In a city where every other person walking down the street is clad in either a Barbour jacket or an overcoat, and seems to regularly frequent dinner parties and wine-tastings, Oxford does not always appear to be the right place for tattoos.

The University of Oxford boasts the title of oldest English-speaking university and has hosted some of the world’s most respected personalities — we’ve all proudly recited their names before: C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Emma Watson, and Hugh Grant for all the fangirls out there. Yet surprisingly, for an establishment steeped in tradition, this 5000-year-old practice of tattooing (the Wellcome Collection suggests it might even be longer) is one long-standing tradition that has not been so readily accepted.

Hailing from the Bronze-Age, Ötzi the Iceman is said to be the oldest example of humans with tattoos. Now, tattoos can be found all over the world, throughout countless different cultures; depending on the country, they may signify anything from tribal identity to religious belief, but most importantly, they always reflect something personal.

So with their eclectic history, why haven’t tattoos made the cut? Our current student body is in the midst of great change – we are challenging expectations and destabilising traditions, flaunting our freshest and funkiest image of academia yet, and still, tattoos remain the subject of stigma and awkwardness. (My guess is that long ago we adopted the opinion of our beloved Greeks and Romans who associated the art with barbarism and this attitude has stuck since then). We’ve all been subjected to the agony of an awful tattoo reveal: the classic strained smile, lips pursed together, the words ‘nice!’ and ‘interesting…’ floating around the room. Yes, it can be painfully awkward.

The tattoo industry has been heavily misrepresented by three common myths that fervent critics, or perhaps just people who are deathly afraid of commitment, have made it their duty to disseminate. And while I will readily admit that I once fell into the former group (or potentially the latter…), I can confirm that, since admiring the tattoos of my amazingly intelligent and sensible friends, I no longer subscribe to that school of thought, and have instead decided to commit myself to claiming a space for tattoos in this prestigious institution.

Myth number one: “Tattoos are dangerous.” A common argument employed by anyone who isn’t too well acquainted with the practice or is perhaps only familiar with its black-market cousin (DIY hand-pokers, I’m talking to you). It’s also probably the most inaccurate of the three. If you do your research carefully and choose a legitimate artist with genuine reviews, there will absolutely be legislations in place to ensure the safety of staff and clients. What’s more – an increasing number studios are committed to using vegan and non-toxic inks making their practices even safer for the body. And above all, it is most important that you voice your concerns if something seems a little dodgy – don’t be scared to leave and go somewhere else if you don’t feel comfortable!  

But seriously, my main question is: what is so different about tattoos and body piercings? After all, they are both permanent, both intrusive – just in different manners. The same risks even apply: scarring, infections, allergic reactions, etc. Yet for some reason, when these complications are related to piercings, they are risks worth taking. Tattoos on the other hand? Often deemed not worth it. If I think about it carefully, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more horror stories about my friends’ piercings than I have tattoos, even when they are done in reputable studios.  

Myth number two, a grandmother’s special and possibly my favourite: “Tattoos are meaningless, unprofessional and—dare I say—impulsive.” Admittedly, those infamous tales of people drunkenly surrendering their bodies to street tattoo artists in Mallorca would seem to be perfect examples of this (thanks Tattoo Fixers). However, let’s focus on the people who decide to get tattooed with fully informed consent. In these circumstances, it’s safe to say that tattoos are a form of art. And as we all know, art (as well as taste!) is relative, and body art is no exception to this rule – so who’s to decide which piece of art possesses meaning and what doesn’t? Surely we’re allowed to express ourselves in whichever way seems most appropriate without it negatively impacting the way we are perceived? Plus, the very experience of getting tattooed is undoubtedly memorable and is bound to hold meaning whether that be positive or negative!

Myth number three: “They look horrible when you get old.” An oldie but goldie. This one might well be true, but it is irrelevant. The point of a tattoo is not purely aesthetic longevity but rather that it is a form of self-expression – more specifically, a permanent one. Of course, it is inevitable that a tattoo will fade or become disfigured, but there will always be a memory attached to that precious site of inkage. Our bodies are canvases to be adorned with the things that best express who we are, and tattoos are an entirely valid way of fulfilling the body’s artistic potential – consider it an honour to have your body be the coffer of a piece of art that will last forever.

There is definitely pressure to conform to traditional stereotypes and mould yourself into a replica of the classic Oxford student – television representations would definitely suggest so (Riot Club anyone?) – but alas, let us remember the potent words of our French 19th century predecessors: art for art’s sake.

No, I am not encouraging you to spontaneously go and get your college motto tattooed on your body somewhere (I cannot confirm nor deny whether I have considered this before) but I am saying respect the art, it’s nowhere near as bad as you think!

Image credit: Alexander Kuzovlev via Wikimedia Commons.