’t approach him because he is considered dangerous.)
  5. Your doctor doesn’t have tattoos. Your priest doesn’t.
  6. The architect who designed your new home doesn’t have tattoos, but the labourers building it do.
  7. Scientists telling us about climate change don’t have tattoos, but the bloke in the pub who tells you it’s all a conspiracy does.
  8. The salesman you bought your car from doesn’t have tattoos, but the tow-truck driver who takes it away after the accident does.

Sure, these are all stereotypes, but in our everyday experience tattoos jump out at us and we remember who has them. All this is negatively moulding our perception of people who have tattoos. It may not be right, but that’s the way it works.

And here’s the really dumb thing: if you plan a life of crime, tattoos are like bar-codes – they make it really easy for people to identify you.

Defence lawyer to witness:  “How can you possibly be certain it was my client who shot the victim?”

Witness: “Oh that’s easy. I’ll never forget that tattoo on his right arm.”




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