“Time's up.” The gruff voice says, “Are you ready?”
I give a feeble nod to consent and squeeze my eyes even tighter. A bead of sweat has formed on my brow and slowly tickles downwards. It reaches the space beneath my nose, above my lip. My tongue tentatively skirts this upper arch and catches this drop of saltiness. My mouth is dry, throat parched. Fingertips brush my skin, nails prising the perimeter of a covering. There's a sudden ripping sound. I flinch. “Don't move!” Another baby rip like sellotape, followed by a foot pressing a lever. I move with the chair into an upright position. A big, burly hand taps my shoulder, “You can open your eyes, you're done.”
I look down at the flat expanse of my navel, to the right the skin is no longer nude, it's coloured. My torturer holds a mirror in front of it. A dolphin has been captured there. “It's beautiful.” I whisper.
My torturer lets out a loud cruel laugh, “Transfers don't last. It will wash off and fade in a few days. Faux body art is my trade!”
Transfers, artwork you peel and apply, adhere to the skin with water. Your first tattoo like your first word or baby tooth. In the late 80s, it was a ritual all kids went through, flicking through the pages of Smash Hits to find them. A rose on the hand, the name of your favourite band, or a weird graffiti symbol. A bit of harmless fun and highly fashionable: art to match your clothes, your shoes, your mood. Like a denim pair of jeans, transfers acquired holes and gradually looked worn and patchy. Adults were mimicked in childish ways, but we didn't progress much beyond it. We decorated our bodies with faux tattoos and painted our faces. We played house and smoked faux cigarettes, puffing clouds of talcum powder in each other's faces. A preadolescence tribe that maintained some individuality.
Tribalism now has intensified, it's more edgy, and its effects are spreading rapidly. Likes and dislikes advertised on skin-coloured canvas. Names engraved, sacred text etched, and symbols carved. Images inked on hips, bums and calves. Every inch covered up, but flaunted.
Has expressing who we are gone too far? Body art is contagious, similar to the town that caught Tourette's, but unlike Le Roy, we haven't investigated what could be causing it. Mass tribalism? Artistic self-harming? An expansion of social media? Is tattooing, once considered a tribal art, now just frivolous branding? Why can't the tribe say: Love the skin you're in, don't permanently mark it!?