In The Guardian today is feature called "Painted Ladies: Why women get tattoos." Normally, I find these types of articles banal, or even cringe worthy, for perpetuating cliches or not offering a broad spectrum of experience from our community. And so I was happily surprised to find many different voices of tattooed women in this article.
While there need not be any great miraculous reason to get tattooed, tattoos do come with a story, from an impulse to get a quick piece of historic flash to a full body project. I found the profiles of these women to be really interesting, and they made me think on the commonaIities and differences of our experiences with tattoos.
I particularly loved reading about Juanita Carberry, a merchant navy steward, who died in July at age 88. Here's a bit from her story:
The daughter of a renegade Irish peer, Carberry lived an extraordinarily full life. Her childhood in Kenya was difficult: her mother, a well-known aviator, died when she was three, and Carberry was often beaten by her governess. As a teenager, she was a key witness in a celebrated murder case, the 1941 shooting of the 22nd Earl of Erroll, and at 17 she joined the first aid nursing yeomanry in the Women's Territorials during the second world war. In 1946, Carberry became one of a handful of women to join the merchant navy, remaining for 17 years. It was during this period, says photographer Christina Theisen, that she started acquiring tattoos. Her first was a small spider on the sole of her foot; it didn't hurt, Theisen recalls Carberry saying, because the skin on her feet was so tough from walking barefoot as a child.
Read more here.
It is the work of Christina Theisen and Eleni Stefanou that really makes this piece so engaging. Theisen and Stefanou are behind womenwithtattoos.co.uk, a photo and film endeavor that pays respect to all tattooed women. They offer this on their work: "Our project seeks to capture the personal and the individual, embracing each woman and her tattoos as one, rather than isolating or magnifying the inked parts of her body. At the same time, by using natural environments and the context of urban Western culture, we intentionally move away from the sexualised glamour model aesthetic that dominates tattoo magazines and popular culture."
Two words: Hell. Yeah.
My regret is that I wasn't aware of the project when it first rolled out. I will continue to follow Theisen and Stefanou's work, and I hope that more media outlets also follow their lead in telling compelling stories without the usual pop culture hype and flash so prevalent today.
When we got home from vacation, I had the lovely surprise of finding The Face Issue of the UK's Things & Ink magazine, a publication that I described in my first post on it as "a love letter to tattooed women."
This second issue is cover-to-cover fantastic. Bob Baxter, the former editor of Skin & Ink magazine, once said that you need a woman on the cover of a tattoo magazine because sales drastically drop when you don't. Well, Things & Ink shows how you do it right, respecting tattooed women who make up at least half of the tattooed masses according to recent US polls.
The front cover, featuring tattoo artist Cassandra Frances, is fabulous, with a close-up of her beautiful face and facial tattoo, and the back cover is the back view of that portrait, with an up-close look at her neck tattoos and sleeves. Cassandra is not clutching her boobs or sucking on her finger. I know, crazy! You can watch a video of the cover shoot below.
The concept of focusing an issue primarily on facial work is one I really dig. As noted on the Things & Ink site,
The face issue examines what it means to be a woman and have facial tattoos. It also asks a number of artists their rules when it comes to tattooing the face, explores cosmetic tattooing for people to regain control over their bodies while recovering from illness and features all the usual tattoo artwork and artist interviews.Other highlights for me is the profile on Mo Deeley, a 54-year-old "Glam-ma," who is covered in tattoos after only started getting tattooed a year ago. Her photos and story are inspiring. I also really enjoyed Amelia Klem Osterud's article on whether Lady Randolph Churchill really did have a snake tattoo, which so many have speculated on. A sexy bit of tattoo history.
