According to Melbourne police, the man charged with the rape and murder of Jill Meagher, Adrian Ernest Bayley, is tattooed. But should this detail newsworthy and of any relevance in 2012?

In case you haven’t noticed, tattoos are everywhere. Tradies, athletes, students, and professionals: just about everybody it seems is embracing tattoos. Almost mandatory with sports players and celebrities, tattoos are suddenly de rigueur. They’ve become as popular a fashion item as denim was decades ago.

Former AFL player Ben Cousins opted for a simpler unequivocal Such is Life stenciled across his abdomen. Just about every other player now it seems sports tattoos. Sleeve tattoos (ones that cover the arm from shoulder to wrist) are now a dime a dozen. So too are multicolored snakes peeping out over necklines, sharks on necks, elephants on ankles, Japanese symbols on forearms and legs and above bum cracks etc. Celtic designs ad infinitum. You name it, there’s a tattoo of almost every conceivable image.

In earlier times only bad boys and wild gals had tattoos. It wasn’t uncommon for the police to strip and count the number of tattoos on an arrested offender. Tattoos served to represent a symbol of belonging or allegiance to a gang. Prisoners continue to tattoo themselves and each other, hence the enduring pejorative term, prison tatts.

Before the recent upsurge in tattooing, in western society at least, tattooed people were regarded with suspicion. Tattoos were regarded as being synonymous with antisocial behaviour. Psychiatry has historically viewed the presence of tattooing as an incontrovertible sign of psychopathology. This view, I suspect may be changing. I mean it would be hard to argue that a dolphin or elephant on someone’s ankle implies they have an antisocial personality disorder.

In the supermarket checkout queue recently I tried not to stare at a shaved head bloke who had a multitude of tattoos all over his face and head, even on his ears. He was hard to ignore. I couldn’t help wondering how he’d fare at a job interview. Surely his permanently patterned face would be to his detriment?

All this, a far cry from the plaintive inked love and hate and mum and dad etched on the knuckles of the insufficiently loved. But what is it with the phenomenon that is tattooing? Or body inking as it’s known in the trade. And it is a phenomenon, a veritable explosion, isn’t it? Is it the modern electric needle as opposed to the old skin puncture method that is less intimidating, more tolerable? Perhaps it’s no more painful than getting your legs waxed. But it has to be more than that. Perhaps we just want to add some noteworthiness or individuality to our otherwise unremarkable bodies, to stamp some visual permanence on our mortal beings?

Of course there’s nothing new about tattooing. It has its roots in ancient times. Mummified bodies dating back to 3,300 BC have revealed evidence of this practice. The ancient Greeks too were known for their proclivity to puncture the skin with ink patterns.

The word tattoo originates from the Tahu or Tatau, meaning, somewhat unsurprisingly, to mark something. Polynesian culture also has a long tradition of tattooing. In this culture one’s spiritual force was thought to be displayed in the tattoo. And in Maori culture, tattoos represent lines of descent, status and tribal affiliations.

The Book of Leviticus (Chapter 19:28), in the Old Testament states that we should not print any marks on our skin. This particular line still generates some debate on various blogs. In bygone times this edict was thought to have put a damper on tattooing in the Christian world for quite a while. Yet, ironically, there’s a surprising amount of religious iconography represented in tattoos.

What will happen to our tattoos when we grow old? While working on a dementia ward with veterans in the 1980s I noticed that many of the old Diggers had tattoos. Their body art wasn’t hip. Simple faded black ink stuff: skulls and crossbones, naked women and the names of loved ones. Their tattoos looked oddly out of place. They’d become eerie relics of these men’s distant past. Their faded presence on the atrophied muscles was jarring and almost devoid of any real meaning.

Flick through the pages of any Body Art Journal (read Tattoo Mag) and you won’t find much text. There’s not much to say. In fact there’s barely any text at all. Instead there is page after page of coloured images. I guess so called body art don’t warrant our judgment. Bayley’s tattoo or tattoos are likely to be of little relevance to the heinous crime with which he has been charged.