TATTOOING has a long and rich history, not all of it pretty as anyone who's ever dated a cheaply tattooed, juggling unicyclist can attest. According to Wikipedia, tattooing has been a practice since Neolithic times and Ötzi the Iceman, dated circa 3300 BCE, had 57 tattoos. (I bet that umlaut wasn't nearly as painful as the O underneath it.)

The thing about tattoos - and this may seem obvious to you and me but isn't to a lot of women, my friend Gillian included, walking around with small-of-the-back tramp-stamps they didn't even realise were there until a "friend" pointed it out in the shower - is that they last a long time. In fact, they tend to outlive the human canvas they adorn/deface, which is kind of sad in an existentialist, drill-meets-dada way, made even more absurd because the meeting tends to take place on a bottom or breast.

In the West, tattoos were for almost all of their recent history a mark of being a rebel with no particular cause. But tattoos are no longer the domain of gang members, druggies, prisoners serving life, ho's and skanks (Angelina Jolie excepted), Hells Angels members, travelling freak-show stars or mega-wealthy CEOs still surprised at that surfing shop idea like totally working out; tats have gone mainstream. And they're here to stay - the good, the bad and the "OMG, how much did I have to drink last night?! (And who the hell is Nimrod and why is he riding a unicorn?)"

Tattoos are like diamonds but without that conflict thing: they're forever, as Ink Master (MTV Base) shows. The time is ripe for a reality competition show for tattooing. We already have Miami Ink and NY Ink, showing the daily grind that is the tattoo parlour (they look and sound like a dentist's room having a colourful acid trip), but now we have 10 tattoo artists facing a "tough panel" of renowned tattoo artists, with the final judge being the portrayer of their own art. Rather like "real" art, challenges test the artists' technical skills and their "on-the-spot creativity". Styles include photo-realism, tribal, American traditional and pin-up. With the payoff line "their masterpieces will last forever, but so will their mistakes.." it's even more fun than watching people eat rat-smoothies on Fear Factor. But it's tattoos' longevity that is their most endearing, if worrying, trait. Tattoos alter where they alteration find and bodies change over time. Those of you at your desk now wondering where it all went wrong and how you ended up working in insurance, sitting on ageing, soft and wrinkled Chinese symbols meaning "Life will shower you with happiness", know exactly what I mean.

The internet is littered with brilliant visuals of some of the world's most appalling and/or controversial tattoos. One particularly inspired one was a pair of spread female legs in fishnet stockings and heels, on the underside of a male arm and his side. Still can't figure it out? The man's armpit hair falls slap bang in the middle. I wouldn't call this a bad tattoo, just one of limited appeal. And one that makes waving to your mother a tad problematic in the summer. The really bad tattoos are the botched ones. Like when the artist doesn't speak very good English and/or is drunk, and as the tattoo is being done in the groin, the fact that it ends up reading "Piss and love" rather than "Peace and love" makes it more accurate but even less appealing.

Steve-O, the notoriously insane "stuntman" from the Jackass series (his book, Professional Idiot: A Memoir, is surprisingly moving) has some kick-ass tats. On one buttock he has tattooed "your name", which is quite brilliant and shows an unparalleled insight into the enduring nature of the tattoo versus the fickle one of love. Then again, he was inhaling less nitrous oxide at that stage; later on, as one of his televised stunts, he had a tattoo done by a friend on the back of a truck while driving over speed bumps.

His bravest tattoo, though, has to be the one on his right arm: "I Have a Small Weiner". He meant wiener, and while having a small wiener is not an insurmountable problem, his inability to spell is a complete turn-off. The corollary to this story and previous observations about the expanding (or quietly sagging) nature of the body is the only joke I have ever heard about a tattoo; it's an old one but I think it still holds its own.

One woman says to another woman in a sleazy nightclub restroom: "I got to know a really amazing guy here last week - he had the word 'Swan' tattooed on his penis!" The other woman smiles: "Honey, you didn't get to know him that well; the tattoo reads 'Saskatchewan'."

chancek@bdfm.co.za