Tattoo too far

What will our grandchildren think of this weird custom?

Earlier this week the directors of the Bayreuth Festival got into a kerfuffle with the Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin when a German TV show revealed that he has a swastika tattoo on one of his man-boobs. This was a problem because Nikitin had been invited to perform the lead in “The Flying Dutchman,” an opera by Richard Wagner, the music world’s most famous anti-Semite, whose work was much beloved by Adolph Hitler, another noted anti-Semite. It was a Nazi supernova!

I first saw the story on Euronews, where I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Nazis tattoos are bad, but Nikitin seemed to have had his done during his youth, a time when we are all prone to making stupid decisions. Furthermore, I didn’t take to the self-righteous spokesman for the festival, who was complaining that Nikitin hadn’t been “honest.”

Honest about what? That as a teenager he had been a moron? What else should he have admitted to? Should all performers at Bayreuth confess to embarrassing body art, or perhaps submit lists of the books they have read since attaining literacy? There were already lots of pictures of Nikitin in public circulation, his fleshy body exposed, liberally sprinkled with ginger hair and bad ink. He had performed all over the world, sometimes with tattoos on display, and had never once been caught saluting himself in the mirror and barking “Seig heil!”

Then I discovered that Nikitin didn’t even have the swastika on his moob anymore; it had been covered up with a rubbish coat of arms. The outrage was plainly nonsense, though Nikitin’s claim that he had picked the symbol out of a book of runes, oblivious to its internationally recognized significance, was a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, this got me thinking about other unfortunate tattoos. A few weeks back I read that Latin American immigrants to the United States can run into problems if their skin is liberally adorned with gang symbols, which inexplicably acts as a red flag to consular officials. The Wall Street Journal told the tale of Hector Villalobos, a wonderful husband and father of three, who also happened to have many, many gang tattoos, though he was adamant that he had no criminal affiliations. “He likes tattoos, just like many Americans like tattoos,” said his wife.

The tone of the article was naïve; the writer appeared to accept at face value the implausible argument that Mexican gang tattoos are very often just harmless body art. But this can be a tricky issue – what does a consular officer do when confronted with a guy with no serious criminal record, but whose body advertizes his illicit associations? A good rule of thumb would be to study the other tattoos. For instance, if he has one “Smile Now Cry Later” – a pair of theatrical masks illustrating the gangster’s life – and then a koi fish, an image of his mother, and a naked lady on a motorbike, OK, he’s probably not a gangster. But if he only has gang tattoos, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution.

Then of course there are tattoos that are unfortunate simply because they’re rubbish. When Princess Diana died, my local newspaper carried the tale of a man who had had her face engraved on his calf as a tribute. Now back then Dunfermline, my hometown, was not the kind of place to have a fancy tattoo studio. Our most celebrated practitioner of body art was a gentleman known as “Jaggy Jim,” who specialized in anchors, the word “MUM” and the occasional spider’s web. The Diana was thus, unsurprisingly, not very good. It had her big nose and vacant gaze, but the resemblance just wasn’t there. Also, the guy’s calf was very hairy, so the People’s Princess was bristly as a hog.

I’ve never seriously considered getting a tattoo, because I can’t think of an image that wouldn’t bore me two days later, though I was once mildly tempted to get a photorealistic cup of tea done on my upper left bicep. I am also baffled by the craze that erupted in the 1990s, whereby young females en masse started getting meaningless squiggles permanently emblazoned at the bases of their spines.

Maybe some women get them done because they think they’re sexy, though as often as not I think it’s a means by which an arts graduate signifies her rebellious status as she prepares for a life teaching high school or otherwise working for the state. The strangest such tattoo I ever saw was on an Australian woman shaped like Kolobok, the talking bun of Russian folklore. It was not a squiggle but some kind of aboriginal, tribal figure – though as she leaned over to pick up her pint and the waistline of her jeans plunged downward, it looked like an alien coming up for air.

Fifty years from now, when these women are wizened old crones, their rest-home carers will smile at the faded squiggles on wrinkled flesh as they change these ex-vixens and onetime student radicals in and out of adult diapers. They’ll think it was just some weird custom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – like the phenomenon of opera-loving Germans punishing a foreigner for the guilt they feel over the things their grandparents did.

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at
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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at

9 thoughts on “Tattoo too far

    July 31, 2012 at 09:22

    Germans are a tad sensitive about that time when the Rhur was in full swing making stuff that went bang, so sensitive in fact that earlier this year the people in the Köln Rathaus allowed a neo nazi (wee pretendy branch) parade to troll it’s way through Deutz, after shooing away the bystanders, much to the chagrin of the local, mainly Turkish population, who apparently enjoy a bit of nn watching. The local plod made a small fortune in overtime payments. The German loony right are just as big a bunch of tossers as our own home grown variety, except in the tattoo department, the skin graffiti is amazing.

    July 31, 2012 at 11:59

    George Schultz, sometime U.S. Secretary of State, notoriously had a tiger, the mascot of Princeton, tattooed on his behind.

    A few years ago, The Washington Post had an article about a man who runs a tattoo removal service around here. He remarked that the ratio between the cost of getting a tattoo and having one removed was comparable to the one between the cost of a marriage license and that of a divorce. He seemed to keep plenty busy.

    July 31, 2012 at 12:20

    ze germans have a wonderful word for those squiggley tattoos women get on their lower backs – arschgeweih – literally ‘bum antlers’

    • Gaw
      July 31, 2012 at 12:35


        July 31, 2012 at 12:52

        they also use a german version of an english phrase – ‘schlampenstempel’ aka ‘tramp stamp’

        • Gaw
          July 31, 2012 at 13:51

          I’m impressed with your knowledge of German idioms. You must have had fun putting it together!

          • Worm
            July 31, 2012 at 14:11

            It is a tragedy that the English look down on the German language and view it as ‘cold’ and humourless, when it contains many lovely and poetic idioms

            July 31, 2012 at 15:58

            For instance gumiknuppel: a rubber truncheon. A fine example of a word sounding a good deal more appealing than its meaning. I have also liked kadavergehorsam: discipline that would make a corpse stand to attention – lit. corpse-like obedience (note various George Grosz drawings).

    July 31, 2012 at 18:12

    Then there was that odd, verging on strange movie with god knows who they were actors, you know, thing and the stick insect. All about a bod who tattooed this skinny woman, all over. Didn’t take long, obviously.

    Maud Adams, that’s her name.

    Come into the garden, Maud,
    For the black bat, night, has flown,
    Come into the garden, Maud,
    I am here at the gate alone;
    And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
    And the musk of the rose is blown.

    Man, that works every time.

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