This is why women get inked: Feminism, tattoos and the new politics of body art

Heavily tattooed women struggle with gender norms, job discrimination, family rejection. Here's why they face it

Published September 12, 2015 8:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>PeopleImages</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(PeopleImages via iStock)

Excerpted from "Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body"

Encountering the World of Tattooing

Before women are ever exposed to the world of alternative body modification, they have been overexposed to the beauty culture through their personal interactions as well as the media. They have developed an identity based upon their gender performance, sexuality, race, nationality, age, and ability. With the addition of becoming heavily tattooed, their embodiment identities intersect with these other factors. While White women may be given more space to experiment with their body modification, women of color, lesbians, disabled people, and other already-marked bodies will be interpreted more harshly, as multiply “deviant.” People of color’s bodies are often criminalized and discriminated against; with the addition of heavy tattooing, these pressures can become magnified. Lesbians and bisexual women may face additional stigma if their tattooing reinforces a butch appearance, but less so for a feminine one.

To become heavily tattooed, one must first be exposed to the idea by seeing a tattooed individual in the media or in her personal life. When interviewing participants, I asked them about this initial moment of exposure to the world of tattooing. In Spokane, Washington, I met Sparkillicious, a thirty-one-year-old mother of a toddler, a student, and a participant in Roller Derby (hence her use of her Roller Derby name). Her chest-length brown and blond hair cascaded over her shoulders, hiding the tattoos on her neck. She wore eye shadow, a lip ring, and a black tank top that showed off the extensive tattoo work on her arms and chest. A studded belt hinted to her punk rock, subcultural style. For Sparkill-icious, the first heavily tattooed woman she saw was a family friend as a child:

I was about five years old . . . and there was this woman named Tattoo Julie. I remember this. This is my first memory of childhood. I’m looking up at this lady and she is just fully tattooed. Oh my God, I thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

As a friend of her mother’s, Tattoo Julie brought the possibility of becoming tattooed into the realm of her family life. Later on, when Sparkillicious began her own tattoo collection, it was her stepfather who first tattooed her. Later, she had these tattoos covered up with higher-quality work by another artist, which is referred to as a “cover-up tattoo.” Since her family members were very much interested in alternative cultures, Sparkillicious was exposed early on. Family influence is an extremely important aspect in developing perspective on tattooing, but children do not always follow their parents’ perspective. Other women I talked with had parents who attempted to shield their children from the idea of tattooing, yet it backfired. Such was the experience of the Florida tattooist Renee Little. While her mother attempted to shield her from the sight of a heavily tattooed woman when she was a child, Renee was similarly mesmerized:

I was five and it was the end of the eighties. I remember holding my mom’s hand in the mall and seeing my first punk rock chick. And she had a freakin’ half-and-half mohawk thing. She had a tattoo of dates on her skull. She was awesome to me. I said, “Mom, what is that?” I remember my mom doing the whole earmuffs thing, and covering my eyes. “Don’t look.” I’m just like, “That is awesome.” [Later] my sister told me, “That’s a tattoo.” She was older; she knew all. So that was my first sense of anything subcultural.

Though Renee’s mother showed disdain toward “deviant” female bodies and their possible effect on her young daughter, Renee was still taken with the style. The image stuck. Regardless of whether parents approve or disapprove of alternative self-presentation, children will have their own particular tastes. The approval or non-approval from parents merely dictates how comfortable their child will be later on in sharing their alternative appearance with their parents. Many of the participants expressed strong resonance with the first time they saw an alternative- looking person. Others came to their taste for body modifications later on in life, in a less dramatic fashion.

Becoming a Heavily Tattooed Woman

The participants in this study are “heavily tattooed,” as opposed to “lightly tattooed.” Simply having a tattoo is not gender transgressive. Tattoos are feminine so long as they are “small, cute and hidden,” preferably located on a sexualized part of the body. As we saw in the previous chapter, when women began collecting tattoos in larger numbers during the 1970s and 1980s, these images were usually always feminine—a small rose on the breast, a butterfly on the ankle, perhaps a small dolphin or sun. These tattoos were small, only a few inches in diameter, and easily hidden, placed on the breast, shoulder, or hip. Tattoo shops had flash images on the wall “for the ladies,” on which these small designs lived. Janis Joplin had collected two tattoos from Lyle Tuttle starting in 1970, both of which were small and feminine. Her Florentine wrist bracelet tattoo was bold for being so publicly visible, but it represented an ornate piece of jewelry, and to her it represented women’s liberation. Additionally, she had a small heart tattooed on her left breast, about which she stated, “I wanted some decoration. See, the one on my wrist is for everybody; the one on my tit is for me and my friends.” She paused and chuckled, “Just a little treat for the boys, like icing on the cake.”

