Sunday 17 December 2017

Neil Francis: Tat's enough, folks - badly drawn boys and girls are scarred for life

Turning your skin into something that looks like rotting blueberries is a modern sporting curse

David Beckham shows off some of his body art. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
David Beckham shows off some of his body art. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I played Samoa just once in my career. The match was played in Dublin. I was an impressionable 24 years of age. I scored a try that day and don't remember much else about a fairly facile victory.

After the match was over I walked into their changing room to see my old mate Peter Fatialofa (sadly no longer with us). They had just finished a team prayer. As I sat down on the bench, the Samoans were getting stripped to take a shower and nearly all of them had full body or shoulder/half-sleeve tattoos. I had never seen anything like it before. I did not know whether to talk to them or read them.

Fats explained the cultural significance of Polynesian tatau - I wasn't listening - I just couldn't understand why somebody would ruin their body by covering it forever in ink. I have always had an aversion. Always will.

A year later on a hot sunny day in Richmond I met up with Jim Staples for a few beers in a pub beside the River Thames. This guy walked by us just wearing a pair of shorts and some old runners. He was top to toe in tattoos. As he walked by I saw he had a tattoo all the way down his back. Around his neck and shoulders there were images of a hunt with horse-bound red-jacketed people blowing hunting horns.

Further down his back was a pack of beagles in hot pursuit of their quarry and at his lower back was a picture of a fox's tail disappearing down the crack of his arse. I have to say I cracked up when I saw it first for about 20 seconds and then for the rest of the time I was there I thought 'what a clown'. Our friend was completely impervious and unaware of how ridiculous he looked - for life.

About five years ago I was walking into a shopping centre in Florida when I saw a young boy with a tattoo on his left arm. Very few things make me stop dead in my tracks. Was it real? I took one look at daddy and I didn't need an answer. Surely there is an age limit whereby you are not legally allowed to do something like that to your own flesh and blood? Your own skin?

To let a clown with a needle doodle some rubbish over your son's limb. Whatever about the mess, what about the pain inflicted on the child?

The thing about self-image in your formative and early adult years is that you can make the mistakes, experiment, explore the boundaries but thankfully you can pretty much recover yourself. The ridiculous hairstyles, the dye, the piercings, the clothes, the make-up and the moustache! You can airbrush it all away as if it never existed or indeed if you want keep it, at least there is a choice.

Tattoos? Well they are pretty much forever. The only good news is that the burgeoning growth in tattoo parlours are now being superseded by laser clinics that will just about get them off. I think my views on this blight are abundantly clear. Apart from waking up in jail, I could not think of anything worse than waking up with some pathetic daubing or staining all over my body.

Quite why people want to put dragons, Celtic crosses, gothic images or bible quotations on their bodies is beyond me. Whatever about the subject matter being inked in I shudder at the lack of quality in the draughtsmanship - really, really poor quality execution. Even if Michelangelo paid me . . .

Maybe it is just me but I never got caught up in that expression of individuality or that burst of counter-culture or the level of cognitive dissonance required to turn your skin into something that looks like rotting blueberries or the second layer of a leftover Christmas chocolate box. Maybe if youth talked to any mid- to late-lifers about how the vast majority of them are embarrassed, ashamed or regretfully mortified at their tattoos, then they may stop. As it is far too many have chosen to emblazon one on their body.

What prompted this piece were the two major sporting events which took place this summer. The football was pretty much unwatchable, but Ireland's performances were for the most part pleasing. What amazed me most was the amount of ink. There were one or two teams in the competition where literally the entire team were smudged, some of the worst jailhouse tats that I've seen. Even our lot had some pretty impressive median line traffic markings going up and down their bodies.

I remember years ago when David Beckham turned up at an English team press conference with the most ridiculous Mohican haircut. His handlers obviously thought that it was a good idea to change the hair/facial hair look every two months. When the press asked him why he had got a Mohican, he actually couldn't answer. Obviously somebody else had decided that he get something that would make him stand out in the forthcoming championship but he was unable to articulate and there and then it just crystallised the notion that he was indeed an empty vessel.

The following week thousands of kids all over the UK had got a Mohican. Like I said earlier, your hair will grow back again and you can put it down to youthful exuberance or stupidity. Stupidity mostly.

As Beckham's career came to a close he had inked up to the gills and when it was over he looked like one of those poor seagulls dragged out of an oil slick. For somebody who was going to brand himself and become a clothes horse why would such a handsome man limit himself by covering himself head to toe in truly awful tattoos?

As Captain Mainwaring used to say: 'Stupid Boy.'

Beckham, though, was a pathfinder and like the Mohicans, many saw and followed. Individuality?

I watched as much as I could of the Olympics - track and field and the swimming pool in particular. Some truly beautiful physical specimens. The human form in its most magnificent condition. Most of them just sculpted but then a blotch, a copy book doodle, a distracted six-year-old's efforts in art class on the healthiest and most radiant human skin.

Victor Davis, the Canadian swimmer (also sadly no longer with us), won gold in the 200m breaststroke in Los Angeles in 1984 and he is credited (blamed) for starting the Olympic five-ring tattoo craze. Now, nearly every person who takes part has one (not sure if Pat Hickey does).

Sport and music have been at the forefront of popularising tattoos. In America most players in the NFL have tats.

It's rare to see any boxer or UFC fighter without the worst tattoos you've ever seen. The purity of Ali's movement in the ring is only matched by the immaculate and untainted nature of his skin. It just would have lost something if he had a fox's tail disappearing down his boxing trunks as he dispatched George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.

I watched a lot of rugby league when I lived in Australia and went to quite a number of games. It was tattoo central on the pitch, and at that stage in union you would rarely see any ink. In the last ten years it has exploded in the game, particularly at international level! Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton come on down and take a bow. Whatever about the steady decline in sporting ethics and standards of play in the game, the additional unedifying spectacle of its participants running around like a painter's radio just does not cut it with me. Everybody has a choice, I just wish here that they would choose not to. Somebody please call a halt.

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