Why the Kid Who Got Jeremy Corbyn Tattooed On His Back Won't Live to Regret It

If Labour lose, a brief moment of hope will live on forever, etched into Kieran Horsfield's flesh.

13 November 2015, 12:00pm

Photo via Twitter user @_megol, who would like you to know this is not her tattoo

lf you get a tattoo, the general wisdom is that you'll regret it later. Especially if you're the kind of weirdo who wants to decorate themselves with some political message. People tend to get more conservative as they age; the red fist that shines from an angry teenager's bicep doesn't look as good when it's sinking into the rubbery rhytides of a numbed and defeated 50-year-old loan manager. Don't do anything permanent, for the sake of the callous old cynic you'll inevitably become.

Like most general wisdom, this line neatly skids over a mess of buried presuppositions. Why shouldn't your future self have to suffer constant embarrassment if they're going to grow up to be boring? And in any case, sometimes a political tattoo exists so you can have a chance of getting old at all. In the 1930s, Soviet prisoners (mostly gangsters or petty thieves) would commonly get Stalin's face tattooed on their chests. This wasn't out of any particular adherence to the doctrine of socialism in one country, but because they thought that if they ever faced a firing squad, the executioners would be too afraid of the consequences to shoot at an image of the General Secretary. Body modification has existed in just about every human society; it's stupid to think that it can only have one meaning.

Usually, shocking tattoos are only reported on in the kind of outlets that find it necessary to arrange any information into numbered lists. The exception is the tattoo that has something to do with electoral politics: get one of those, post it on Facebook, and within an hour the journos will be stampeding to your house. Case in point: this week an 18-year-old from York called Kieran Horsfield got Jeremy Corbyn's face inked on his back while travelling in Australia, and now seemingly half the country is gawping at it.

It's shocking to some, because the Labour leadership is temporary – this one especially, if certain pound-shop Illuminists in the parliamentary party get their way – and a tattoo, as everyone keeps repeating, lasts forever. (Someone really ought to tell them about the horrible fate that awaits all living flesh.) Those notoriously reliable opinion polls suggest that even if Corbyn hangs onto his job for another five years, he doesn't stand a chance of winning the next election. What could be more embarrassing than walking around with a failed politician's face indelibly grafted onto your back forever, carrying the burden of a moment's youthful stupidity until the end of time, trudging disfigured as the stars in the sky chortle themselves nova, a shame that could outlive the universe itself?

Actually, the embarrassing tattoo of a political failure is the only one that deserves any respect. America has plenty of these: in 2008 non-negligible numbers of Ron Paul cultists had his 'R[LOVE]UTION' logo (neatly combining two concepts entirely antithetical to libertarian politics) impressed into their skin; meanwhile, a US Marine in Afghanistan had the likeness of Sarah Palin scored onto one of his arse-cheeks. In 2012, one Mitt Romney supporter celebrated history's most flagrantly doomed election bid – admittedly, after being paid $15,000 – by getting the campaign logo on his face. (This year, he made headlines again by saying that this time he would not be supporting any Romney campaign.) For most people, those defeats happened once; for a few, it happens again every time they look in the mirror.

In Nietzsche's moral philosophy, the sole ethical command is the doctrine of eternal return: if you would affirm something, you should affirm it to eternity; you should want it to repeat itself, without any variation, over and again for an infinity of consecutively identical universes. If something is good, it should be good enough for the infinite; in this repetition, the thought of eternal return is transformative. As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes in Nietzsche and Philosophy, 'laziness, stupidity, baseness, spitefulness or cowardice that would will its own eternal return would no longer be the same laziness, stupidity, etc.' This is what tattoos, the ink that touches eternity, manage to do.

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Paul, Palin, and Romney are, frankly, awful people, their electoral platforms based on varying combinations of fear, greed, and idiocy. There's not much that's good in the world, but it's good that they didn't win. But when they're stuck forever on someone's skin, they turn into something else. (You could say something similar about the woman who had Nigel Farage's face done on her arm, or – despite the very different in politics – all those who got tattoos of the Yes logo during last year's failed Scottish independence referendum.) That tiny instant of real hope, when you could almost think that everything would actually get better, when you believed in something so much that you changed your body to say so to the world – the hope died, it always does, and maybe it deserved to, but though ink might fade that bittersweet moment remains, unsullied by the disappointments of victory, suspended into timelessness.

If you're going to get a political tattoo, make it a stupid one. Who'd want a winner? Back in 2008, along with the Paul and Palin designs, plenty of people had Obama tats – his O symbol, or the famous HOPE poster. According to the general wisdom, they made the better choice; their guy won, and so they won't look so stupid in old age. But because he won, that moment doesn't have the same meaning as it once did. It doesn't stand for positive transformative change any more; it means a massive expansion of the drone killing programme, rocketing income inequality, death by cop and ISIS closing on Damascus. Nothing kills hope more thoroughly than its realisation. So if that teenager from York wants to avoid regretting his choice of tattoo, he should pray that Corbyn loses the next election.


VICE's resident amateur tattoo artist, Bob Foster, is still offering free tatts of stuff like John Prescott as a Boxer, or "Illuminati Ed Miliband" to anyone stupid/cool enough to want one – read more about that here.

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