BORDEAUX - I have witnessed the gradual penetration of tattoo culture into the middle classes in Europe and the United States over the past two or three years but I always thought it would go away. So I was stunned to see that now we have high-level validation for decorating our bodies.
Sarah Palin, U.S. vice presidential candidate - a super-conservative Republican, no less -- has revealed that she wears a tattoo on her ankle.
Mrs. Palin is not revealing why she chose a celestial constellation called "big dipper" as her tattoo design but one can imagine the sexual connotation behind it. She says she agreed to the tattoo after she lost a bet - but she is being coy about whom she was betting against or what the question was.
We can count on her or the American media to answer that question eventually before election day November 4.
However this story ends, it tells us a bit more about the woman who aspires to be heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency, should Republican presidential candidate John McCain be elected and suffer a debilitating health crisis.
Last time I looked into this art form, a tattoo meant you were in a deviant motorcycle gang or had been in jail somewhere. If you were more conventional, maybe you had a tiny butterfly hidden on your behind or lower back, but you didn't flaunt it in polite company.
But finally today the tattoo has arrived in the middle class. It's no longer a rebellious statement, it's a fashion statement. Such role models as political figures, entertainers and sports stars have made it okay for the rest of us to go ahead and spend 50 dollars for an eagle or a Jesus figure, two of the most common choices, on our arms and legs.
It is happening all over the world, from Finland to Portugal, across the United States and throughout Asia.
I saw a smartly dressed dad in the Jardin Public the other day, the picture of French yuppiedom, Bermuda shorts and an expensive polo shirt - except that his legs were covered in lurid tattoos of coiled snakes. His arms were also tattooed, and possibly other body parts.
This French fellow may have to hide his tattoos when in professional mode but he had no qualms showing off his artwork to the young mothers in the park. Maybe that's what this was all about?
People who follow this trend think otherwise. They say it fulfills a need to show off our individuality, not connect us with a group or meet married women. One in seven Americans now sport at least one tattoo, and they rarely stop at one. Figures for other countries are hard to come by but a cursory glance reveals that tattoos everywhere are sprouting like flowers.
I have made it a practice to approach tattooed people in public and ask them why they had it done. Almost all have cited some secret personal reason. The pretty girls I have cornered show off their arms and shoulders and most admit to having a few small tattoos not for public view.
A few signs of the growing trend:
-- A French soldier just back from Afghanistan, interviewed on television last week, spoke with his chest outthrust, proud that it was entirely covered with a giant eagle in full color.
-- Most of the athletes in the Beijing Olympics had tattoos on their shoulders or elsewhere in plain view.
-- Soccer, baseball and American football players, black and white, are tattooed all over.
-- Television shows in the U.S. explain, demonstrate and glorify the art of tattooing. "Miami Ink" and "Ink" both rate highly.
-- The internet is overflowing with tattoo enthusiasts, many of whom explain personal motivations such as love, lost love, a death in the family, or religion.
The downside is the dark day when you decide you don't like your tattoo any more. Removal requires about seven visits to a specialist. It hurts and it will cost about $2,000, or 40 times more than the artist charged you to apply it.
The worst tattoo removal story I have heard was something I came across when I was researching the problems of the Soviet dissidents. A Russian prisoner asked his fellow inmates to ink "Death to Khrushchev" on his forehead. The guards, outraged, marched him to the infirmary where the offending words were sliced out and the skin sewn crudely together. This stretched his skin so that he could no longer close his eyes, hence his new nickname, "The man who stares".
It might be wise to think twice before letting the artist switch on his electric pen - especially if you think you want something inked on your forehead.
THE DRAWING OF IS BY THE WRITER, MICHAEL JOHNSON
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