Can you ever feel classy as a painted lady As more middle-class women get tattoos, our writer discovers the VERY colourful reactions body art can provoke
21:49 GMT, 1 July 2012
At the grassy entrance to Henley Royal Regatta, a crowd of impeccably well-turned-out ladies and gentlemen is gathering.
The midday sun beats down and the air buzzes with the gentle hubbub of cut-glass tones as the throng waits to file through the gates.
And then, filtering just over my shoulder, I hear it. One word, uttered by a woman and at least an octave higher than the rest. ‘Hideous,’ it crows.Soon, ‘hideous’ is joined by a couple of ‘how awfuls’, before reaching a crescendo with a ‘ghastly’.
Marked: Beth Hale with her
I glance left, I glance right. What could possibly have provoked such horror in the leafy confines of this most well-heeled of summer galas Alas, one look down confirms the awful truth. For I — a 36-year-old former school prefect and perpetual creature of convention — am the subject of this middle-aged lady’s ire.
Why Today I have adorned my arms with a collection of tattoos, more commonly associated with muscle-bound dockers and football fans. My left arm is a treat — a ‘sleeve’ decorated with bright, Japanese-style prints of fish and flowers on a patterned grey background that stretches from shoulder to wrist.
On my right arm, I am sporting two vivid blue birds and some more foliage, which perfectly complement the cornflower blue of my Reiss shift dress (favoured label of the Duchess of Cambridge, no less). But if I ever had an inner Kate, I’m not channelling her now. These Henley women are making me feel inferior and embarrassed. I want the ground to swallow me up. So why am I putting myself through this nightmare
Beth's cornflower blue Reiss shift dress reveals showcased her tattoos during the Henley Royal Regatta
Well, of late, painted ladies seem to be everywhere. Who can forget racegoer Joanna Southgate’s heavily tattooed arms causing such a stir at Royal Ascot Then last week, 6ft tennis player Karolina Pliskova and her inked flesh had everyone spluttering over their strawberries at Wimbledon. And — for some reason — scores of beautiful celebrity women seem to revel in covering their otherwise lovely figures in tattoos. Cheryl Cole, Rihanna, Angelina Jolie and even Samantha Cameron are proud of their ‘tramp stamps’.
Of course, until recently, no decent, middle-class woman would dare be seen with a tattoo, such was society’s disapproval. But with growing numbers choosing to be inked, I decided to find out what it feels like to deface your body in such a way, and whether or not attitudes towards tattoos have changed.
Curiously, one thing becomes clear. While women seem openly repulsed by my body art, men seem to find it attractive.
One thing was for sure — I didn’t want my tattoos to be permanent. I wouldn’t dream of scarring my skin. So I put myself at the mercy of a renowned tattoo artist who could recreate the real thing with ink that would wash off. But even with the knowledge that I could get rid of my ‘sleeve’, I experienced an extraordinary — and strangely upsetting — 24 hours. My day starts in less-than-salubrious surroundings on the edge of London’s Chinatown. The tattoo parlour is called Extreme Needle, which is enough to fill me with extreme panic.
My tattoo artist, Kiko, tells me if this were real I would be facing at least 20 hours on the couch: five sessions, with two weeks between each to allow my skin to heal. I don’t even want to think about how much pain I would be in. So, four hours later, what do I think of Kiko’s work Well, my tattoos are indisputably intricate and pretty works of art. It’s just that I like my art in more traditional forms.
Thanking Kiko, I step out on to the street and immediately feel the eyes of every passer-by fall on my arms. And, curiously, one thing becomes clear. While women seem openly repulsed by my body art, men seem to find it attractive. ‘Your tattoos are amazing,’ says one well-dressed man rather lasciviously as we pass on the escalator at Leicester Square Tube station. Another slightly tubby chap with a friendly smile says: ‘I love your tattoos, I’d love to get one’.
Growing trend: Joanna Southgate's heavily tattooed caused a stir at Royal Ascot
Beth says scores of beautiful
celebrity women are proud of their ‘tramp stamps’ including Samantha Cameron (left0 and Cheryl Cole (right)
On to the Tube, I see horror on the faces of my fellow travellers. I sit next to one, who moves to another seat at the first available opportunity. An older woman sits in the corner, lips pursed, hugging her handbag close to her chest. Clearly the tattoos make me look like a thief.
Alighting at Knightsbridge, I try to adopt a confident stride as I walk into Harrods. I soon get the sense I’m being followed, and sure enough there is a security guard tailing me. At Cartier, I gaze longingly into a top-end display cabinet, but no one comes to offer help. No doubt the assistants assume that a woman with tattoos would not be interested in treating herself to diamonds.
INKED IN HISTORY
The first tattoo is believed
to have been found on a mummified iceman in 3,300 BC. He had 58 tattoos, mostly dots and lines.
I decide to leave, concluding that
Harrods is no place for a tattooed young rebel like me. Back outside, I
resolve to show people that I’m still a kind-hearted, middle-class girl
underneath all the body art. I spot an elderly woman pulling an
over-laden shopping trolley as her fluffy, white dog trots beside her.
An opportunity for my good deed of the day arises when she flags down a
‘Please let me help,’ I say as she
attempts to clamber into the cab. She takes one look at me and
proclaims: ‘Oh my goodness, look at your tattoos,’ while brushing away
my offer of aid. It is with
growing apprehension that I head to my next destination, The Dorchester
hotel, for afternoon tea. Yet here, cosmopolitan melting pot of the rich
and famous, my tattoos barely raise an eyebrow (admittedly one of those
eyebrows is that of former boxer Chris Eubank).
It helps restore my confidence and I’m actually looking forward to seeing what my boyfriend makes of my new look. He is perhaps a little too pleased for my liking, but makes a curious assessment of my demeanour.
Rihanna posted a photo of her falcon tattoo
‘Look at you, all super-confident, strutting along,’ he says. I realise that I am indeed walking with a swing in my step. Something quite odd has happened. My tattoos have become like an armour — a day of stares, murmured disgust and blatant admiration has forced me to grow a second skin and now I actually like being looked at.
On the train home, I have time to reflect. I look at the arms of the elderly woman next to me — they have clearly seen a lot of years and a lot of sun — and I wonder what my arms would look like at her age with tattoos on them. Does no one care about how awful their body art will look as their skin shrivels
Although I’m no fan of tattoos and struggle to understand why anyone would choose to mark themselves in this way, the hostility and prejudice I encountered upset me. I couldn’t face life as an outcast and was desperate to shower and go back to being ordinary, conventional me. As the flowers, fish and birds wash off, I ponder what I have learned during my 24 hours as a painted lady, and only one thing springs to mind: when you have tattoos, people will always struggle to see anything other than the ink.