Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Tattoos and the endless learning curve of life



Long, long ago my wild child classmate Lorna shocked everybody by carving ELVIS into her forearm, and then grinding pencil-lead into the incisions. The grown ups may have worried about septicaemia, but I can’t remember anybody asking why 12-year-old Lorna would inflict such pain on herself.

Main image: Line of people displaying tattoos Illustration Chris Johnston

Of my three sons, two have tattoos. Not all-over body-as-art ones, but tattoos, nonetheless, with my army son leading the way. When he rang to tell me about this new venture, I sarcastically remarked that the only way I could cope with a tattoo was that if it depicted a heart, an arrow and the message MUM. Needless to say, a guffaw greeted this remark. Predictably, the tattoo features a tribute to the special forces.

I groused and grumbled in time-honoured parental style. A shocking thing to do to your body. How did you bear the pain? What about the expense? You’re stuck with it now, you realise.

And I added, rather embarrassingly, a classist comment that really dated me. In my day the only people who had tattoos were ex-convicts and wharf labourers. I refrained from mentioning the publisher I once knew who had anchors (I think) decorating his forearms. And I certainly didn’t mention Lorna.

My comment was not only classist, but ignorant, for tattoos have a long and honourable history, being a feature of most cultures since ancient times. The well-preserved man scientists call Otzi, who was discovered in the Italian-Austrian Alps in 1991, is 5,300 years old, and has tattoos, mainly on his joints, suggesting a link between tattoos and acupuncture. The Greeks used them as a way of communicating with spies, and the Romans labelled criminals in this way. The Polynesians have always favoured tattoos, and Christian crusaders often ensured that their hands bore small crosses as requests for Christian burial should they fall in battle.

Later my attitude softened, as my youngest son acquired simple tattoos, one for each of his children. This seems to be his way of making a memorial kind of gesture to himself, because the tattoos are on his thigh, and not seen by the general public, not even at the beach, as he always wears board shorts. It’s just as well he has long legs, though, as he and his wife have recently had a third child.


'Life is, among many other things, an endless learning curve.'


Life is, among many other things, an endless learning curve. It seems to me that we plod along, adjusting and tweaking our thinking as we go, so that in maturity and post-maturity our ideas and ways of living might well be very different from those we favoured in our youth. And sometimes unexpected influences help us in our adjustment.

This happened to me when a friend’s information about the Australian War Memorial’s Ink in the Lines exhibition made me review some prejudices. Despite the tyranny of distance, I learned a lot online. The exhibition shows veterans’ tattoos, and explores the reasons for them: a selection of men and women tell their stories, and indicate that tattoos have helped them cope with loss, great change and trauma.

The body art is often a touching statement of who these individuals are and what they have achieved. One man acquired his elaborate tattoo after attending the Centenary of Anzac at Gallipoli, which he found to be an overwhelmingly emotional experience. Another lost a mate in Iraq, and chose to remember him in this way.

Then there’s the connection between tattooing and the desire and struggle for mental health. Physical pain is often easier to bear than mental pain, and it seems that for some people the act of acquiring tattoos is a way of coping with the latter, and also a distraction from it. At its most effective, perhaps it expresses that pain, and is a plea for some acknowledgement of it? I’m only guessing.

But my thoughts return to Lorna, who was a regular truant from both school and home: she was the first person I ever knew who claimed to have slept in a cardboard box on the street. Elvis was, of course, an icon and a safe, remote love object, made more desirable by parental disapproval.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, tattoos



submit a comment

Existing comments

Gillian, like a good bottle of Chateau Margaux, you improve with age. Your insight here is absolutely spot on. Tattoos are a symbol. They are not reality but point to it. Sometimes, as with Lorna, they may be a cry for help. Sometimes they mean something else. It's a bit like wearing a cross. For some it's just an ornament. For some it means something. I do hope Lorna went on to have a loved and cherished life. She deserved it. We all do.

Edward Fido | 11 March 2021  

‘endless learning’. With luck, Elvis is St. Elvis. With mystery, Lorna was plucked from the streets by the ubiquitous Salvation Army and now wears the uniform of an officer because, unfortunately or not, neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox Churches can offer her a job as a priest, which is what a Salvation Army officer, minus the transubstantiation, is. The mystery, for the time being, is how the sometime-to-be St. Elvis, adopted by Lorna like a Crusader declaring a faith (or adopted invisibly by the Spirit residing also within her), and now, in turn, an intercessor of hers, would have processed all of the above information. The mystery isn’t unique. Every soul, after all, has a Catholic guardian angel.

roy chen yee | 11 March 2021  

G'day Gillian. There are numerous occasions when my Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations comes in handy. For instance under "Horror and the Gothic" there is this gem: "Every drop of ink in my pen ran cold" by Horace Walpole. Additionally, under "Earning a Living (see also Money)" and pertaining to parental emotion: "What affectionate parent would consent to see his son devote himself to his pen as his profession?" I am presuming female children may be included in this pronouncement.

