How generation body art has got under our skin

February 24, 2016 | 02:45 am PT
Timothee clenches his jaw and grips his sweatshirt as the tattooist's needle sinks into his skin. The angel he wants on his shoulder is not going to get there by itself. He is going to have to suffer for his body art.

Like many teenagers, Timothee has not waited till his 18th birthday to get his first tattoos and piecings.

In fact this is the blond 18-year-old's seventh tattoo. He had the names of his parents tattooed on his wrist at 16, and six others elsewhere to go with his nose piercing and the little stud on the inner lobe of his ear.

So far he has spent 2,500 euros ($2,800) on various bodily adornments, but he is far from finished. "For the next one I want something written down the length of my spine," he said, convinced that he will never regret his tattoos.

According to a 2010 Ifop survey, one in 10 French people -- and nearly a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds -- have a tattoo.

Every year Marina gets another piercing. She started with her bellybutton at 13, followed by each end of her lower lip. Next she had her earlobes stretched, before having her eyebrows, tongue and inner ear lobes pierced, and then topped it all off with a tatoo on her wrist at 17. Oh, and she has a nose ring too.

Clementine couldn't wait either for piercings between her breasts and on her temple. Since she was 12, the 17-year-old has been begging her parents for a bull-style nose ring. "They didn't want me to have it, they were worried what people would think. But in the end they gave in to piercings on her temple" when she was only 14.

After a few more years of arguments her parents finally cracked and allowed her to get a nose ring after she had got her high school diploma.

- 'It's my body' -For sociologist David Le Breton, author of "Signs of Identity: Tattoos, Piercings and Other Body Markings", the need to alter their appearance is a "a way of saying, 'It's my body and I can do what I like with it... And I cannot stand the idea of anybody saying no to me.'

"For teenagers it is a way of taking back their bodies that they don't believe they were responsible for creating.

"So putting their own mark on themselves is a way of saying, 'My body belongs to nobody but me,'" he said.

No matter how intent teenagers are on transforming themselves, the law in most of Europe and US is clear. Minors need written consent from their parents, with many tattooists also demanding that they also bring their parents along.

In Japan regulation is even tighter, with tattoos prohibited for anyone under 20.

In the United States, according to a Harris Poll study in 2012, one adult in five now has at least one tattoo, and while there is no federal law regulating tattoos or other body art or modifications, most of the 50 states allow tattoos for minors provided they have parental consent.

In Europe, some 100 million residents have tattoos, or 10 to 20 percent of the adult population, according to figures cited in the publication "Tattooed Skin and Health", which was published in 2015 for a medical congress entitled the Second European Congress on Tattoo and Pigment Research, held in Belgium.

So no matter how much a rebellious a teenager might be, they have to negotiate with their elders, even though a growing number are turning to so-called "scratchers" who operate illegally.

Timothee's mother Severine was very reluctant to give him permission to have a tattoo. "We did not want to affect his chances of getting work, and we didn't want it to be visible, above all on his neck and face."

But in the end he so won her over that she and her husband got tattoos themselves.

- 'Body tuning' -Corinne Dubosque, a tattooist in the suburbs of Paris, said most parents are realists: "They know (their children) will have it anyway so they prefer to check out the parlours themselves to make sure they are hygienic."

Charlotte began by having her inner ear lobe pierced at 15, and two months ago had a "vertical labret" inserted, a lip piercing that comes out on the chin.

"I felt my body didn't suit me so I am carrying out some improvements," she said. "It is going to take years and it is going to cost," said the arts student, who lives in Metz in eastern France.

Timothee calls this "body tuning" while Clementine insists all her piercings have nothing to do with youthful rebellion or politics "but simple aesthetics".

And of course fashion has a lot to do with it too.

"Younger people are more likely to follow trends, to imitate their peers or an actor, singer, footballer or swimmer," sociologist Le Breton said. - AFP

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