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Louder than words

I don’t have a tattoo but I do envy anyone who does. What better way to communicate with the world than through your own skin, that water-tight envelope which defines where we end and where the outside world begins.

As a doctor I’ve probably seen more tattoos than the average clubber and in a small way I’m grateful for them. I now spend those otherwise awkward moments of silent auscultation gazing in wonderment at the ink, wondering what it all means, rather thinking about how best to tell them they don’t need antibiotics.

Tattoos used to be taboo, the preserve of sailors, soldiers and heavy metalists, but now my generation, in fact anyone who’s studied graphic design or hitch hiked in the Vietnam, needs one.

They often lack a sense of humour, the tattoos I mean. Why have something waggish when it’s going to last a life time? May as well get something poignant. But the thing about poignancy is that it requires a context and our lives and our bodies change with time.

The name of the former lover is permanent when it’s engraved on a forearm, even when the girlfriend or boyfriend is long gone. The favourite pet or grandparent will always be there, even if, god forbid, something happens to them. They are the unfading marks of a personal biography, the script for people who refuse to forget.

But as they stretch and fade and droop, what are they going to say to the world? I once loved? I was once alive? I was once cool? The Mongolian letters which looked awesome in the yellow light of the Yurt now look a little strange. People will never be able to escape their past and the ink provides a consistency to a life that never stops changing. It’s because of this that I envy them, the tattooers with their gothic skulls, ceremonial daggers and barbed wire, curling forever over the bicep.

But back to my patient. I go round with my stethoscope and ask him to lift up his jumper. He has emphysema and reeks of cigarette smoke.

‘What is it?’ I ask

‘Oh the tattoo, it’s a character from Mahjong; it means prosperity.’ And then, when he catches his breath: ‘I’m going to have it removed when I can afford it.’

 Dr Kevin Hinkley is a GP in Aberdeen.