I asked editor Alice Snape what her highlights are, and here's what she said:
My highlight of Issue 2 is the article by Kelli Savill on the sexualisation of women with tattoos (page 54). It explores how tattooed women are portrayed in the media, including Suicide Girls, and how women's bodies are used to market objects including the tattooed Barbie Doll. It has received such a powerful reaction to readers and it seems to have really resonated. The feature is accompanied by a beautiful shoot by Kristy Noble, of a mannequin tattooed by Dominique Holmes, Inma and El Bernardes. I also loved hearing such diverse opinions of how people feel about face tattoos, it made me question how I feel about them myself. The cover photo of tattoo artist Cassandra Frances is stunning, I am so happy she said yes to being on the cover. She is an amazing artist and person, and I would love to work with her again in the future.You can purchase the magazine online here, and from the stockists listed here. For updates in between issues, check Things & Ink on Twitter and Facebook.
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.
Today is International Women's Day. I know, every day should be women's day, men's day, animals' day...But with things like women's access to health care being eroded and the mere existence of Rush Limbaugh, it seems I just have to take any day I can get. For me, the value of this day is the reminder and opportunity for reflection on the trials and triumphs of being a woman -- a tattooed woman.
Since becoming visibly tattooed over the past decade, I've been quick to say, "My tattoos do not define me!" I believed them to be a small part of a small woman with a big mouth who likes to make grand proclamations. The whole "tattoo as a lifestyle" rhetoric never really sat well with me, largely because I felt it could further marginalize heavy collectors, who may not want to be viewed as just part of a subculture. I want to be a part of every fun, exciting, loving, weird culture. I'm wacky like that.
But the truth is that my tattoos really do play a big part of who I am. They do so in the way I view myself and also in the way I am viewed by others. As I get older and become less stupid and more confident, my tattoos are an expression of beauty and badassness. I love the way I look in them. Instead of mourning the wrinkles, dimples, and toll of gravity, I stick a pretty picture on my body and call myself MaMA, the Marisa Museum of Art. And hell yeah, tattoos are still badass. They still hurt. You still have to manage stares, strangers touching you, dumb questions, and lecherous come-ons from guys who still quote Wedding Crashers. And you got to do it all even on those days you want to hide under your desk. When I'm getting tattooed and don't think I can last through the session, the mantra that runs through my head is, "You're a freakin warrior. You're a freakin warrior!" [Imagine the Brooklyn accent.]
Tattooed women are warriors.
And we need to be respected in this way, in popular culture and in our own "subculture."
Our industry media should reflect a diversity of beauty from the diverse community of tattoo collectors. Equal page counts should be given to pin-ups, painters and professors in our magazines. Female tattooists should be known for their portfolios and not just a sexy spread and cool nickname. And, ya know, sexy spreads are great but can we have some male eye candy in our media as well? I'll pay good money for it. Once we start showing this respect in our own community, those outside will follow. We can show that girls with dragon tattoos need not always be sullen, vengeful hackers or hard-partying vixens. We can show that we are scientists, school teachers, bankers, bakers, moms, mathematicians, lounge singers, lawyers and nerdy holier-than-thou bloggers.
However we define ourselves, tattooed women should be celebrated and valued, today and every day. And we shouldn't be satisfied with just taking what we can get.
Since last April, we've been talking about Dr. Beverly Yuen Thompson's "Covered": a much needed and appreciated documentary focused on women tattoo artists and collectors.
Now the film is available on DVD and can be purchased for just $25 here. This is one of my favorite picks for the holiday gift guide. For a look into the film, see the trailer above and other clips here on YouTube.
Public screenings of Covered have also been taking place across the US. The next one will be this Saturday, December 11th, from 7-9pm at Emma Griffith's Porcupine Tattoo studio in Brooklyn, NY. The screening is in conjunction with the Ladies, Ladies Art show at Tattoo Culture, which opens the night before. For more screenings, check the film's site.
In the first post on "Covered," we quoted Thompson on what inspired her to do the film. It's an important commentary on how women have been and still are generally treated in the tattoo community and bears reposting:
"Tattoo culture has now entered the mainstream with its exponential growth in popularity, reality television shows, and nationwide tattoo conventions. While Kat Von D might have made it to television stardom as a female tattooist, other women's voices from the tattoo community have been notably absent. When women are present, such as in tattoo magazines, they are often sexually objectified. Covered sets out to remedy these oversights by shedding light on the history of women in the tattoo industry and to share the voices and perspectives of heavily tattooed women in the United States."
