Why all the fuss about Lady Steel’s pink jaguar tattoo?
JUDY Steel, wife of Scottish peer and former Liberal leader David, can be variously described. She’s a writer, former theatre producer and director, cultural catalyst, mother of three, grandmother of eight, horsewoman, charity supporter and like every other multifaceted human being, worthy of an endless stream of labels. But the one that’s currently stuck on the septuagenarian Lady Steel is “the Granny with the Jaguar Tattoo”.
Although the three-inch pink jaguar, tongue lolling as it prowls across her shoulder, was inked in a Selkirk tattoo parlour to celebrate her 70th birthday two years ago, it has suddenly become hot news and the subject of fevered debate, and last week saw her discuss it on Radio 4’s Today programme with James Naughtie. Never mind her intellect, books, campaigning work, festivals, championing of causes, it’s all about the tattoo.
So why the furore? Icons, animals and I-heart-you-mums have been splashed up and down the bodies of all social classes for generations. They enjoyed a renaissance during the late 19th century among the British aristocracy, with Winston Churchill’s mother, the racy Lady Randolph Churchill, sporting a snake tattoo on her wrist. Today we’re so used to seeing singers, athletes, celebrities, from the Beckhams to Angelina Jolie, being inked that it doesn’t even cause comment – apart from the odd snigger when the sanskrit spelling goes awry. Even the fragrant Samantha Cameron has a little dolphin on her ankle.
Judy’s big cat, however, has caused a massive stooshie. She’s very sensibly chosen a part of the body that won’t go south, is easily hidden and, since she’s already in her eighth decade, won’t have time to fade and drag. So what’s the problem? The truth is that her tat has caused so much fuss because of her age and her title, and our sometimes curious attitudes to both of these factors. Do we prefer our wives of peers of the realm to be running up padded gilets rather than hanging out in tattoo parlours? Do we think that older people shouldn’t have sex lives, let alone be empowered enough to celebrate their own bodies? And is there a difference in how we view men and women’s attitudes to ageing?
I decided to test the opinion of friends and colleagues, tattooed and as nature intended. Steel’s body art provoked harsh words that stopped short just this side of an outburst of Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put marks on yourselves”.
One pal sputtered: “I don’t want to look at any 70-year-old woman’s tattoo, jaguar or whatever it is,” while another started off promisingly with “70-year-old women should do exactly what they want”, but on considering the possibility of his mother going for body art, transformed into a towering hurricane of moral fury. “Absolutely not. No way. Tattoos are gateway behaviour to things like taking drugs and… and… swinging.”
Another colleague, a woman in her forties, was damning: “At 72 she shouldn’t be showing her upper arms anyway. She had it put there because everywhere else is too lumpy, which gives you your answer really. It’s wrong. All tramp stamps are bad.”
But are the haters being consistent? There are plenty who applaud the likes of the gorgeous yet mature Susan Sarandon, newly inked at 61, or Dame Helen Mirren, 64, who can do no wrong, with her tattooed hand, yet when it comes to ordinary mums, dads and aunties, or those who look their age, forget it. Sarandon has defended her recent body art additions, a ten-inch-long tattoo on her back and another on her wrist, by declaring: “You’re never too old for a tattoo. I turned 60 and after a while you think, ‘Well I’ve only got my body for a few more years anyway’.”
Mirren too, defends her tattoo, acquired “during a night of heavy drinking” in her youth and her only regret is that inkings have lost their rebel status.
“Now I’m utterly disgusted and shocked because it’s become completely mainstream, which is unacceptable to me,” she says.
Opinion is clearly split. But even among the solid body of support for women expressing their individuality and growing old disgracefully, is there a double standard at play? Would they be as positive if Lady’s Steel’s husband David decided to get a skull-and-roses tattoo across his chest? No, he’d never be taken seriously ever again. It’s OK for women to prolong their youth and wear their heart/anchor/Bryan Ferry portrait on their sleeve, but woe betide the babybooming blokes who have the temerity to turn back time with a tat.
Whatever their gender, they won’t get any arguments at Jazz Tattoo in Edinburgh’s Bread Street, where tattoo artist Marv Wood isn’t phased at all by requests from older customers, often mothers accompanying their daughters. Not for him the disapproval the young feel when their parents refuse to live fast, die young and leave good-looking corpses, and he’s happy to tattoo people in their seventies and eighties – “as long as they meet health standards”.
“When it comes to the process of tattooing you have to stretch the skin anyway and aged skin doesn’t matter at all. Tattoos are about people marking a time in their lives, and become their stories. Times have changed and it’s much more acceptable for that generation to have them now.”
Steel – in her Borders lair, where the Lady turned Ladette was no doubt leafing through the latest copy of Skin Deep surrounded by her posse of metalheads, whores and criminals – is perplexed by the attention.
“I have no idea why there’s such a fuss,” she says. “I think it’s to do with the curse of the title. People who don’t know me have preconceptions about what a Lady should do. “It’s just something I fancied doing to mark my 70th birthday, a bit of fun, and it’s bizarre people are interested. I’ve done a bit more in my life than get a tattoo and without wanting to sound pious, would rather be remembered as somebody who has made other people’s lives better somewhere along the way,” she adds before returning to more important matters.
“I’d much prefer it if you told people about my recently published anthology of equestrian poetry, Horse Tails And Saddle Songs, being sold in aid of Riding for the Disabled, a wonderful organisation. That is interesting.”
Consider it done. A brilliant cause and one that chimes with her love of horses. Which brings us trotting right back to tats – How about a big Amy Winehouse retro-style horseshoe on the other shoulder, Judy? «
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