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Political tattoos are for armchair activists

The 805 million people currently dying of starvation worldwide can finally rest easy: their saviour has come. His name’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he’s a footballer with Paris Saint-Germain and he’s got 50 of their names temporarily tattooed on his torso for the United Nations World Food Programme. Not 805 million names, just 50, because, whatever. Maybe they chose the absolute top 50 world’s hungriest individuals. Zlatan is running up and down the pitch like a human petition for Change.org. “Whenever you hear my name, you will think of their names,” he says in the WFP press release. But the names aren’t actually legible, because, as I said before, whatever.

I love it when ego meets activism, it’s like narcissistic nuclear fission. Like a short-term messiah of altruism, Zlatan offers up his well-paid, well-fed flesh – on show tonight in ITV’s coverage of the Champions’ League clash between PSG and Chelsea – to be carved with the suffering of poor, starving humans whom he probably doesn’t want to meet.

I love that the tats are temporary: it’s like they’re only there until he changes his mind or cures world hunger. Whichever comes first.

I’m not quite sure famous people getting tattoos is the solution to the world’s problems. Political conviction involves hard work challenging the status quo, day by day, in the real world of human interactions. It isn’t reducible to a slogan or an image – although I do love the Patricia Duncker short story where an oppressed wife steadily gets Death Before Dishonour tattooed across her body in growing defiance of her boorish husband. Most of the really world-improving people I know are too busy doing outreach work, grassroots activism, volunteering at domestic violence shelters or answering rape crisis hotlines to visit a tattoo parlour or pursue a mainstream sporting, media, acting or music career.

So are political tattoos always a mistake? What’s certainly true is that permanent ones don’t allow for the evolution of political belief; instead, they imply that the wearer is convinced they will never change allegiance or develop political nuance as time goes by. Had I been tattooed when growing up, I would currently bear the image of a Naf Naf sweatshirt, velvet scrunchie and Pineapple dance tracksuit bottoms. Not good. But better that than the tattoo of Mitt Romney’s campaign symbol that one man now has on his cheek, or an image of Hillary Clinton emerging like a rapturous Gaia from the inky murk, or Bill Clinton slithering up a lady’s arm with a twinkle in his eye (much as, allegedly, he might in real life).

Mike Tyson with a tattoo of Chairman Mao. Photograph: Mark Campbell/Rex Features

For anyone who wants to combine political critique with a love of vampire mythology they could always emulate the tattoo of George Bush Sr taking a neck-bite out of the Statue of Liberty. Or go straight for a portrait of Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney, or have JFK inked on their fist – presumably so that when they punch someone, they can do it with real Kennedy conviction. It just goes to show, body art stupidity isn’t confined to any one end of the political spectrum. And for all those people who got independence for Scotland tattoos … how quickly a symbol of defiance and hope becomes one of poignancy.

There’s also something creepy about the assertiveness of the political tattoo: like a luxury fashion logo, it’s usually the people with the least sincerity, nous and natural understanding who tout the biggest ones. It’s a red-flag claim to make, like a con artist who says: “The thing about me is, I’m a really honest person.” These people aren’t wearing their hearts on their sleeves, or their souls on their skins; they’re making a big noise to distract you from what they’re really like.

The political tattoo is the ultimate armchair activist’s tool: not only do you not have to walk the walk, you don’t even have to talk the talk. The tat does it for you.

I have a final warning for Zlatan: when I was getting my tats done, the artist commented that temporary tattoos rarely disappear completely. They’re supposed to be inked only into the upper four or five layers of the skin, but this requires almost superhuman steadiness on the part of the artist. Looks like the world’s hungry are here to stay – or 50 of them, anyway.

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