Her heart tattoo was very much in line with women’s tattooing of the day, but the wrist tattoo was one of the first publicly visible tattoos on a woman, and it was bold for the time. As a famous rock and roll singer, she could get away with it. And her statement of the tattoo being “a little treat for the boys” demonstrates the sexual and feminine nature of a small, cute, hidden tattoo—or “icing on the cake” for a lover. Joplin’s tattooist Lyle Tuttle, well-known as a celebrity tattooist, talked about how he enjoyed doing the small tattoos on women during our interview at the Spokane Tattoo Convention:

It was small butterflies and rosebuds. I loved to put on small, colorful designs, so that was ideal for me. . . . And women are fun to tattoo. I mean, women will hold an intelligent conversation with you. Guys want to talk to you about their god damned Harley Finkelberg, ya know. I’d rather smell perfumes than grease.

Kari Barba, another veteran tattooist from Southern California, recalled that before 1980, there were few female clients, and they would only be in the market for small tattoos:

They are getting bigger stuff, for sure. It used to be just a little quarter-size piece most of the time. . . . And it used to be when I first started, maybe

10 percent of the clients were women. And now it is definitely fifty-fifty. In fact, sometimes I think we definitely get more women.

Such dainty tattoos are in stark contrast to the heavy tattooing that the participants in this study boldly wear. While most research on tattoos make their distinction between those individuals who have tattoos and those who do not, I mark the distinction between women who are “lightly tattooed” and those that are “heavily tattooed.” As tattooing soars in popularity, it is not transgressive for women to have one, or even four, small tattoos hidden somewhere on their body, or perhaps even publicly visible, as long as it has at least two of the three categorizations in the mantra “small, cute, and hidden.”

However, when women’s tattoos become the opposite of “small, cute, and hidden”—“large, ugly, or public”—they begin to encounter social sanctions for their ink. Encountering social sanctions and prejudice when their tattoos are visible is an indicator that one has become heavily tattooed and “crossed the line.” For the heavily tattooed individual, being tattooed usually becomes important to their self-concept, and they become an “elite collector.” As defined by Katherine Irwin,

The elite collector . . . is a subset of heavily tattooed individuals who desire the best art available, pay many thousands of dollars for their tattoos, and travel to cities around the United States, Europe, Japan, or Australia to acquire pieces from famous artists.

In her study of elite tattoo collectors, Irwin describes a common aesthetic of tattoo imagery that the collectors often gravitate toward, as they are popular within the subculture: “images of monsters, demons, beheadings, severed hands, and aliens.” Christine Braunberger points out that once women become immersed in this subculture, they become “revolting bodies.” Braunberger states, “As symbols demanding to be read, tattoos on women produce anxieties of misrecognition.” Historically, heavily tattooed women were associated with the biker subculture, gangs, or prostitutes. Even in the 1970s, when tattooing was much more associated with the biker culture, women bikers still were steered toward “tattoos for the ladies,” as many shops announced on a separate section of the flash art displays on the walls of the shop. Yet in the decades since then, women have moved away from the “tattoos for the ladies” sections and have begun to collect their own imagery of monsters, which the public still finds shocking on the female body. Because of this violation of gender norms, the women become monstrous in their violation and become the recipient of public scorn. The following sections look at common public reactions and self-defenses that heavily tattooed women encounter, shaping the narrative of their tattooed identity.

“You’re Such a Pretty Girl, Why Would You Do That to Yourself?”

It is a lot more acceptable for men to have excessive amount of tattoos. I think it’s normal for girls to have the lower back or one on the shoulder. That seems to be deemed okay, but when you start getting into the full sleeves or the full bodies it’s like, “Oh My God, you’re such a pretty girl, why would you do that to yourself?” —Dawn Harris

The message that heavily tattooed women receive from the public is loud and clear: They are mutilating their bodies and making themselves ugly. Yet, in an interesting twist, the women reframe tattooing from their own perspective—tattoos are beautiful, they are marks of individuality. Or else they resist the pressure for normative beauty—it’s my body, my choice. In this quote above, Dawn Harris, a tattoo collector from Houston, Texas, expresses the negative social sanctions from the public that all of the women I interviewed report receiving. I interviewed Dawn during a visit to Webster, Texas, where shop manager Jennifer Wilder connected me with quite a few women from her shop Abstract Art, including customers, friends, and partners of the male tattoo artists. At the time, Dawn was twenty-eight-years-old and working at the Apple Store, where she was able to show her tattoos at work, although they elicited attention. In fact, she observed, “Pretty much everywhere you go, especially around here, [people notice].” Dawn is an attractive woman, with straight black hair cut in a rockabilly fashion, straight bangs just above her eyebrows. She has two old-school roses just below her collarbone and was already getting extensive work on her arms, which extended from wrist to shoulder. On her left arm, she was getting a Japanese geisha zombie head touched up during one of our talks. I interviewed her as she got tattooed; she showed no reaction to the pain she was receiving. This led the tattooist working on her to observe that “women sit so much better than men.” Tattooists and collectors alike, whom I encountered, made this observation. Dawn’s arms were covered in medium-sized designs that were brought together with shading and background filler images to make the sleeves appear of a more solid ink design. Her images were “old-school,” like those one would encounter on flash sheets in the front of a street shop during the sailor years: nautical stars, a skull, a spider in a web. But her left arm was becoming covered in Japanese-style work, with red flowers and black water wave bars in the background. For Dawn Harris and her friends, they believe their body art is beautiful; however, they know that many in the general public would beg to differ. To many observers, it is inconceivable that a woman would purposely make herself “ugly,” and this disbelief compels many people to breach the lines of appropriate public self-presentation. Strangers often touch the tattooed person without warning and continue to ask questions such as, “Are those real?”

Often tattoo artists warn customers against getting tattoos that they find highly visible or controversial. Before 1980, several of the women tattooists would warn women clients to avoid large, bold tattoos because of such public, negative treatment. In his research on Chicana tattooing, Xuan Santos found that several Chicano tattooists in East Los Angeles often “refused to tattoo Chicanas in areas of the body that are visible to the public eye . . . and encouraged women to tattoo on a private body region.” For the most part, women conform to feminine limitations. The tattoo collector Eileen Megias pointed out that many Cuban women in Miami keep their ink gender appropriate, unlike herself:

They have the appropriate tattoos. There are tattoos that are acceptable if you’re a Cuban girl. Tattoos that are to enhance your sex appeal, like the one on the lower back, or on your hip, or maybe something small by your ankle. They are in prescribed places and subject matters, like a butterfly is okay. Your boyfriend’s name may be strategically placed on your butt. That kind of thing. But definitely no large graphics, and definitely not a lot. Men have their manly tats that they are allowed to have, no hibiscus for a Cuban man. Lot of names in script, or a memorial portrait of their baby, or dead brother, or a big 305 across their back. It’s always to maintain the line—what makes you an attractive man or an attractive woman. It’s just wrong to mess with those female assets; you’re not supposed to ruin them.

In this quote, Eileen demonstrates the ways in which tattoo imagery reinforces normative gender roles, which are more restrictively reinforced in the Cuban culture that Eileen has experienced in her family and community. Imagery patterns are often established within subcultures, and for Latina/o, Black, and Native American women and men, script and memorials recognizing family members are common. She presents two gender-divergent tattoos designed for men (a big 305 on the back, which is the area code for Miami and represents hometown pride) and for women (flowers). Eileen Megias was a student of mine at Florida International University. While I was busy making sure all of my tattoos were tucked under my suit, I was grateful to walk into the classroom and see her sitting in the front row, with her bold, black tribal tattoos covering a good percentage of her arms, visible in her short sleeve shirt. She had short hair, was more masculine presenting in appearance, and had a big, assured smile on her face. She was older than some of the classmates, and her life experience was easily demonstrated in her confidence as she spoke up in class, voicing well-thought-out opinions, and, of course, in her ability to look different from the mostly hyper-feminine Cuban women students in the classroom. Eileen was also a lesbian, and she brought her partner to my office one day to be interviewed, freely discussing their identities as heavily tattooed lesbian women in the gender-normative environment of Miami. It was difficult for them, and they hoped to soon move to a city that was “more tattoo friendly.”

For women, part of becoming heavily tattooed is to negotiate this decision within our beauty culture. In order to collect large, public, and so-called ugly tattoos, the women have to defend their choices on a daily basis. This is often a difficult position, even for the most confident. Greta Purcell, a participant from Spokane, Washington, describes this fear:

Women are afraid of what people will think, extremely afraid. Young girls are really, really afraid of what people will think. And so they get their tattoos really hidden. Maybe somewhere where even their underwear would cover it. I just don’t understand the shame.

Katherine Irwin agrees that women face additional pressures when they become heavily tattooed because of the beauty culture norms. While men become more masculine with their extensive tattoo work, even invoking a hyper-masculine image that can be misconstrued as criminal, women “are sometimes accused of being ‘masculine,’ ‘ugly’ or ‘slutty.’” Many heavily tattooed women reclaimed their inked status as being one of alternative beauty. In her article “Beauty Secrets,” the tattoo collector Lee Damsky describes this reclamation of “ugly” tattoos as a means of alternative beauty construction:

Later that year, I got a tattoo of Medusa on the back of my neck in an attempt to find empowerment in ugliness. In Greek mythology, Medusa was a creature so ugly [destructively powerful] that anyone who looked at her was turned to stone. I thought that embracing this symbol of ugliness and inscribing it on my skin would be the first step in accepting my body and claiming it as my own. Determined to abandon the cult of beauty once and for all, I resolved to be ugly and proud.

Many of the tattoos reflect this sentiment by taking a portrait of a beautiful woman, such as Marilyn Monroe, or a traditional pinup, and turning her into a zombie. Others collect images of beautiful Hollywood stars or pinups as a symbolic stand-in for the beautiful woman with which they identify.

Excerpted from "Covered In Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body" by Beverly Yuen Thompson. Published by New York University Press. Copyright 2015 by New York University. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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