Hope to see y'all Friday and Saturday!
Photo from Amelia Klem Osterud's "The Tattooed Lady: A History"
Inspired by the Ladies, Ladies Art Show, today's holiday gift guide post features books that celebrate tattooed ladies through history. These titles have all been mentioned here before but worth repeating for those who haven't scooped them up yet.
* The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud is a beautiful hardcover that explores the lives of tattoo's godmothers, complete with fascinating narratives and photos dating back to the 1880s. We wrote about its release last November, and it still sits close to my desk for reference. For more info, check out Amelia's blog.
* Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin remains a classic. From sideshow ladies to prominent female tattoo artists, the book looks at how tattoo culture has changed & the roles women have played in it. It features great stories and images as well. Margot's latest, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, is also an interesting read.
* The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women by tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak is a scholarly book on the role of women as tattooists in many indigenous cultures, with over 250 photos & illustrations. Lars has a new book out called Kalinga Tattoo, which is so gorgeous it warrants its own post. That's coming up.
* Madame Chinchilla's Electric Tattooing by Women 1900-2003 is a yearbook of women tattoo artists over a century. It's not a fancy book but it is a Who's Who of Tattoo up until 2003 with quotes from each artist.
* On the fiction front, check out Tattoo Artist: A Novel by Jill Ciment -- a story about a New York artist who is marooned in the South Pacific and eventually becomes a revered tattooist among the Tu'un'uu people at the turn of the century. It then flashes forward, 30 years later, when she returns as a heavily tattooed woman to New York. A fun read.
If you have your own favorites, feel free to share them in the comments.
In April, we posted on the documentary on female tattooists and collectors called Covered.
Now the filmmaker, Dr. Beverly Yuen Thompson, of Snakegirl Productions has released even more clips from the film, including interviews that didn't make final cut like the video above (found here on YouTube).
As a daughter of an immigrant from a country that is not yet accepting of tattoos (but not paying taxes is ok), I completely relate to this clip of tattooed women who have to deal with the extreme cultural differences between their lives as first generation Americans and their immigrant parents. In one scene, the heavily tattooed Korean woman says that she has not seen her father in three years after revealing that she is tattooed--in my case it was only three months--but the grief of having that separation from one's family simply because we've decorated our skin is not limited to rare cases. I only wish these clips were not on the cutting room floor because the interviews are so powerful, but I'm glad they are available on YouTube.
Check other clips like this one on Jennifer Wilder and her apprenticeship under Johnny Williams of Abstract Art in Webster, TX.
I dredged the tattoo news headlines over the past week and uncovered everything from hard rocks to gems. Let's get to the good stuff first...
It was a gag-inducing piece on a Dallas TV station called Women Getting Tattoos to Feel Sexier (with an animated tattoo machine spelling out the words "tramp stamp" at the start) that led me to the video above (also found here) of 67-year-old Dixie Hammond and her tattoos. Dixie began getting tattooed in her fifties and continues to collect work for her extensive body suit.
When asked why she is so heavily tattooed, she says: "The tattoos are a completion of my feelings...I collect memories on my skin." Dixie is shown as a smart, elegant tattooed woman -- a sharp contrast to the station's "Tramp Stamp Slideshow." Now, when I'm asked by strangers (repeatedly) what I think I'll look like when I get older with all my tattoos, I will channel Dixie's dignified manner and not punch them in the face.
From seasoned tattoo collectors to budding artists, tons of press featured three-year-old Ruby who is set to become the World's Youngest Tattoo Artist once she completes her first tattoo, a spider on her father's leg.
Ruby's father is Welsh tattooist Blane Dickinson, owner of Inkaholics Anonymous in Conwy, who has been teaching her to tattoo when she comes home from nursery school. [He's gotten her a special tattoo machine designed for her tiny hands.] The current record holder is Emilie Darrigade of Canada who tattooed part of a butterfly on her father when she was five.
When asked whether he's pressuring his toddler to tattoo, Blane says this:
"I'm not a pushy parent, but she's been in a tattooing environment since she was born and it's a part of her life. She comes up to the studio and she gives my customers advice. She tells them not to pick their scabs and she repeats the stuff I tell them.[...]This will set her off on a fantastic career, and a tattoo machine is a lot cheaper than university fees."
Yikes. Attending college and learning to tattoo are not mutually exclusive, Blane.
[I hope we don't start having a "stage parents" in the tattoo world.] Nevertheless, we could be looking at a tattoo prodigy here. Or just an adorable little girl with a tattoo machine.
A number of tattoo artists were in the news this week...
The NY Times profiled Scott Cambell, the Louisiana-born tattooist who now works with a celebrity clientelle in Brooklyn, NYC. The focus of the article is Scott's first solo show of his fine art in Miami. You can find Sean Risley's post on that show here.
The Seattle Pi offers a reader's account of his experience getting tattooed at Under the Needle with some nice photos of the shop.
Fright magazine Fangoria talked to John Devilman of Zombie Tattoo in West Hollywood who explains the popularity of horror tattoos: "I know many horror fans who've used tattoos to help express their affinity for such films. It speaks more clearly and more faithfully than any Pinhead shirt or a trowel signed by Kyra Schon might."
While the tattooists above are featured for their artistry, two are in the news for behaving badly. Very badly...
Edmonton tattooist Eric "Zipp" Anderson has to pay $12,880 for ten violations of the health code, including using dirty needles and tubes (his sterilization equipment was over 30-years old). He was shut down in 2007 but opened another studio last year, which was fined as well. The judged who ordered the fines said that Anderson's disregard for the health of his clients was "shocking."
Jeffrey Dekmar of Roxbury, MA was indicted for sexually assaulting two female clients while tattooing them--both on the same day. Details in the article. I'd feel dirty just typing them.
I've posted these links as a warning that, no matter how far the industry has come artistically and professionally, scratchers and predators still lurk; the stories are a reminder to stay vigilant when choosing an artist.
Ok, let's cleanse our palettes of that nastiness with these links:
in the media has not yet waned since the unfortunate Michelle McGee graced tabloid covers for being tattooed and sleeping with Sandra Bullock's husband [her resume in a nutshell]. The upside, as I've mentioned before, is that heavily tattooed women are getting some sort of voice in the news to dispel stereotypes and address tattooing as an art form.
What's been largely left out of this discourse, however, are the stories of female tattooists, so when my friend Kari filled me in on a documentary on these artists, I was stoked.
The doc is called Covered, and based on the trailer (shown above), it appears to cover a range of experiences, from foremothers of modern tattoo like Vyvyn Lazonga who fought to learn the craft to new apprentices who say that haven't met with any discrimination at all. The film also goes beyond the tattooists and addresses how "heavily tattooed women must negotiate social sanctions from strangers, family, friends, and employers, in order to enjoy their love of tattoo artwork."
Director and producer Beverly Yuen Thompson, Ph.D. further explains what sparked Covered:
"Tattoo culture has now entered the mainstream with its exponential growth in popularity, reality television shows, and nationwide tattoo conventions. While Kat Von D might have made it to television stardom as a female tattooist, other women's voices from the tattoo community have been notably absent. When women are present, such as in tattoo magazines, they are often sexually objectified. Covered sets out to remedy these oversights by shedding light on the history of women in the tattoo industry and to share the voices and perspectives of heavily tattooed women in the United States."The film is recently released and will start making the film festival as well as academic circuits. Will keep you posted on screenings.
Today, I'm in the NY Post because
Aside from the repeated use of the word "tats" (you know that triggers my gag reflex), the article does a good job (for The Post) of getting across the message that women make up a large part of the heavily tattooed, and no, we're not all celebs and strippers.
