TERRY PRONE: There’s an art to making sure tattoos don’t limit your future

She had a complete mental meltdown in public, went into treatment and disappeared off stage for two months, did Sheridan Smith.

During her time off work, she learned about being bi-polar, reflected on her life — and got some tattoos. The usual images. Lotuses. Butterflies. Diamonds.

“I just covered myself,” she told the Telegraph newspaper this weekend, extending her arms for viewing purposes.

I’ve got more down my sides and my legs. And now I’ve gone back to work. What an idiot. The good thing is, these days I’m playing mainly cardigan wearers. Chunky mums, that’s my roles now. So as long as I cover my hands, I’m good for a few more years

The body art of her past is going to severely restrict her future. That’s the bottom line. Nobody ever talks about tattooing as a form of self-harming, just as nobody ever talks about uploading to social media your weekly or even daily ingestion of alcohol or other drugs. But each can limit your future.

If you’re a hoodied, fleece-covered gig economy techie, you can be tattooed all over and the companies hiring you for a job you can do in your tiny bedroom will not care. Why should they? They buy gig-slaves like you by the metre and they don’t have to look at you. (The high-paying permanent and pensionable jobs rarely call for tattoos on their job specs and may actively but quietly exclude those with visible signs on their skin.) If you’re David Beckham, where your ink is part of your brand, then it doesn’t matter when your tats turn a uniform navy, making your body look dirty. Even Sheridan Smith will be able to manage,
although why she would announce a physical drawback that will disqualify her from many an audition boggles the mind.

Smith also probably has the money to get remedial work done, so that she could cease being Our Lady of the Perpetual Cardigan. I have a tattooing friend who got into the business because she ached with empathy for friends of hers who, having undergone chemotherapy for cancer, found themselves without eyebrows. This friend trained so she could tattoo permanent eyebrows on chemo patients, and branched out, so to speak, to doing permanent makeup including lipstick and eyeliner. That was how I encountered her, and let me tell you three truths about permanent make-up.

1) It’s brilliant and saves you so much time, every working morning.

2) If you’re having your lips done, persuade your dentist to numb you with local anaesthetic first. Otherwise the pain in this sensitive area with its oversupply of touchy nerves will be extreme.

3) Having a machine with multiple needles attacking your closed eyelid is terrifying. You keep thinking “what if she misses?”

My friend the tattoo artist discovered, after she set up her clinic, an unexpected extra market for her services, which was tattooing over original tattoos in order to bring the client’s appearance back to what it was before the little needles got going. Lots of people go for tattoos, apparently, and later on in life, grow out of them. Cute butterflies on the shoulder may be OK when you’re a teenager, but, as you progress into your forties can be tiresome. Clearly, also, permanent declarations of love embedded in your skin until you die are just about acceptable if you stay in love with the one whose name sits on your forearm, but not so good when you have broken up with him or her and have partnered up with someone else.

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Ill af, but will keep smiling through 😷🤧🤒

A post shared by Sheridan Smith OBE (@sheridansmithster) on

Then there’s the alcohol thing. Jimmy Buffett’s song about “wasting away in Margharitaville” includes reference to the fact that, when he got loaded the previous night, he got himself a brand new tattoo, although he doesn’t remember the process of its arrival. Alcohol emboldens drinkers into doing many risky unproductive things, including getting tattooed. My friend the tattoo artist has a binge-drinking customer who is sober most of the time, but roughly every eight months falls off the wagon with a resounding thud and drinks until he doesn’t know which way is up. At some point along this six-day bacchanal, the guy gets a tattoo. He always gets a tattoo. He seems to be fairly empiric about it, largely leaving the design up to whichever tattooist he encounters at the time. He has had everything from fish to snakes, His arms, in particular, have demonstrated a wild syncretism, with the Virgin Mary and Buddha side by side. He once had three range of female names intertwined with wildlife, although the names didn’t belong to anybody he knows.

Every time he does it, he then sobers up, surveys the damage, and goes for tattoo removal

It’s an expensive and quite painful process. But then, pain has never been an issue for people wanting to ink themselves up. Fifty years ago, this very year — the year the Beatles came to Ireland and caused a riot — several members of my class in the Holy Faith Convent, Clontarf, got into the tattooing business, using fountain pen ink and the nibs of the same fountain pens. They did it at break time, with the rest of us as audience. When I told my mother, she gave out to me for not having anything better to do with my time and announced with crisp certainty that none of them would ever amount to anything. In fact, one of them became a Professor of Business Studies. I often wonder how she explained JOHN on her left set of knuckles and PAUL on the right. The PAUL was more bendy and less precise than the JOHN, because she was right handed, and doing tattoos on her right hand, using her left, turned out to be quite difficult.

Not having anything better to do with your time is arguably the key reason tattooing lasted a few centuries in prisons and on ships. Sailor and criminals were always the most tattooed, possibly because, just as on long maritime stretches, if the weather is OK, once you’ve scrubbed the deck, there’s not much to do for the rest of the day. Similarly if you’re an old lag with a long stretch in front of you, what would you be doing with your afternoons other than engraving a testament of your love for your mother just above your elbow?

Once it moved into mainstream, a new market opened up for the literate. Every tattoo artist needs their own proof-reader. Otherwise the customer can end up with a huge “I AM AWSOME” running from shoulder to shoulder across their back. Or the customer will have people bending sideways to make sense of their forearm, as happened to one guy I saw a few years ago, who had set out to embed a quotation from Becket’s Waiting for Godot in the skin of his arm. The quote: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” What his tattoo said, however, was “I cant goon. Ill goon.”


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