Why I’ve written my last Latin tattoo

A Cambridge classicist on a trend he helped to fuel, and why he wants it to end

Tattoos have become ubiquitous, casual and vacuous — and I am part of the problem. Over the past few years I have been responsible for more than a thousand of them worldwide, without ever entering a tattoo parlour. Just as Chinese scripts and eastern symbolism were the stamp of the nineties, the last decade has been the curious age of the Latin tattoo.

It all started innocently enough in 2007 with a request from a friend of a friend to check that their hazily remembered GCSE Latin had been correctly deployed on their skin (it hadn’t). After a few similar queries, it soon emerged that Latin had somehow fallen into vogue among the tattoo crowd, and as a classics don, I was in demand. Some cursory but eye-opening investigation online revealed that hundreds had already thrown themselves headlong into this unforgiving language without heed for spelling, syntax or sense.

Some had blindly used automated translators: ‘I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ interspersed impossible Latin with English: Ingredior per valley of umbra of nex. Some had crudely stitched together disparate elements: ‘Rest in peace’ paired Requietum in (‘something recuperated in’) with a full dictionary entry pax, pacis (‘peace, of peace’). Some had suffered from technical or mental auto-correct: ‘Love is the essence of life’ appeared not as amor est vitae essentia, but vital essential. Some had managed to cultivate utter gibberish: the forearm bearing pastus ab sodes bilis cavo ab itum sodes odiun in inch-high letters allied the unmeaning with the unknown. Many women had tattoos describing themselves in the masculine (ironic examples including illicitus and perfectus), which, even in these gender-fluid days, seemed rum. Some were guilty of simple misreading: David Beckham’s (correct) ut amem et foveam (‘to love and cherish’) had been sabotaged on several bodies by an almighty amen. Some problems lurked deeper: my confusion about why a dozen or more hapless folk had inked si vis pacem, para bellum (‘If you want peace, prepare for war’) with a nonsensical sic for si evaporated on finding this script error in the 2004 film The Punisher.

It was amid this chaos that I sought to offer help online. I thought tattoo translations would be rare diversions from more sobering projects (inscriptions, lyrics, official documents). As it happened, requests flowed in from all countries and quarters — teenagers, grandmothers, teachers, bankers, artists, sportsmen, actors.

The great majority knew no Latin but somehow knew that it was the language for their body; many later returned proud photographs — sometimes explicit — of the results. Tattoo translations, whose high stakes required sober handling, ranged from the literary and poignant to the perverse and absurd: ‘The true Muscles from Brussels’ (chest), ‘Wacko Jacko’ (thigh), and ‘Feed the beast in my bone’ (location unknown). My small service is that such subcutaneous gems now lurk in the decent obscurity of a learned language.

But why Latin? Perhaps as a vestige of the prestige that attended the language for much of its history? Yet this squares ill with conflicted modern attitudes to elitism. If a tattoo is motivated by self-differentiation, Latin doubtless contributes further complexity. But if unintelligible to both viewer and wearer, it seems self-defeating. There endures some deep, perhaps subconscious, fascination with the mystique of Latin and the supremacy of Rome (however understood). More tangibly, a genuine advantage of Latin is its linguistic economy: since it can express ideas with brevity, fewer letters in ink translate to less pain for both body and purse.

David Beckham has more than 40 tattoos, including the Latin Perfectio in Spiritu ­(Perfection in Spirt)

What of the tattoo itself? Once it was an uncompromising statement: indelible ink had been sealed beneath your skin as a permanent marker of what mattered to you most. Yet in 2017, it seems to have reached an existential crisis. Its omnipresence has blunted its societal impact and diminished its visual potency. How can a tattoo still have bite if half of Americans in their twenties have one? The same question applies to Britain, where more than one in three of my fellow thirtysomethings do.

Tattoos once channelled tribal affiliations and hard-line expressions of devotion. Now a full-arm sleeve daubed in hoops, diamonds or a more outré polygon reflects classroom doodling rather than commitment, privileging the desire for a tattoo, any tattoo, over its message. You would think it the fancy of satirical fiction that people could choose to tattoo their face with freckles — but you would now be wrong. And it is into such noise that I have helped funnel the inscrutable voice of Latin.

Angelina Jolie’s quod me nutrit, me destruit translates as ‘What nourishes me destroys me’

Sed manum de tabula! I now step away from the desk and snap the stilus. Latin is a language for all, but there are now enough Latin tattoos in the world. Of course, Latin names for businesses, websites, buildings, novels, films and music still deserve consideration — for the same complex mix of reasons — but the Latin tattoo has become hackneyed and merits retirement.

Fashions ebb and flow; ink resists the passing of years. Whether or not this is the high-water mark of tattoomania, Latin or otherwise, the effects will be long in evidence. Although ‘Regret nothing’ (nihil te paeniteat) has been a common request, a 2015 survey of British tattoo owners found that 40 per cent regretted at least one of theirs. It is no surprise that tattoo–removal parlours are the largest growth sector in the cosmetic industry, promising as much of a dermatic tabula rasa as is feasible.

The ever-turning cycle of western tastes has often fetishised the unblemished body, and will do so again. In fact, the untattooed body is already a declaration either of confidence in one’s self or of unwillingness to follow an ephemeral trend with permanent consequences. Such a world exists outside the bleak dystopia satirised by The Spectator’s cartoon editor Michael Heath.

In an age that worships the self, these stuffy objections may well ring hollow: choice is the watchword of the day, and each person’s body is their temple — or gallery. So be it. But tattoos, whether extrovert broadcasts or introvert riddles, were once shows of independence (and occasionally artistry). That independence has been ousted by unthinking novelty, an overrated if ever-enticing quality, or by undue obscurantism. Yet, when there is no cogent, creative or credible idea to hand, the best course may be to set aside what is skin-deep and to curate what really counts — the character.


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