Ethan Morgan of East Side Ink, who has been tattooing for two decades, said in the article that half of his clients are us gals, adding "They [women] are getting large tattoos, and they're really picky about their work. It's cool."
And it is cool, despite the negative press from the ill-famed Michelle McGee, whom I wrote about last week; indeed, it's because of McGee that this type of discourse about the tattoo community is in the papers at all. This negative gives voice to the positive; at least it gave me a chance to do my usual tattoos-as-a-fine art shtick to an audience beyond you pretty people.
Just walking through the door of my local
Alas, not everyone gets it. If you read the comments to the article, you'll see these quotes:
"Who wants to marry that? Or have that be the mother of your children. The tattooed trash look is for a 1 night stand or at best she will date her look heroin dealer/junkie."
Ok, that last one was funny.
The irony is the most tasteless comments come from anonymous trolls who call us "trashy." Close-minded comments following these tattoo articles are too common, and in response, I often give the old tattoo cliche:
The difference between tattooed people and non-tattooed people is tattooed people don't care if you have tattoos or not.
I encourage you to offer your own thoughts in the article forum. I know it'll be done in the same vein as you live your life: artfully.
About a week ago, the tabloids began their frenzied coverage of Michelle "Bombshell" McGee, a self-described "tattoo model," who not only had an affair with Jesse James who's married to actress Sandra Bullock, but also served up the details of their trysts in an effort to "cash in" and become "famous."
I was going to ignore it or link it as a small footnote to a news review here, but as the week went on, the news stories moved beyond this tattooed woman and became about tattooed women. From newspaper covers to radio shows like Howard Stern to gossip blogs and comment forums, words like "skanks," "sluts," "whores," "trash," "idiots," "fuckups" ... became to attached to all of us, so I can't ignore it.
Over the weekend, I sought to write this post, a diatribe against a stupid girl. The first draft was an angry rant. The second was an attempt at humor. But neither conveyed how I really feel. I feel sad.
And so this post isn't entertaining. It isn't a call to arms against the media. It is a shout out to young women, and men as well, to let them know this:
Being tattooed should be an expression of love and how beautiful you feel about yourself, not a cry for others to give that to you.
While Michelle McGee stands as a blaring example of the latter, she is not alone. The title "tattoo model" has become a sought-out occupation amongst many. "Tattooed Vixens," "Hot Inked Girl," "Painted Pin-ups." Countless young women vie for these titles rather than M.D., J.D., or Artist in Residence.
Watch this video of "Sexy Miss Tattoo" to see how ugly these contests can be.
Some blame the magazines and websites for exploiting these girls, but really, they wouldn't be able to have these features if no one sent in their naked or half-naked photos.
Inked Magazine, (which I write for so the hypocrisy is not lost on me) has a Girl of the Day, who you can "share with your friends." A girl a day. One picked out of hundreds who upload their photos to the mag's site. [To be funny, I did a feature early on in this blog called "Objectified Tattooed Man" and barely got one a month.]
Granted, the essence of tattoo magazines is to show tattoos, to show skin, and the more tattoos you have, the more skin you'll show. But it need not be done in a way that evokes the "skank" and "trash" tramp-stamp of approval.
Not an easy task, however. Next week I have a photo shoot for a magazine article where I talk about being a tattooed lawyer (and also promote my book). And it has been really tough to find something to wear to show the art on my arms, back, stomach and ribs without looking like ... well, Michelle McGee. I've thought about ditching the shoot altogether but I want more professional tattooed women in these mags and hopefully we can start that trend.
It can still be sexy -- because I believe tattooing is sexy in itself -- but as the recent headlines have shown, today's tattooed "bombshell" is more likely to be a post-traumatic mess. Our weapon of mass seduction should be the allure of strong women and men kickin ass to further their lives and, thereby, society's perception of the tattooed.
So thank you, Michelle McGee, for showing us the ugliness to inspire greater and more beautiful things for ourselves.