Sometimes you have to ignore well-meaning advice and go with your gut, says Madeleine Spencer, who was told she was 'not a tattoo person'. She explains how she came to have her first – and spontaneous second – ink at 34, and regrets nothing!
In the past month, I have taken to Google countless times to look up images of Pete Doherty topless. My friend Ollie walked in during one of my sessions and exclaimed, "I know you like the Libertines and you have fairly quirky taste, but surely you can see that there are many chests on the internet superior to Pete’s?"
He had a point, but I was already well aware that Pete’s physical attributes are somewhat lacking, that sans T-shirt he’s hardly Channing Tatum or Liam Hemsworth. The fascination he holds for me lies not in his physique, but in how he’s chosen to adorn it, and what that says about him. That element of him chimes deeply with me.
This may surprise you as I know full well that on the surface, Pete and I are as disparate as two humans get. But, at heart, we have more in common than you may think. No, I don’t drink or smoke, have never taken any drugs, and am pretty fastidious about cleanliness, but those aren’t the things that make up the content of one’s inner life. On that front, we’re pretty aligned: we’re both fans of poetry, particularly of the Romantic variety, love a proper pub (I’m quite sure we imbibe vastly different things once in there, but we both enjoy being in them), are keen on Victorians, revere words and enjoy the process of arranging them.
And it’s actually the words thing that spurred me on to look at Pete online: he has tattoos of them etched all over him. One read ‘Astile’ (the name of his son), another ‘Babyshambles’ (his band), another ‘up the morning’. They were scrawled as if he’s grabbed a pen and drawn them on. They spoke of his rakish, roaming soul and seemed the precise kind of tattoo that I’d like to have. Scratch that: they were the precise kind of tattoo I’d set my heart on and was absolutely going to have.
FRIENDS felt that a tattoo would be at odds with my salubrious lifestyle, MY penchant for tidy makeup and quest for unblemished skin
But I didn’t tell Ollie that, because I felt that confessing to wanting a tattoo at 34, just because, seemed a bit ludicrous. As far as I can tell, there are generally three narratives for permanently inking one’s body:
1) You want to mark something momentous. Someone recovering from cancer, someone giving birth and stuff of that calibre. My friend Nusch, for example, took the two best friends she was leaving behind in New York before moving to London to all have three dots etched on their wrists.
2) Because you’re a 'tattoo person', in which case you’re likely to have started way before your mid-30s and probably have more than one.
3) You got yours while drunk/young/in love and there’s some hilarious tale behind it and actually you’d get it removed but you’re too cool for that, so now you explain your Roman numerals/roaring lion tattoo away with a jokey anecdote.
Mine didn’t fall into any of those categories. Nonetheless wanted one because the past couple of years have been trying: the magazine I was working at closed and my husband and I hit a bump in the road in our relationship. I wanted to quite literally mark having navigated those situations as best I could. As words have always had huge significance for me - as a way of expressing myself and of spiriting myself away into other worlds through reading novels – I, like Pete, was keen on having some on my body.
Most people were opposed to my plan to get one. They felt that a tattoo would be at odds with my look and that my salubrious lifestyle, a penchant for tidy makeup, and a quest for unblemished skin was, to them, a clear sign that I wasn’t a 'tattoo person'. I happened to be messaging an acquaintance while planning my appointment and he sent back: "that would be such a mistake - it’s just not you,". This spurred me on even more. If the impression I gave was of a person who baulked at tattoos, I needed to bring my outer appearance more in line with my inner self.
I started to narrow down my ideas. Lots of song lyrics and quotes made it onto my sheet of paper, but nothing seemed quite right. The answer came to me by chance as I was walking the dog one morning and Can’t Help Falling In Love came on my Spotify. It’s a song I never skip past – something about the hope in the lyrics and melody coupled with the sincerity with which Elvis sings it really moves me. I found myself wondering if the opening line, "wise men say" might be my tattoo.
It was the right fit in many ways: my dad unfailingly plays it to me on the saxophone when I visit him at his restaurant, Tiroler Hut, and it’s always been a song that’s made me feel close to him. Equally, the sheer optimism and surrender to someone else of those lyrics represent something that I don’t want to lose, whatever knocks I’ve had - and may yet have - in my romantic life. I’m not cynical in the slightest but rather unabashedly romantic, a trait which my friend Abi always says makes her think of a small child holding out their heart to people.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that it was the one – but I had a back up in case I changed my mind. The number 11 has occurred time and again throughout my life, first as my birthday and then repeatedly in houses I’ve lived in, the year I got married and the time at which significant things have happened in my life. Rare is the day when I don’t check the time on my phone to find it reads 11:11.
The number 11 is tied up in my past but will also, I hope, be part of my future as it’s an important element of a book I’d like to write. I felt that getting it indelibly writ on my skin would act as a promise to my future self and the things I hope she’ll achieve.
I decided that whichever one I had would have had to go somewhere I could see it often, so opted for my left arm. I booked in with tattoist Zaya Hastra after seeing my friend George’s tattoo on her arm by her. It was delicate with fine lines that I thought would translate well to what I wanted.
On the day, I asked my anti-tattoo but pro-me (and therefore supportive) friend, Emma, to come with me as I was terrified that it would hurt like hell and that I might faint. Zaya offered advice on placement and showed me how "wise men say" would look in pen and I loved it. Once she started, I found the process oddly comfortable and my mind became still as she worked. It felt cathartic, like a ritual in which I was opening a dialogue with myself.
Then she asked if I wanted the "11" tattoo too and I instantly agreed.
That was two weeks ago, and every time I’ve caught a glimpse of them or rolled up my sleeve to take a look, I am convinced that I did the right thing. They serve as a reminder to me of my core self, and of the things I’d like to carry forward from my past into my future.
The only issue? I suspect I won’t be able to resist going back for more. Time for me to look up more of Pete’s tattoos. I have a feeling I’m going to need the inspiration.