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Why tattoos are no longer taboo

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Meghann McKnight is proud of her tattoos

Meghann McKnight is proud of her tattoos

Meghann McKnight is proud of her tattoos

It's been the summer of tattoos. From Wayne Rooney's little number to the Beijing Olympians with their five small indelible rings etched onto their backs and arms, the craze for body art has gone mainstream.

Once the sole preserve of hardboiled sailors and soldiers, these days the boy and girl next door are just as likely to be seen in a tattoo parlour.

But it's the celebrities who are leading the way. Wayne Rooney famously returned from his honeymoon with yet another ink job. This time he chose the title of a Stereophonics album, which is now emblazoned on his forearm.

It's hard to believe now but rewind 10 years and tattoos were the focal point for controversial radio phone-in shows. Marian Finucane dedicated an entire programme to debating the issue. Callers rang in furiously, incensed by the notion of degrading the body in such a way. But these days they are commonplace.

One in five British people now has one; and half of all Americans. In Ireland there are myriad places you can go if you fancy getting a florid design etched on your skin.

The popularity of tattoos really started to take hold in the late '90s. Pop star Anastasia famously opted for the so-called 'tramp stamp', a large motif on her lower back, prompting teenage girls to line up in their droves to join this über-cool posse.

The trend shows no sign of waning either. Carl Maher (38), is the owner of Classic Ink Tattoo in Dublin's Temple Bar.

"I decided to start up the business around six years ago," he says. "It wasn't long before the culture and lifestyle really took hold of me. I now have eight tattoos. I would say that every kind of person is getting a tattoo these days, from mothers and young professionals to businessmen."

Last year, Sienna Miller and her then boyfriend Rhys Ifans wandered into Carl's tattoo studio. Rhys wanted a swallow on his wrist, identical to Sienna's. "Celebrities play a major role in selling tattoos," Carl says. "Many see their favourite singer or actor getting one and they think: why not?"

With such growing numbers of people getting tattoos, surely part of their allure has faded? For no longer are they the mark of rebellion but rather the sign of a copycat wannabe?

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Not so, says 21-year-old Ella Hammond from Bray, Co Wicklow. "It's art!" she exclaims. "I adore my tattoos. I'm confident I'll never regret them."

Ella, who works in the financial services industry, was inspired to have her first tattoo after her grandparents got one each to celebrate turning 50.

"My gran has a rose on her chest and my grandad has a panther on his leg."

Tattoos may now be regarded as mainstream, but a certain stigma still remains. Particularly in the case of those who take body art beyond the realms of social acceptability.

Carly Smithson was the Irish singer controversially voted off American Idol last year, despite a belter of a performance. Simon Cowell was dumb- founded by her departure, leading many to speculate that it was her passion for ink fashion that isolated the more conservative viewers.

Like Carly, 28-year-old Meghann McKnight has embraced body art with gusto. She says she's had to deal with negative reactions from people.

"If you look different and stand out, people judge you. I've been refused entry to some nightclubs in Dublin because of my tattoos," she said.

Meghann has six large designs, each with their own symbolic significance to her. She believes her body is a canvas and regards herself as a collector of art.

"Each tattoo is an investment," she says. "I don't care what others think of me. I hope over time that the popularity of tattoos will mean people like me aren't treated differently because of the way we look."

Alongside the proud tattoo owners, there are just as many who regret having that horny devil on their derriere or 'Tweetie Pie' on their shoulder.

Johnny Depp famously had then girlfriend Winona Ryder's name tattooed onto his arm... but then they split up.

Mandy Brown works for a clinic in Dublin that specialises in the removal of tattoos.

"We actually have around five clients every day that are receiving laser treatment," she says. "It costs €80 per session to have a large tattoo removed and you're talking about one of these every month for up to five years. It's very painful and there can often be scarring."

Alarmingly, the tattoo industry in this country is completely unregulated. Studios are not inspected and certified and there is no minimum age. This makes young people particularly vulnerable. Fortunately, the majority of tattoo shop owners adhere to a strict set of self-imposed rules and guidelines.

"We often have young people coming into the shop asking to have the name of their boyfriend or girlfriend tattooed on them," says Carl.

"Usually we take them aside and give them a severe talking to. We try to make them see that it's not wise. We have a moral obligation to our clients and we have a social conscience."

People choose to get tattoos for a whole host of reasons but whatever the motivating factor, Carl warns that it's not something to be done on a whim.

"It's really important to think about how you'll feel about it in years to come. Make sure you go to a studio that is reputable and always ask to see examples of an artist's work."

This is good advice that many celebrities would be wise to heed. That said, I have no regrets about mine. The Celtic design on my lower back was executed by a burly man calling himself 'Sailor Bill' when I was just 18. I suppose that when I'm old and wrinkly it will be the least of my worries.


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