Gerard Howlin


Tattoos, like fashion, are self-conscious displays of identity, but contradictory in being so common

The farce is that the increasing number of indelibly marked bodies are essentially the same, writes Gerard Howlin

Tattoos, like fashion, are self-conscious displays of identity, but contradictory in being so common

TATTOOS were once marks by which criminals, slaves, and runaway sailors were identified.

There is now a fashion for ‘ink’ on ever more intimate parts of the body.

Indeed, it’s questionable if any body parts are truly intimate now.

Its summer and dress codes are seasonally adjusted.

So you see more.

Clothes can be discarded.

Ink is indelible.

The tattoo parlour is the ultimate bespoke couturier.

It’s the place where you can leave the street, and then reemerge exclusively accessorised.

The tattoo is all about the search for identity, to be a unique person.

The farce is that the increasing number of indelibly marked bodies are essentially the same.

That’s why ‘ink’ now best serves its utilitarian purpose; as an identifier for gang members.

Still, it is a fashion, and all fashions are driven by a societal dynamic.

The less determined among us do the same thing when we select a screen saver, or pick a ring tone.

It’s an impetus for display and, however pathetic, an attempt at individuality.

It’s an answer, in the moment, to the emptiness of modern uniformity.

Curiously, modern uniformity in a highly individualised society bears the hallmarks of the old conformity it only recently shook off.

Striving to stand out, and needing to fit in, become eerily the same.

Dressing up, or perhaps dressing down, is now usually associated with nightclubs.

Dressing to party was always an impetus, but increasingly it’s a unique locus.

Places of employment are progressively more casual.

Fewer attend church, and those that do, taking their cue from the clergy, don’t bother much either.

Even mourning parties at funerals are indistinguishable from bystanders on the street.

Ritual trappings are largely abandoned.

Black clothes, black-edged paper, the pulling-down of blinds and the pinning of death notices on a front door to signify mourning are largely gone, apart from a residue in working-class areas.

The middle class are emotionally anaesthetised.

If there is no afterlife, the actuality of death can hardly be faced.

Better, then, to dress for the lunch afterwards.

On a visit to the Netherlands, some years ago, I was struck by the pomp of Calvinist mourning.

Funeral hearses drawn by black-plumed horses are not the preserve of drug dealers, but the usual transport to the grave for a bicycling bourgeoisie.

A society shorn of ostentation has a highly developed funeral etiquette.

So much so, the women of its royal family wear white in mourning.

That’s a royal prerogative that elsewhere passed from use in the seventeenth century.

This week is Gay Pride in Amsterdam.

Vast numbers congregate, dress up, and publically party.

Protest is over and festival is on a scale of observance previously reserved for religious holidays.

It’s like being inside the frame of a Bruegel painting.

Several hundred years have passed, but, in the same place, people are doing essentially the same things.

The longing for belonging is primal.

But, strangely, here in Ireland, death, the last great drama, has been captured by clinicians and humanists.

Our democracy hasn’t fared any better sartorially.

The most consistent issue of public complaint to the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, is the dress of some of the elected members he presides over.

The public feel affronted that their affairs are conducted by politicians clad so casually.

Here, however, I can offer reassurance.

There is nothing casual about the clothing choices of apparently casually dressed politicians.

The more casual the apparel, the more intensely curated it is likely to be.

In fact, it is not dressing-down at all.

They are dressing up, pretending not to be the important, powerful insiders they are.

Regardless of the costume, this is a highly privileged, relatively well-paid, ruling elite in action.

It’s a more sophisticated version of old-fashioned hypocrisy.

Public service doesn’t improve because of it.

Instead, it’s a version of the rotten service out-of-work movie actors give as waiters, while resting between performances.

Personally, I place a lot of the blame on Bob Geldof.

It’s a carry-on of rock-and-rollers performing badly as politicians.

Now, some politician’s wearing grunge for the crowd.

It’s not a new impetus, however.

Cardinal Lauri, arriving as papal legate for the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, and disembarking at Kingstown, assumed the men standing in soft hats and casual suits at the bottom of the gangplank were detectives.

They were Éamon de Valera and his government, who eschewed traditional top hats and tails the better to emphasise their plebeian credentials.

The legate had nothing to worry about.

Appearances had changed, but little else.

That’s the thing about dressing for power.

It’s ultimately about power, not the dress.

Pink t-shirts in the Dáil chamber, or carefully chosen socks and athletic lycra for display outside of it, aren’t different.

They serve the same function.

The ones who go for ostentatious dressing-down do so to recreate, on the political stage, a costume drama; they are in power and in possession of the megaphone, but they can simultaneously act out the role of the disenfranchised.

One of the first decisions animals took in Animal Farm was to never wear clothes.

Their choice of clothing, like their revolution, changed nothing.

You and I needn’t worry about that this summer.

It’s a simple fact that most people look better with clothes on than without.

There are some exceptions and some are lucky enough to be temporarily such an exception.

But time moves on.

I have always been interested in how people uniform themselves.

What are they covering up, besides the obvious? What are they emphasising and putting on show? Sometimes, that’s obvious, too.

I wonder about those tattoos, but only the ones that are visible.

What does a picture look like when the canvass is crinkled? Still, by then, there probably won’t be many coming to view.

When we are small children, we are dressed by other people.

An early act of independence is if not deciding, at least expressing a preference about what we wear.

Some of us go to work in uniforms, as a requirement.

Others go through life in uniforms we make for ourselves.

There is no casual dress, even if choice has been submerged in long-acquired habit.

From putting indelible marks on human flesh, to the acquired affectation of not caring about appearance, we all act a role and wear costumes to complement.

Then, in season, there is the Irish licence to wear abroad, preferably in a hot climate, what we wouldn’t think of putting on at home.

It’s a reverse of Halloween and of old traditions of misrule.

You can be anyone, for a moment.

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