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Can tattoos stand test of time?

In a department store in Los Angeles, a man leaves a sharp, woody scent in his wake. I do something I’ve never done before: I follow him. He is a familiar stranger, and I want to know why. Engrossed in selecting a tie, he holds an intricate specimen against his T-shirt and gazes into a mirror. At what I judge to be a safe distance, I observe a scorpion tattoo on the back of his neck.

Finally, it dawns on me: he’s a well-known movie star. In LA, they’re two a penny.

Recently, I followed someone for the second time – in a store in Cape Town, but not because I recognised her. I went as close as I dared, to see a tiny woman handling layers of sweaters and squinting at labels. She was without doubt a candidate for the biggest boob job on the planet: they ballooned from her flimsy tank top like twin characters in a Woody Allen movie.

Giggles behind me: “How does she fit into anything? She’s, like, a six or something, and those – things must be size 58!” The young woman who said this didn’t bother to lower her voice. Her companion hushed her. The breast queen was oblivious.

Three minutes later, in line to pay, I turned to grab a chocolate and was confronted by two enormous breasts – only this time they jutted from the well-covered body of a much younger woman. Her cleavage boasted dazzling tattoos atop each breast.

I couldn’t resist. “Are those paws your dog’s?” I asked. She smiled and nodded. “Did your dog have to go with you to the tattoo artist?” She nods again: “Ja. He was very well behaved. Four separate visits and they took hours.”

Openly eyeballing the rounded paws of the tattoos, I say: “That must have been incredibly painful.”

“Not too bad,” she replies. “I wanted to do it for a long time. I couldn’t wait to get it done.”

Couldn’t wait? She looks about 20. “Is he an old dog?”

“Not at all. But if he dies, these” – she brushes the paws with her fingers – “will ensure that I never forget him.”

“You don’t think you’ll ever get tired of them – there?”

She shakes her head. “He’s always with me. What could be better?”

A lot of things, but that depends on your attitude to body art. Pain is one aspect clearly not a problem for many, considering the proliferation of the culture. Affordability is another: I’m told wage slaves save up for months for bigger tattoo works.

But it’s the permanence that keeps me pondering. What happens when change comes along, a new partner, perhaps children? Above all, the unwelcome but inevitable spectre of ageing? Those massive reconstructed breasts on that minute body, ludicrous now, would become even more cartoonish with advancing years. Tattoos on arms and thighs and God knows where else will sag along with ageing skin and musculature.

Yet in the United States one in five adults has a tattoo. I’ve inquired: here in South Africa, the numbers are vague. Judging from passers-by on a street in any South African city, they’re high. Once deplored, they are now reduced to relative insignificance.

A young guy with a complex sleeve of a nude woman and a colourful network of mermaids and dragon-like creatures on his back claims his tattoos make him feel different, individual. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask. He answers: “She loves my tattoos. She’s got a black and red chess set on her back – it looks great, you know, original. A fashion statement.”

A man tells me his tattoos have given him a new lease on life. “I have vitiligo,” he explains. “My entire life I’ve been trying to cover up hideous white blotches. A tattoo artist saw me on the beach, hiding under an umbrella, and offered her services.”

Then there’s the young woman who sells space on her skin for profit – to advertisers of cosmetics – and the man who lost a lower arm to a shark and has a tattoo of a shark’s head on what’s left of it. Samantha Cameron, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, has a dolphin tattoo on her lower ankle, perhaps a discreet way of promoting the cause.

For many tattoo fans, discretion is not the point. And the future after 40 barely exists. Tattooing and body-sculpting have everything to do with the present, with youth, hope, identity. It’s a way to attract the eye – to display, in the way a peacock displays his magnificent plumage or a gorilla beats his immense chest.

But growing older for some may become scary. Dorothy, slim and muscular, is tattooed in every visible place on her long-legged body. Her workouts, she says, are not saving her skin.

She shrugs. “I never thought about the future much.”

I wonder how many tattoo fans do.

Rosemund Handler’s novels are published by Penguin

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