France is three or four decades behind Britain in cultural degeneration but is making valiant efforts to catch up. One straw in the wind I noticed a few years ago was the arrival of a tattoo parlor in the small town near where I live when I am in France. This alarmed me. I had mistakenly thought that the French had too much taste to go in for this form of self-mutilation.

Since then, much slippery slope has been slid down. According to a recent article in Libération, 400 professional tattooists operated in France in 2003. Now, only ten years later, there are 4,000. I doubt that any other industry has grown nearly as fast, and many may have contracted as quickly. According to one of the newspaper’s informants, if the trend continues, tattooists may soon be as numerous in France as hairdressers.

Tattooing is an inchoate symbol of an equally inchoate rebellion, but in France even rebels seek the bureaucratic embrace of the state. The French association of tattooists, the Syndicat national des artistes-tatoueurs, is pressing the government to recognize tattooing as a bona fide profession, with all the corresponding benefits. Incidentally, tattooists who work informally, without paying taxes, are known as scratcheurs.

Why do people get themselves tattooed? There was a time when it was mainly sailors and criminals who did so, but that time is long past. Libération offers four vignettes of people who have recently had themselves tattooed, without explaining how or why they were chosen. Edouard, 36, is a primary school teacher. He had a dragon tattooed on his back during a trip to China in “homage” to Bruce Lee, who died four years before he was born. By having it done there, he saved $800—what would have cost $1,200 in France cost only $400 in China. Edouard has shown his tattoo to his pupils, “and it didn’t shock them.” But Edouard said that he would never get himself tattooed on the face, neck, or hands, places on the body much more visible, because “given my job,” that might be felt as “a provocation” by his pupils’ parents. Obviously such parents need to overcome their prejudices.

Serge, 42, is an organist in Liège. First he had his right arm tattooed with Maori motifs that he knew to be of deep symbolic significance, but “I don’t know what, exactly.” Then he had his left arm tattooed. It is worth quoting what he said in full, for only in this way can the full depths of his shallowness be appreciated:

This time it was more spiritual. It was butterflies, symbols of life after death. That’s rather close to my ideas of the Other Side. And I have another project in mind: a ram’s head on the back with horns that reach my shoulder blades. The ram is my astrological sign, and it is an animal that resembles me: strong and flamboyant.

Serge, this hybrid of sheep and butterfly, admits that provocation was one motive for his tattoos.

It is all too easy to mock this farrago of drivel, but something both sad and serious underlies it. Neither Edouard nor Serge are stupid; moreover, they have between them something like 50 years of education and training—but they are lost souls. When, for example, Céline, a 31-year-old carpenter, tells Libération that she wants to “express something of myself” by having a “tribal” pattern tattooed round her navel, one senses a desperate (and failed) attempt to have a real personality in an impersonal world. And then, of course, there is the Fall-of-Rome aspect of the whole phenomenon.


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