Pam | 11 March 2021  

Thank you for this reflection Gillian. I found Lorna's presence particularly memorable because it evoked a memory for me of a particular classmate who in the 1950's was one of the early refugees from Europe I encountered. Do you know what happened to Lorna beyond your school experience?

Rod | 11 March 2021  

Like you and many middle class women of a similar age, I find some tattoos rather confronting, but realise that’s about me rather than the person tattooed. Two things strike me, however. Men or women who have the names of their partners engraved on themselves may find them inappropriate if the relationship breaks down. With young women (perhaps I’m just envious) I find myself wondering whether they have thought what the tattoos will look like as their skin ages and wrinkles. Apart from thieves and convicts, surely sailors were the most commonly tattooed?

Juliet | 12 March 2021  

Roy Chen Yee's often gnomic utterances from whichever exalted realm he thinks he occupies never cease to amaze me. As far as Gillian's article went, Lorna never joined the Salvation Army. They do enormously good work. They quite literally get people off the street and help them get a real life. Their theology is not mine, but many of them are good people and good Christians. There are many young women (and men) like Lorna who could go either way. We are now beginning to address the absolutely horrific incidence of bad adolescent mental health, its causes and possible solutions in a big way. We need to. BTW Roy, angels have no religion as we do. They are creatures of God who existed before mankind originated. There were angels in the Old Testament. I do not consider them to be "Jewish". God is just Almighty God. He is not Catholic.

Edward Fido | 12 March 2021  

Pam: "Every drop of ink in my pen ran cold" These days, it's the clatter of dry bones of a keypad. Especially when the product isn't especially life-giving.

roy chen yee | 13 March 2021  

I enjoyed your reflection and shared your prejudice. There were no tattooed Lornas at my school and I must have believed the myth of prisoners or sailors being the only ones and not many of them either in my little town! I even remember being told that the Greek army sent tattooed recruits for a psychiatric evaluation. Now I can appreciate all the diversity of body art and am fascinated by the use of the decoration in the dance of Sergei Polunin in Japan. Not all tattoos are to be observed but it is a freedom and a statement of culture and as you say mental health that can be appreciated and not judged. What good is a day if you don’t learn something?

Maggie | 13 March 2021  

Edward Fido, there are other possibilities in what someone has written. Yes, the article is about tattoos but we can also draw whatever useful meaning we can sustain by reason out of it. Consider whether Christ intended 2000 plus denominations to be roaming the Earth in his name. Would you like 2000 people dispensing views about you to others? Only if they’re saying the same thing, and the same thing is how you see yourself. It’s therefore reasonable to assume there is one truth, which is the truth that is currently sitting in God’s, or Jesus’, brain. Are the angels Catholic? If Catholicism is the truth in the divine brain, then of course. Catholic too will be the Devil and the demons except, like the angels, and your sainted forebears, they don’t need faith because they have, from direct perception, certainty. Ecumenism is fine as long as it is subordinate to evangelism. Incidentally, are you expecting to see Zeus, or a god with an elephant head, or Pachamama, or many gods in heaven? If you don’t, then aren’t you evangelising for a particular format of God?

roy chen yee | 14 March 2021  

How sad that some seem to think that God did such an imperfect job in creating them the way he did that they have to enhance their inherent beauty with indelible graffiti. Such self- disfigurement when not done in coloured ink is considered self harm and treated as a psychiatric disorder. In some societies (eg the Maori and many African tribes) tattooing and disfigurement by scarring have very different significance. In our society they have none other than self-aggrandisement - a seriously flawed means of achieving same.

john frawley | 14 March 2021  

I certainly shared the same prejudice and I still find some tattoos disturbing. I think they are just one of the ways people express themselves. Others being, their dress, makeup, the jewellery they wear, hairstyle or the messages on T-shirts. But the difference is probably the greater degree of personal commitment necessary to have a tattoo. I mean it's going to be there a long time.

Stephen | 14 March 2021  

Tattoos in my modest opinion are a partial depiction of our inner world in many cases. This article has plenty of food for thought ..

