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According to an online survey conducted in 2010, 20% of British adults had at least one tattoo. [1] The statistic crops up again and again if you’re reading tattoo related articles online, but has been upped ever so slightly in more recent pieces to “more than 20%”, just to be on the safe side. A corresponding 2013 survey of US adults found that 14% had at least one tattoo. [2] So, taking into account the fact that I failed maths GCSE twice, I think that means that between Brits and Americans, roughly one in six people who are of legal age to get one has a tattoo. That seems like a pretty believable statistic to me. In 2014 tattoos are normal, passé even. Right?

I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen years old: a 2p coin sized yellow smiley with horns, surrounded by red flames (my children now refer to it as “Mr. Happy, on fire”). Seventeen years later I have again opted to have ink inserted via needle into the layer of dermal tissue underlying my epidermis. This time however, I thought things through rather more carefully. Because this time my tattoo is magical.

One of the most ubiquitous kinds of tattoo I see on a daily basis here in Liverpool – on the street, at the shops, at the school gates, in the pub – are those of names and/or dates. While there are of course exceptions, the majority of these name/date tattoos are in commemoration of births and/or deaths. Commonplace as they may be, these inscriptions are a perfect example of everyday magical thinking.

Choosing to have these characters etched permanently into your flesh is not rational. The name/date might be rendered in an aesthetically pleasing way but simply looking good is not the reason for having a name/date tattoo. The sentiment behind the commemoration may be summed up as “I will never forget”, but there is more to it than that. The promise of never forgetting is one the individual has made to the world at large, but more than that it is made to a realm beyond our own. A promise made to the place we speak to when we ask an empty room where the hell our keys are, or why we drank so much last night; the region we wish and we hope into. This is the domain of the omniscient, omnipresent other; the elusive Higher Self whose wisdom we all appeal to, regardless of spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). Most importantly of all then, the fallible everyday you makes the oath to the inerrant all-knowing you. “I will never forget, and somehow, in some way, I will be better for it”. Those who see the name/date tattoos might not realise it (indeed some who have them might not even know it) but those indelibly embedded characters are literally magical.

There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as ‘the art’. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art, and that art – whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form – is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness […] to cast a spell is simply to spell; to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness. This is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman. [3]

I’m not usually one for quoting my father-in-law in my writing but, honestly, I’d be hard pushed to find a better, clearer explanation of magic than the one Alan Moore gave a decade or so ago in an interview with Dez Vylenz. Tattoos are an art-form, tattooists artists, and the tattooed person is the author/co-author of their own adornment which affects a permanent change, not just in their physical body but also in their self image. Tattoos then, fit Moore’s definition of magic perfectly. Art as modern day shamanism makes sense then (to me at least), but what of the pre-existing connection between shamanism and tattoos?

For millennia, nearly all indigenous people who tattooed practised shamanism, the oldest human spiritual religion. Death was the first teacher, the boundary beyond which life ended and wonder began. Shamanistic religion was nurtured by mystery and magic, but it was also born of the hunt and of the harvest and from the need on the part of humans to rationalize the fact that they had to kill that which they most revered: plants, animals, and sometimes other men who competed for resources or whose souls provided magical benefits.

Tattooed images reveal a close relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and in the cosmology of the tribal tattooist, humanity was thought of as an integral part of life’s web on every level of existence. In the animistic universe, natural and supernatural forces were propitiated, cajoled and appealed to for the benefit of humankind, because indigenous peoples sought to acquire access to the power of various animals, spirits and their ancestors.

Tattoos established visible links between the spiritual and the natural domains by tapping into them, allowing the body to escape into a world where there was nothing but the magical essence of things, sublimely detached from the here and now.[4]

The above quotations are taken from a short essay by anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak, author of Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification [discussed here on DG, back in October]. Life, death, and the beyond. Permanent marks made upon impermanent flesh with the aim of tying the physical self to an idea, an ideal, or a person who has already left this world. These are ancient beliefs [5] and those name/date tattoos you and I see on the street prove that they are still put into practice today. Prehistoric magic lives on in the 21st century, not in secret societies, dark cults or “lost” tribes, but upon the skin of our neighbours, friends and family.

My own new tattoo is not a name or a date. It is an image of an age-worn spiral pattern that my tattooist compared to “the thumbprint of a God. The carving it depicts is between 4,000 and 5,000 years old; possibly pre-dating the great pyramids of Egypt by several centuries, almost certainly engraved while woolly mammoths still walked in what we now call Russia. The design, and others like it, adorn six sandstone megaliths which huddle together inside a converted greenhouse twenty minutes walk from my own front door. Once forming part of a Neolithic passage grave dismantled in the early 1800s, these are the Calderstones of Liverpool – the most ancient, remarkable, and often overlooked wonders of Merseyside. In their millennia of existence the Calderstones have moved less than half a mile (0.8 km), residing as they now do in an all but hidden corner of Calderstones Park, the original burial site being just outside the park’s borders. The stones’ surfaces are badly eroded, much of their original decoration already vanished or nearly erased by time, neglect, out-and-out vandalism, and even failed attempts at preservation. Nevertheless, some of these ancient, enigmatic symbols endure.

No one knows what meaning our Late Stone Age ancestors intended when they engraved those spirals into the structure of that earth-mounded burial chamber. They are not writing, nor even proto-writing, yet they are undoubtedly more than mere decoration; similarly ornamented stones being found in the Irish passage graves at Newgrange and Knowth, and the Welsh Barclodiad y Gawres. Those at Newgrange are the most numerous, well preserved, and studied in Europe, yet their meaning and purpose remains a mystery too. One fact is genrally agreed upon however; the construction of these tombs and carving of these stones “‘violates Zipf’s (1949) principle of least effort’ and is wasteful in the Darwinian model, where the ideal is to expend the least amount of energy to produce offspring and sustenance, and energy is not wasted on other unnecessary activities“. [6] In other words, it was not rational to put so much time and effort into creating these permanent memorials. The tombs could be seen as a way of displaying the power and security of a community to the world at large; showing that they had the free time and spare man-power to do such impressive things. Few however, would argue that this would be their sole, or even primary purpose.

They were monuments to those who had passed out of this realm, they were oaths graven in rock with chisels of flint and of obsidian. “We will never forget and we shall be better for it”. The thought, the belief, the hope marked out indelibly before there were even characters to express it. Back when Liverpool was the domain of the wolf, the lynx, and the bear a group of humans worked together to erect a monument, a structure that would bridge the gap between this world and the next. Daily I tread in their footsteps, and now daily I see one of the marks they left behind. What could be more magical than a simple design – a snail-shell spiral – that has such meaning embedded into it?

 


With heartfelt thanks and apologies to Cat Vincent and other magical tattoo owners who shared their images and stories only to have me not include them in this piece.


ENDNOTES

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jul/20/tattoos

[2] http://www.statisticbrain.com/tattoo-statistics/

[3] The Mindscape of Alan Moore Shadowsnake Films, 2003

[4] http://larskrutak.com/shamanic-skin-the-art-of-magical-tattoos/

[5] The earliest tattoos we have physical evidence of are those of “Ötzi the iceman the 5,300 year old Tyrolean man whose frozen remains were discovered near the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. Ötzi has several tattoos including short, parallel, vertical lines to both sides of the spine, a cruciform mark behind the right knee, and various marks around both ankles.

[6] http://www.knowth.com/megalithic-art.htm