Tattoos ain’t what they used to be. A tattoo used to symbolise difference, as writer Jack London succinctly put it, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” Google “tattoo” and you get nearly 130 million sites. So what’s changed?

THE MOST OBVIOUS change has been the uptake of tattoos by females. Once upon a time a tattooed female lurked in the shadowy world of freak shows. (Did you know that one of the most famous tattooed females, Jean Carroll, was a bearded lady who shaved and then inked to woo her lover). No more — women nowadays boldly share their ink for free.

Brooke Murray, a tattoo artist at West End hairdressing salon Luv the Doo, exemplifies the more decorative aspect of ink — she sports a coloured version of John Tenniel’s illustration from Alice in Wonderland, where Alice meets a caterpillar smoking a hookah. A degree in Visual Arts inspires Claire Miles of female-only tattoo salon The Painted Lady — her sleeve depicts a classic Grecian scene including the seer Cassandra. Contemporary tattoos embrace both high and popular culture.

Tattooing gives an ancient Polynesian artform modern sensibilities so it is no wonder that many images have a 1950s vibe and so too do the studios. Highly coloured graffiti and retro theming is common. Why? Because the hallmark of tattoos is remembrance. Australia has a long tattoo history as early convicts adorned their bodies with reminders of ‘Home’. Surprisingly, uptight 19th Century administrators documented prisoners’ tattoos. Historians are still puzzling over the popularity of flowerpots, an image that appeared on many convicts.

Even the most clichéd of tattoos have been given a modern makeover.

Lady Gaga has an anchor on her side, and Johnny Depp has his mother’s name on one arm and her picture on another. And he, like many others, has tattoo remorse: he changed ‘Winona Forever’ to ‘Wino Forever’. In fact, the industry has responded by offering laser removal – so maybe tattoos aren’t as permanent as once thought.

Not all tattoos are purely decorative. Cosmetic tattoos can hide scarring from mastectomies, acne and childbirth. They can give lips and eyebrows definition. Equally as important as the image is the placement of that image — chests, backs and arms are common, increasingly so too are necks, legs, feet and hands. Often the artist uses the curves and shapes of the body to complement the artwork.

Tattoos are complex. The artwork can be homages to a culture, memories of a loved one, reminders of places visited, celebrations of meaningful events or whimsical spur-of-the-moment choices. They are symbolic body displays — in women they dare the onlooker to look at the female form. They take body objectification to another place. They are egotistical — they scream ‘look at me’ or at least ‘look at my ink’. As poet Sylvia Plath implored: “Wear your art on your skin in this life.”

Words by Toni Johnson-Woods |  Images by Colin Bushell, Sam Navin and supplied by Painted Lady