Stathis T | 14 March 2021  

Stephen, there is a belief among people in some highly religious, but not thoroughly modernised (in the worst sense) societies, that says you do not need to read a person's palm (a decidedly Occult practice) but can read a person's character by looking at their face. A person's clothing and ornamentation, including tattoos, tell us a lot about them. Some tattoos have obvious Occult and Neo-Fascist connotations. Others, like Lorna's, may be a cry for help. We do not need to launch into some bizarre 'right off the page' theologising, like Roy, to have insight or be of help. Some Salvation Army women officers, who may well have been abused themselves, are excellent at reaching out to the Lornas of this world. Roy scored an 'own goal' there. He was inadvertently right.

Edward Fido | 15 March 2021  

John Frawley: ‘indelible graffiti.’ I wouldn’t push this anti-tattoo thing too hard lest some impertinent swine raise the perfectly reasonable question, for which I personally have no good answer, as to why if we’re such big fans of Jesus, we don’t walk around with a Chi Ro or cross indelibly imprinted on our foreheads, somewhat like a Hindu bindi. And it’s not as if we don’t have to do that because we already have ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ tattooed across our knuckles. We could claim that this might affect employment opportunities for Christians in Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or, golly gosh, Western value-neutral countries --- would an attorney-general with a tattooed chi ro or cross on the forehead make advocates of a change of law to allow late-term abortion feel ‘unsafe’? --- and marry that with some elaborate theory of in what circumstances should a Christian volunteer for a possibility of white, blue/green or red martyrdom, but that’s getting too close to making excuses for a lack of spine. Anyway, while we’re thinking about that, perhaps we can also test whether an attorney-general wearing a hijab makes abortion late-termers feel ‘unsafe’.

roy chen yee | 15 March 2021  

Edward Fido: ‘right off the page' theologising, like Roy, to have insight or be of help.’ Atheists philosophise; religious theolgise. That’s how they get insight. Except that here, the theologising had less to do with helping Lorna as to wonder at the ways in which God sends rain on Catholic and non-Catholic Christians alike. Anyway, unlike Furtado who deflects questions with a skip and a smile, you are going to admit you do have a particular format of God between your ears?

roy chen yee | 16 March 2021  

Roy, I am beginning to find your intellectual broomstick rides, during which you drop the most atrocious clangers from above, disturbing. Like some of the more atrocious tattoos, I fear they may be a cry for help. I think it possible you have issues which may need assistance away from the discussions of Eureka Street. It is a pity that the editorial staff of ES continue to let you post. In due Christian charity, someone such as Fr Hamilton should possibly have drawn you aside and asked if you are OK. This to me seems a real issue. I was hesitant about raising this issue in public, but you are beginning to really concern me.

Edward Fido | 16 March 2021  

Edward Fido: ‘find your intellectual broomstick rides, during which you drop the most atrocious clangers from above’ I must have a problem. I do remember what you write. Wasn’t this a reference to Michael Furtado’s broomstick in a post about a Melbourne park? ‘but you are beginning to really concern me’ Thanks, I’ll take this as a genuine concern but seeing you seem to have gone past ‘Broomstick’ Furtado to get along fine with him these days --- even after hissing at something he said in that post as ‘vile’ --- I’m sure after a sleep or two we can settle into a stable pattern of your regarding my posts as mad and me regarding yours as, well, suburban. By the way, any chance, once in a while, of getting out of the middle of the road? Just because Earth is in the Goldilocks Zone, does Church have to be in there too?

roy chen yee | 17 March 2021  

Roy. I reckon a person's beauty, humanity and belief in a god of any dimension is evidenced by his/her works on behalf of others and not by a sign telling the world who they are or indicating their allegiances, likes or dislikes. Tattooing to me is an extremely sad reflection of a need born out of some serious deficiency in human maturation. But then, I suppose I'm some out of date old dinosaur.

john frawley | 17 March 2021  

Gillian's reflection and the fact it's the feast of St Patrick triggers this sobering recollection. Some years ago in a popular Irish pub in Melbourne on St Patrick's Day, our table was joined by a young man whose heavily made-up face suggested he'd just come hurriedly from a live stage performance. As the Jameson's and Guinness flowed and the atmosphere became more clammy in the pulsating room, the make-up on our new companion's face began to run profusely, revealing a face crammed with chaotic blue and black tattoos. Sensing our curiosity, he volunteered that he was drunk when "mates" decided for a "lark" that they'd have him "decorated". The tattooist's fee was extracted from the young man's wallet. He now lives with the legacy of his 'mates' 'idea of a good time, and admirably works at assisting other young people in similarly vulnerable circumstances.

John RD | 17 March 2021  

Padraic: He knew their love and sin. . . High on a mountain where the cold is needle thin, having cursed, in Christ's name, the demons of the air that haunted there, he passed the night in prayer, hammering high Heaven with his pastoral rod, entreating God that he might take the stand at Reckoning Day on the court of heaven's highest steeple as advocate for his beloved people. . . "Pelagian!" uncomprehending scoffers say. His people say: "I wouldn't mind a word of his to go my way!"

John Kelly | 17 March 2021  

John Frawley: ‘not by a sign’ As I said earlier, I have no good answer. If Peter at the Pearly Gate asks me why I don’t have a Chi Ro in tattoo on my forehead to tell the world that I identify as a Christian (or even impermanently affixed by cosmetics), I’m just going to say that, like it or not, regardless of what other cultures accept as wholly legitimate, I don’t do personal bells and smells, no jewellery, no aftershave, no hair ‘products’. I could go further and say that all of that stuff feels a bit girlie. Powder and pompadour for men went out of fashion in the West a long time ago and even as a kid, I never liked Brylcreem. But, as with the other issues we discuss in ES, what is free to be done or not because liberty allows you to exercise your feelings on the matter is different from what can be proved to be ‘true’ based on an evidenced system of principles.

roy chen yee | 18 March 2021  

‘legacy’ This is how cancel culture works. If I call that face rape, which it is in a metaphorical sense, I will be criticised by many for making light of actual rape, although analogy has always been used as a tool for expanding how we make sense of our world. If I communicate this to someone over Zoom and he listens without agreeing or disagreeing, apart from the normal nodding of head to show that he is listening, he will be criticised for failure of ‘bystander responsibility’ in ‘enabling’ or ‘not adequately condemning’. And we may both lose our jobs if the Zoom goes viral. So, someone who could actually lose a job over this, a psychologist helping the young man through his feelings, say, will have to stop the feeling he has that leads him to say, ‘This feels like a rape’ by telling him, ‘It’s understandable that you might feel that way but it’s not an appropriate way to express it.’ And yet the strength of the analogy is that it describes the emotion concerning the facial violation perfectly because humans, being social creatures, learn feelings from others. www insidehighered com/news/2021/03/12/georgetown-terminates-law-professor-reprehensible-comments-about-black-students

roy chen yee | 18 March 2021  

Roy, you're off, definitely off. It may just be anxiety, possibly social anxiety, which gets you to go off half cocked. I really feel you need professional help. All you may need is relaxing exercises and talk therapy. I suggest you see someone now. Untreated anxiety and similar can lead to major problems later on in life.

Edward Fido | 18 March 2021  

Roll on St George's Day! There still be dragons to slay. Roy, I hope you are well. I still find your phraseology and syntax bizarre. Remember it was Michael's post I described that way, not him. He's fine. You may well be fine. I hope we all are. Being a Shropshire Lad ancestrally, I'll drink to that in cider. May God bless us all, every one.

Edward Fido | 18 March 2021  

I find ‘body art’ a term I accept only grudgingly. In my formative years in the 1950’s I attended a government country school, and we were even advised by teachers to avoid tattoos because this so called ‘body art’ becomes dirty and ugly as we age, and it is not possible to have it effectively removed, and that the issues that once motivated us may change over time, and that it would likely effect our employment prospects. I used to equate the practice with sailors. Modern society attempts to look at it differently, and I have tried to as well, but my prejudice generally remains. Never the less I have been forced to change my opinion somewhat. I remember having close dealings with a business woman with a myriad of tattoos on one arm only. She had great leadership skills and good business acumen. I don’t judge so harshly these days, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these people don’t have some regrets over what they have committed themselves to.

John Whitehead | 21 March 2021  

‘business woman with a myriad of tattoos on one arm only. She had great leadership skills and good business acumen.’ Many able women smoke and nobody raises an eyebrow although smoking ‘tattoos’ the lungs somewhat more consequentially than ink tattoos skin. However, from a male eye point of view, a female arm that permanently looks as if it is wearing a t-shirt or blouse sleeve – hence the tattoo term ‘sleeve’, one supposes – looks about as sexy as legs that look as if they are permanently wearing cycling shorts. Still, it could be worse: there are women who wear Western dresses and skirts over trousers, a luminescent quirkiness which makes the Englishman’s eccentricity, together with mad dogs, of going out in the equatorial midday sun pale by comparison.

roy chen yee | 26 March 2021  

Similar Articles

No details known

  • Diane Fahey
  • 02 March 2021

Only Masaccio, the painter who first used light to sculpt the human form, portrayed this story. The disciple, Peter, walks through a Florentine street past three afflicted men.