Think! - 202: Only Women Bleed...

Published: 22 August, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 202, August, 2011

When 22-year-old Australia native Samantha Plant organised Inked Beauties, a beauty contest for tattooed women, her initial reasoning for doing so wasn’t out of a long-seated desire to showcase the beauty of tattooed women. Rather, the impulse actually came from the fact that no matter how well she placed in traditional beauty competitions, ultimately Plant’s tattoos led to her missing out on the winner’s spotlight...

Explaining her situation to Australian newspaper WA Today in May of 2011, Plant said: “I was knocked from competitions after winning the heats only to be told at the grand finals that I couldn’t win because of my tattoos.” 

While being denied the same level of consideration as your untattooed peers is completely unjust, tattooed women often have very little room to manoeuvre in a world that shows a different bias toward them than what their male counterparts face. Women have long played vital roles in the history of tattoo, yet today’s popular culture persists in giving tattooed women very narrow margins to exist within. The message is often crystal clear, yet tacitly implied: either go the cute route or the sexy route with your tattoos, but don’t expect to be taken seriously either way. 

Oddly enough, few modern societies offer a more accurate glimpse into this situation than Japan currently does. Japanese society has long associated tattoos with the organised crime of the Yakuza and even today, life in Japan is no picnic for the tattooed. Everything from access to gyms to housing can, and often will, be denied those who choose body art. However, in direct accordance with the contradictory nature of Japanese society, the tattoo art form is alive and well, experiencing a rapidly growing mainstream following. Surprisingly, it’s women who are largely responsible for this growth. The fashion industry has helped to bring tattoo to the pages of magazines and to the bodies of much-hyped MTV stars, reeling in masses of trend hungry, young Japanese girls. In a society where women’s roles are meticulously outlined and followed, female tattooists are springing up everywhere, and female-only tattoo conventions are achieving much success, defying the ideals of previous generations as to what women are intended to be. At least that’s how it appears on the surface. 

Dig a little deeper and kawaii, the much worshipped and highly fashionable concept of cuteness, rears its syrupy-sweet head. Women tattooists are growing in Japan largely due to the demand – many timid Japanese girls are brave enough to face the tattoo machine, but not brave enough to bare their flesh to male tattooists. What’s more, there is a confidence in female tattooists to better comprehend and deliver the kawaii ideal through tattoo. In other words, though Japanese society is experiencing a boom in the female appreciation of tattoo, there’s little evidence to suggest that what is happening is anything more productive than a strengthening of the already firmly laid expectations of how women can be tattooed. 

To suggest that this sort of trend is limited to the Japanese would be entirely off. The truth is, tattoo’s warped fashion connection to women has existed ever since tattoo was first brought to American and European shores. At the turn of the 19th century, salon-going women were already being covertly tattooed in the name of beauty, though they themselves didn’t know it. By heightening the degree to which their female clientele’s cheeks retained their rosy glow and by reassuring women that they were in the hands of professional doctors, male salon owners of the early 20th century were actually able to turn a very nice profit through methods that were essentially tattoo. The latest methods of beautification for cheeks, lips and eyebrows were actually an injection beneath the top layer of skin that consisted of vegetable dyes. 

This process was never referred to as tattoo, leaving women to feel fully satisfied with their procedures long after they had left the salon. