In At the Deep End - 197

Published: 04 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 197, April, 2011

In a world where women are judged on their looks and double standards for women proliferate; it’s hard not to hope that our beloved tattoo community will maintain a higher standard than that seen in the mainstream.

These high expectations have, in part, been responsible for the criticism leveled at many tattoo magazines, including this one, over the publication of images of partially clothed women – and I have to admit, it is something that has concerned me too.

I am a 34-year-old woman, and I am a woman that identifies politically as Feminist. Yet every month, my writing is published alongside overtly sexual pictures of other women, women that I consider to be my sisters in ink. Photographs of women in tattoo magazines are often constructed using a visual language devised for more usual forms of glamour photography. The poses, lighting and facial expressions are familiar to us, we have seen it elsewhere, in less salubrious publications. It’s no wonder that those outside of our world believe our magazines belong on the newsagents’ top shelf.

I have no doubt that to be depicted in this manner can be empowering for the individual, looks are prized in today’s society and photographs crafted in this manner can give a confidence boost to those of us that had previously been excluded from the beauty canon. Taking a black sheep and presenting her as the fairy tale princess is a powerful process and it is impossible to deny that photographs like this are very popular, indeed, who doesn’t enjoy beautiful images of beautiful women?

But the question remains, do these, often digitally enhanced, images do a disservice to the thousands of tattooed women worldwide that don’t pose for such pictures? Should we be concerned that such saucy images of tattooed ladies be the only ones readily available, it could imply that the decorated woman is merely a kind of minority fetish or give the false impression that our tattoos are just an expression of our sexuality, rather than a complex expression of our many faceted selves.

As an individual, I choose to dress the same way for photographs as I do for day-to-day life, perhaps I pay a little more attention to the standard of my ironing, but otherwise, it’s important for me that my photographs are an indexical record of who I am at that particular point in time. This means that it’s imperative that these images have not been subjected to extensive alterations in Photoshop. I am always disappointed if my photographs are retouched. I’m not a teenager, I’m a mother and the lines around my eyes are as indicative of my journey through life as my tattoos. The wrinkles that pop up when I smile are something to celebrate, not something to obliterate through Botox. I illustrate my life story through my tattoo collection, I don’t erase it with cosmetic treatments

But I have to ask myself why I make such a distinction between a minor surgical procedure like Botox-which is really just the insertion of a substance under the skin via injections and the tattoo – which is the insertion of pigment under the skin through a process of punctures? Surely it is all a form of body modification? Both practices are an attempt to make our outsides better reflect our insides, both bring about self-authored identities, Our society appears to consider a certain level of body modification normal, even desirable and in some instances perhaps compulsory. A million dollar industry exists in order to create the ideal feminine aesthetic - we are encouraged to improve on our femininity by purchasing countless products, products to remove our body hair, make up to decorate our faces, diets and control clothing to slim our bodies, hair colours designed to look natural, only better, anti wrinkle creams to delay the signs of aging and cosmetic surgery to deal with the problems that other products cannot. All of these practices seek to achieve a generic ideal perpetuated by the mainstream media and in pursuit of this ideal we are becoming more and more alike. 

To be tattooed is to refuse to engage in the pursuit of perfection, it is to define your own rules for the beauty game. It is to state your difference to those who blindly aspire to the ideal. To be tattooed is to put your insides on the outside, your likes, your interests, your aesthetics, perhaps even your relationships and, more tellingly, even your mistakes.

This willful self-authoring means that the tattooed lady can never fully be subsumed into the same-y anonymity of mainstream imagery but will instead reinforce her very own self, even if she chooses to speak the visual language associated with the glamour model, she will remain her own person, immovable.

And those that gaze upon her must define themselves by her standards, rather than envelope her into their own fantasy.

While the representation of my sisters in ink will always be a topic worth questioning, I do not believe that it is not entirely at odds with my Feminist politics. The women depicted are drawing their own maps and carving out their own paths. They negotiate the world as individuals
and to criticize them would be to undermine their autonomy.

But - we must take pains to preserve their true beauty and avoid the temptation to airbrush out their supposed imperfections, for flaws and personalities are really the same thing -and it is their personalities that bring about their tattoos.


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos