Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo
There has been some exciting buzz surrounding tattooed women, and it hasn't been in the form of the latest celebrity regret or the alt-model home wrecker. It has been about our tattoo godmothers, the women who bore full colorful body suits and traveled beyond their kitchens. The ones who first picked up a machine and had men lining up at the door to pay them for art and nothing more. The original riot grrls of the early 20th century whose impact could be seen on the skins on feminist punk rockers in the eighties to the tattooed lawyers of today.
That media buzz has come from the recently released third edition of Margot Mifflin's Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.
Tattooed women, clothed or not, are a sexy subject. The New Yorker's feature on the book and its accompanying slideshow has been posted on Facebook over 20,000 times. The link to Flavorwire's article and slideshow has been messaged to me from all over the world. Even my mom, who logs onto the Internet only when reruns of Murder She Wrote are preempted, sent me this The NY Times link from yesterday. [Mom: "Oh look, a book on tattooed women. You should look into it." Me: "Um, mom, I'm in it."]
Being in this book is important to me on many levels. Margot released the first version of Bodies of Subversion in 1997. At that point, I only had two small tattoos and was hungry for any information I could find on the art. I searched tirelessly for tattoo tomes. There were plenty of references for indigenous tattooing and books that told the stories of the men who brought back tattoo souvenirs from tribes, and also Japanese masters, to America and Europe. At the local bookstore, there were records of oral histories from gritty tattooers who worked on sailors streaming into port. There were no records on the women who did the same, at least not exclusively on the subject. The information could be found in the Women's Studies section of university libraries but was conspicuously absent outside of academia.
Margot brought the discussion of tattooed women into popular discourse -- from sideshow attractions to Victorian society women to women tattooers who struggled in the 70s and 80s to change tattoo culture, such that young tattooers today can say that being a woman is a help not a hinderance to their profession.
The new edition of Bodies of Subversion includes most of the wonderful information she provided in the first edition. It also talks about how today's explosive popularity of tattooing has changed perceptions of tattooed women--but also how a lot has stayed the same. During the course of her research for this edition, Margot and I chatted a lot on this. Upon completion of the book, I wanted to know how she felt about all the new material she had acquired and written about.
Our Q&A is as follows:
What is the highlight of Bodies of Subversion for you personally?
The highlight is the new chapter on the new millennium--especially the section on the artists themselves. The general quality of tattooing has improved so vastly since my first edition was published in 1997 that the sheer volume of good work was a pleasure to see. My task was happily impossible: there was no way I could have included all the women worthy of coverage; I had to pick a few dozen to spotlight in order to illustrate certain developments or trends or techniques.
Any particular aha(!) moments? Did you learn anything in your research that surprised you?
I was surprised at the number of lesbians artists working now. Virtually no one I interviewed for the first edition identified as a lesbian. This time, five or six women talked about it and I was surprised to hear that even in this historically male dominated and even historically macho profession, lesbians are not getting a lot of attitude from other tattooists or customers--even outside of New York and San Francisco.
What was the most difficult part to get info on?
The appalling dearth of black women artists--even 30 years after Jacci Gresham became a household name in the tattoo world. It's not like there aren't tons of tattooed black women--half my black students are tattooed. There are just so few women doing it, and it was difficult to nail down the reasons without having access to artists who could talk about their experiences. Jacci Greshman helped me, and a couple of artists in particular I found, Kimberly Williams in New York and Alex Smith (from Chicago),were very thoughtful and articulate on the subject, and ultimately helped me theorize it.
Tell us about the greatest change between this edition & the first volume.
Kat Von D. If you had told me in 1997 that within 10 years a woman would be the single most famous tattooist in the world, I would have laughed. Back then, women artists were just struggling to make a living and happy to get some media coverage and respect.
The draw to tattoo culture -- what was it for you?
It grew out of my interest in visual art. I don't see how you can be engaged with fine art or design and not have some interest in tattooing--especially as it's evolved in the past decade and because of the fact that you can't avoid seeing it every day. In my opinion, this is a huge cultural blind spot for most visually literate people I know. Tattooing is a fascinating and technically difficult art that's layered with sociological and anthropological meaning. Sure, most of what you see is awful (which some would argue is also true for contemporary art), but you have to consider what's happened to it in the hands of the people who are bringing a more sophisticated design sensibility to it and propelling it beyond the fixed iconography of its folk legacy--there's something very interesting and radical happening there.
I can write a thousand more words on this exceptional book, but you must read it for yourself. You can purchase Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo for just $15 on Amazon.com.