As the proud owner of several tattoos and a functioning uterus, I must say I’ve heard a fair share of comments about my own personal choices of body artwork. “Oh I bet your mum is disappointed” and “if you’re going to get one you have to make sure it’s hidden” or even my personal favorite “you were so pretty why did you have to go and get that“. Thank you for your benevolent criticism, I’ll take that on board and be sure to never think about it again. I am not here to pay out anyone who has ever paid out my tattoos though. I’m here because I want to discuss the role that tattoos have played throughout history, their battle with cultural appropriation, the rebirth of religious and spiritual meaning behind tattoos, and in particular how woman have struggled with and claimed tattoos as their own.
Can we consider a woman with a tattoo a feminist statement? Should we stop looking for feminist statements within everything? The most interesting part about this topic though is the different reception of a man with a tattoo versus a woman with a tattoo, when if you look at the statistics, more women have tattoos than men (mind blowing). So follow me on this ink stained journey as I delve into women with tattoos, the symbolism, and the history of it all – hey you might even find out your infinity tramp stamp has a much deeper meaning than you thought it did.
Tattoos can act as a beautiful symbol of culture, spirituality, religion, independence, family, personal image, empowerment, and social or political rebellion. If you have a tattoo, I’m sure the reason you got one would fit into one of these categories, even if you didn’t mean for it too. That’s what makes tattoos so beautifully relatable even if you aren’t into tattoos at all. Looking at the history of tattoos though, it wasn’t always so light and fluffy.
FACT: The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word ‘tatau‘ meaning ‘to write‘. Before this name had been given to it, you could also call it scarring or staining.
ORIGIN: Looking back at the historical origins of tattoos, archaeologists have found mummies (predominantly all female) with tattoos dating back to 2,000 BC. During these times it has been proposed that tattoos served the purpose of identifying dancing girls – prostitutes. In ancient Rome and Greece, if you were a slave, you’d be branded with a tattoo meaning that you could never become a full citizen even if you were able to buy your own freedom. Similarly, when the Turkish Empire ruled Bosnia, all the military were marked with tattoos so that if they tried to escape they could be identified easily, and through this, we began to see prisoners of war and criminals marked with tattoos to make them easily recognizable as such.
Through these examples, we see a lot of negative connotations surrounding tattoos and the function they serve. For the most part, they act as a burden or a taint. In 1958 in the USA, a white woman called Olive Oatman was traveling with her family, who got killed by Yavapais Indians. Olive was the lone survivor of the ordeal, and was raised by Mohave Indians, who gave her a tribal facial tattoo to brandish her as part of their clan. When she returned to the US at the age of 19, she became a celebrity as tattoos had never appeared on white women before within that cultural framework. Her new facial decoration became a symbol of individuality while still acting as a barrier to complete social acceptance.
After this happened, the interest in tattoos spiked a generation of circus women (or ‘retro freaks’ as they were sometimes referred to) to tattoo themselves and use their body as a mode of profit, due to tattoos rarity and controversial nature. Through this, we saw women with tattoos deemed as being lower class and of lesser social status. Since then, women with tattoos have been crawling up the ladder that is our social hierarchy and tattooing themselves to highlight both independence, rejection of social norms, and to contradict the gender roles thrust upon them.
“We degrade ourselves as well as embellish ourselves” – Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoos.
When tattoos started to become a “thing” it was more so about having a tattoo than actually getting one with a personal meaning. The novelty of the tattoo itself was enough to challenge expectations of women. Maybe that’s why older people are always warning me about getting a tattoo (sorry you regret the Frangipani tattoo on your hip Karen, but I won’t make that mistake) because they were raised during a time when tattoos weren’t as thought out or as meaningful.
CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: The relationship between tattoo culture and cultural appropriation is one that is constantly evolving. Walking into a tattoo studio, you’ll likely be met with books and walls full of drawings of Celtic, Tribal, Japanese, traditional, minimal, religious, sailor style tattoos, or even tattoos in another language like Chinese or Japanese. Does choosing a tattoo within this style tie you to the cultural beliefs of that tattoo style? You could argue no, however, if you’re visiting India with a tattoo of a Hindu goddess or a symbol of Hinduism on you, that might be a different story. This acts as a lack of respect for the meaning and symbolism of the religion, and you’ll probably look like a total wanker. But still, time and time again we see people with tattoos that depict the foundations of a larger social and religious construct, even if they themselves don’t act as a member of the group.
Arguably one of the most popular styles of tattoo are traditional Japanese tattoos, featuring bold lines and colors, with accompanying images of coy fish, Samurai’s or the famous Hokusai ‘Great Wave’. Yet Japan still strongly aligns itself with a society that rejects tattoo culture, because they are representative of gang culture or specifically ‘Yakuza’. Sure, freedom of expression and appreciation of artwork is a thing, but for the most part having a tattoo that you’ve culturally appropriated can act as a lack of understanding of religion or history, as if you’ve chosen one appealing element of a group while ignoring and rejecting the other elements.
MEN VS WOMEN: There’s a divide between how men with tattoos are viewed versus women, and it’s entirely strange and hilarious. A study showed that women viewed men with tattoos as sexy, more desirable, much more attractive, but worse at being a father figure and more dominant. On the other hand, the same study was done but looked at how women with tattoos are viewed by men, and the conclusion was quite negative. Women with tattoos were viewed as less intelligent, less honest, less generous, less athletic, and less attractive. They were however viewed as being more promiscuous and more sexual – but in an unattractive way. Funnily enough, however, in 2012 it was concluded that in the United States 59% of women had a tattoo compared to just 41% of men. Could this be because of social pressure, a symbol of rebellion, or even an indication of self-worth and reclamation of sexuality? People get tattoos for a variety of reasons, but I know probably one too many men who have gotten tattoos purely for the sake of having tattoos, and who fill in the empty spaces on their sleeves purely to conform to the ideology that you look more masculine with tattoos. More often than not I find myself discussing with women that if and when they get tattoos, they would want a small one in a place that can be hidden or one that can be easily removed. The parallel between the intentions of each respective gender obviously can’t be applied to everyone from that gender, but speak volumes about what we have been taught to think about tattoos.
The divide between each genders perception of tattoos has become more about cultural norms than the individual itself, to the point where some people may get a tattoo because it aligns with popular culture, or masculine/feminine traits.
FEMINISM AND TATTOOS: so taking all of this into consideration, do you need a tattoo to be a feminist or do you need feminism if you have a tattoo? The two in an indirect way go hand in hand, because for the most part it can be derived that women with tattoos are portrayed in a negative light. The rise of each feminist movement has attempted to reclaim the rights a woman has to her own body, and by getting a tattoo you could be either controlling your rights, enhancing your own perception of beauty and body image, or even scarring yourself to reject the confines of traditional beauty standards. Because of this, chicks with tattoos are a feminist statement, even if you’re not a feminist or trying to make a statement. The threat of not being able to get a job, being judged by strangers, or being considered unfeminine is a greater motivator to get a tattoo than it is a deterrent, and in my opinion, tattoos act as a shield against a lifestyle or type of person who may be too conservative to accept tattoo culture. Women With Tattoos celebrates women who have decorated their body and discusses the social repercussions of having tattoos.
“Whether it’s getting tat-called on the street, turned away from potential jobs, or verbally or physically violated by drunk strangers at dive bars, being tattooed as a woman puts your body on a platform for public examination” – Devon Preston
My favorite question about my tattoos is the old “what is the meaning behind that one?”. With confidence I announce “it means I wanted a tattoo, so I got one”. I think that’s what I have been taught in the most recent generation of tattoo inspiration and culture. And while I do love the look of my tattoos (don’t you dare ask me if I regret any, what a giant cliché) they act as a statement of my own self approval and worth, a barrier to conservative opinions, and act as a constant reminder of both societies fragility and it’s growing strength in numbers. Chicks with tattoos prove to be less promiscuous aggressive feminazi’s like my parents might argue, and more of a cohesive group banding together and shifting the focus from a gender’s rights to individual choices. But if you’re going to get one in another language, please check out what it actually means first.