Melissa Todd: When your teenage son makes an irrevocable decision

James has been to the tattooist

My 17 year old sent me a text last week, and since it contained neither a plea for transport or cash, I paid it some heed. It read, “What do you think about tattoos and piercings?”

“No no no no no no!” I replied, aware my son is prone to exploit the least whiff of ambiguity.

“But what if I told you I got a tattoo…?”

A flurry of furious questioning followed, until I discovered he wasn’t kidding. And here’s further proof, were proof needed, that I’m a truly terrible mother: my second thought was, wow, this hellish nightmare will make an excellent column for The Isle of Thanet News.

My first thought was an overwhelming desire to cripple him. He’s 17! How can you decide to make a permanent, irrevocable change to your appearance at 17? Proclaim an artistic preference, stamp your innermost self on your flesh? At 17 I was a member of the Socialist Worker party and a committed bulimic, and if I’d chosen to commemorate either of these two facts on my skin I’d find dinner parties even more challenging than I do currently. I am not now a bulimic or a Socialist Worker, because hey, I grew up and developed other interests, and my 17 year old self now strikes me as an embarrassing half-baked version of the true middle aged me, who only goes in for mildly disordered eating and loud tutting at Question Time.

James has had an anarchist symbol tattooed on his stomach. I know, it could have been worse.  It’s not a swastika on his forehead. He can cover it for interviews and weddings. He’ll struggle now to become a Tory MP. It demonstrates he’s a thoughtful, politically aware chap who’s thought about the world and decided it needs changing. I’m all up for a little system smashing myself, although I do feel proclaiming the fact upfront gives the system a bit of a head start in stopping you.

The human psyche changes constantly, daily, affected by the people you meet and the external circumstances you inhabit. Only death means an end to the possibility of change. Well, death and tattoos. I can’t bear the idea of being permanently defined by a decision, forever tied to one life-altering moment. But 1 in 5 people have a tattoo, and that number is on the rise. Maybe I’m jealous of their certainty, their commitment, that assured sense of self. I think I know who I am now, but honestly, even this year that’s changed, and I’m pretty confident that in 20 years time I’ll be someone altogether different. I certainly hope so.  I’d no more want to commit permanently to this me than the teenage me. They’ve both got a lot to learn still.

James, however, has committed himself to being anti-state and anti-authority, the pretty stomach I grew and harboured forever marked by his teenage ideological frenzy.  I have tried to be supportive, since we’re stuck with it now, and I don’t want him to hate it, or me, or himself. But I screamed til I was hoarse when he suggested getting a Ban the Bomb tattoo on the other side.  No. No no no no no no. No.


  1. I’m presuming the other symbol on James is hanging from a chain then. At 17 my ASD boy was nagging me to take him to a Tattoo artist that wasn’t bothered about his licence. We didn’t find one, I was so pleased about that but it was probably because I went with him! He’s 18 now and has since appeared with one on his wrist with ‘Mum’. How on earth can you be angry ?

  2. Like Melissa I was appalled at the thought of any of my children having a tattoo, but they (mostly) went ahead anyway. Now at 60 years I have two myself, and looking for a design for the third! It is a permanent mark, but so long as you choose something that you won’t be embarrassed by as you grow older I see no harm.

  3. Hi just read your print about James tattoo, brilliant, have to say quite like it, although I agree I think it’s a bit of a brave move but on the flip side it also helps to remind of who you are and beliefs you may have and carry, on the flip side to this on a close inspection I do think it will quite easily configure to the danger mouse logo real easy if a change of heart does happen!

  4. Wholeheartedly agree and sympathise with the article but the phrase ‘cripple him’ is extremely offensive and outdated. Please choose your words more carefully and with the modern world in mind.

    • As an official cripple (founder member of Access Thanet) I can confirm that there is a movement to reclaim the word from its negative connotations. I’m now happy to talk about “we crips” and not mind other people using the word.

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