Friday, June 11, 2010

Tattoed Ladies (Part 2)

As I was saying Wednesday, I came home from getting my latest tattoo to find two books about women and tattoos I'd ordered waiting for me in the mailbox. Since every tattoo I get increases my love of and desire for more tattoos, I was really excited to plunge into the history of getting inked. And because it is AWESOME and fascinating, I had to share it with you.

Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo
by Margot Mifflin

Published in '97, Mifflin starts with the tattooed ladies of circuses acts and describes the rise and fall of tattoos in American society through the late nineties. Here's a breakdown of what Mifflin covers and the more interesting factoids:

Photo by Tom Palazzolo from Bodies of Subversion

Mifflin briefly meditates on skin as object of observation and modification, introducing tattoos as symbols, political statements, empowering acts of transformation, and roads to self-love.

Circus Ladies and Society Women
Starting with the story of Nora Hildebrandt, "the mother of all tattooed circus women," this section narrates the lives of famous tattooed ladies who performed at museums, circuses and sideshows, explaining the typical lifestyle they'd lead. Tattooed women exposed far more skin than "proper ladies" did at the time in their acts, though in daily life they carefully covered their bread-earning tattoos with the high-neck, long-sleeved dresses worn by their contemporaries.

Mifflin pinpoints the beginning of tattooing as Captain Cook's discovery of tattooed natives in the 1770s, and the first tattooed lady as appearing in 1882. Early tattooed women were "hand-poked" as the electric needle wasn't invented until 1891.

Elaborate, and fictional, stories enticed the crowd into paying for the chance to see, what was considered in Victorian times, to be a "nude" woman. Usually the story involved being kidnapped by savage natives who caused the "victimized" the lady by forcing her to be tattooed, or else the lady was tattooed by a caring family member to "prevent" being carried off by savages! All the stories were completely false, but they cast the tattooed ladies as "made freaks" and further sensationalized the already shocking exposure of their bodies.

Early tattooed ladies usually had a mixture of flash tattoos arranged clumsily on their body with little regard to the relationship one tattoo had with the others around it. This was because early tattooists usually had very limited skill. Later, many women had beautifully designed body suits that a husband or lover hand planned with them. In fact, many tattooed ladies joined the circus with a tattoo artist, receiving tattoo lessons and tattoos in exchange for companionship.

Photo by Shuzo Uemoto from Bodies of Subversion

The '70s Revival
With the back story of tattooed women in place, Mufflin hurries along to where she thinks the modern tattoo era began: the 1970s. With a feminist perspective, she examines female tattoo artists (who tend to collect tattoos) and the way in which they broke into what was still largely a man-only profession. She outlines some of the struggles they went through, being treated as second class artists because of their gender, but she also points out that these women were all brought into tattooing by being apprenticed to a man. Mufflin also examines the philosophy of the female tattoo artists who got started in the 70s; for some women, tattooing was a spiritual experience and they sought to provide a sort of emotional healing for their clients.
Photos by Kent Noble from Bodies of Subversion

Totem and Tattoo
Next, Mufflin moves on to the 80s up through the 90s and begins to focus more on the tattooed instead of the tattoo artists. She examines how tattoos have culturally shifted from a "rebellious fashion statement" that mediums such as MTV helped to popularize, to being a mark of personal growth, empowerment, self-love or other validation.

Far from being a purely personal act, however, tattoos have "'real world' ramifications to the extent that they defy conventional standards of feminine beauty and force the recognition of new, largely self-certified ones." I know that, for me, that has been a definite aspect of why I am drawn to modify my body with tattoos. The way my body looks and the way others react to it is out of my control, but the story I write on that body with tattoos is pure MAY.

Mufflin goes on to question how "free" tattooed women of today really are, if they are "forced, economically at least, into society's margins?" Of course, this is just for women who are heavily tattooed or tattooed in clearly visible locations (such as myself). When you make a choice to get tattooed this way, you are choosing to be ineligible for certain types of work. Which I'm ok with, because I never want to have a job that won't accept me as I am. But the fact remains, tattooed ladies are stigmatized by many to this day.

Photo by Jan Seeger from Bodies of Subversion

The rest of the book lacked a clear focus, skipping between tattoo artists' and tattooed persons' personal philosophies, deconstructing the symbolism of random tattoos, discussing whether pin-up and other sexual tattoos can be considered feminist, and the un-feminist way women with tattoos are portrayed (by themselves or others) as sex objects at tattoo conventions and in tattoo magazines. It was generally interesting, but I could not discover any particular reason for any of the examples Mufflin chose in the last couple of chapters.

Her conclusion is that while some get tattoos without "personal vision," overall "tattooing is a way of cutting into nature to create a living, breathing autobiography... [Tattoos]'re stabs at permanence in an age of transience and marks of individualism in a culture of mass production."

Tune back in Monday for more about the amazing Tattooed Ladies of the Circus era as I discuss the interesting bits in The Tattooed Lady: A History.

Related posts:
Tattooed Ladies (Part 1)

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Joe Pontillo said...

In fairness, I think men with tattoos are stigmatized as well. When you mentioned tattoos rendering you ineligible for certain jobs, it reminded me of a quote I read back during the '90s swing music revival - Brian Setzer's dad told him, "Don't get tattoos anywhere the judge will be able to see."

May said...

True, but this isn't a post about tattooed men ;)