WHETHER it’s an inspirational quote etched on a shoulder blade or a Chinese symbol peeking out from a shirt collar, tattoos have never been so popular.
However, decorating our skin with drawings, designs and meaningful artwork is nothing new, and the history of body art is the focus of a major exhibition underway at Rozelle House in Ayr.
Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed boasts a 400-piece collection, featuring original artworks, photographs, and a specially built see-through studio so visitors can watch live tattoo demonstrations.
Sean Cahill, from Petal Faced Gypsy Tattoo Studio in Prestwick, will be showcasing his skills at the exhibition.
He said: “Tattooing stretches right back throughout history, and the exhibition looks at how it has become an art form in recent years.
“These days people from all walks of life are getting tattoos – doctors, lawyers, gravediggers, you name it.
“It’s actually quite crazy to think about all the different people who have come through our doors.”
For some people going under the needle is more than just a way of standing out from the crowd.
We speak to two women whose tattoos symbolize something much deeper…
Liz Howley, 77, Livingston
When retired deputy head teacher Liz sat in the studio chair to get her first tattoo, it marked a landmark moment in her life.
Having recovered from breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy surgery, the 77-year-old was low in body confidence, and wanted to find a way to embrace her scars.
“I was first diagnosed in late 2004 after a routine breast screening. I had no idea at all – I had none of the usual signs, such as lumps and bumps, and it was a great shock,” explained Liz, who fundraises for Breast Cancer Care.
“I felt awful after I had the surgery. I didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want anybody to see me. It was demoralising, really.
“I struggled because I didn’t want to get dressed or undressed even in front of my husband. I couldn’t bear looking at myself in the mirror when I was getting showered or dressed.
“Then one night we were watching a show called Miami Ink. There was a young woman who wanted to covered up some scars she had on her stomach, and I thought, ‘Oh I could do that, too.’
“I asked the doctor if it would do any harm, and he said absolutely not. So that sealed the deal.”
Five years after her surgery and just before her 70th birthday, Liz had a row of cherry blossoms tattooed onto her mastectomy scar – and she loved the experience so much, she went back two more times.
Next came vine leaves that travelled under her scar and around to her back, and a few months later butterflies joined the design. To help calm her nerves and provide moral support, Liz’s husband John, also 77, decided to get his own tattoo at the same time.
Liz’s flowers represent a new beginning, and she admits the tattoo has helped her to feel better about her body.
“It was something I wanted to do for myself. I used to wear clothes that went right up to my neck and I was scared someone would see my scar.
“But I feel good if a little butterfly wing pokes out now.”
She added: “It’s amazing how many times people have come to ask me about my tattoo.
Nowadays there are a lot of people with bigger and more ornate mastectomy tattoos, but I hadn’t heard of anyone else when I first got mine. It was quite unusual.”
For care, support and information visit breastcancercare.org.uk
Doris Blackwood, 80, Prestwick, Ayrshire
Every time one of her family returned home with another tattoo, great-gran-of-three Doris would express her disapproval. So, when she was deciding how to celebrate her 80th, she knew exactly how to surprise her family.
She said: “All the young ones in the family have tattoos and I was never very fond of them but, when I was deciding what I wanted to do for my birthday, I thought I would shock them with my own.”
She kept her tattoo a secret right up until her party, before revealing a small blackbird on her wrist – a tribute to her late husband, Jim, who was known as Blackie – and a Roman numeral signifying the 12 years they were together.
She said: “When it came to my turn to say a few words at my party I told everyone there was a new addition to the family. They had no idea what I was talking about until I showed them the wee blackbird.
“The place just erupted. They all knew how I felt about tattoos, so they were shocked to see it was real.
“The look on their faces was just a picture.”
And if Jim had seen her tattoo?
“He would have laughed and said, ‘Well that’s just you, Doris!’”
Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed is at Rozelle House until March 3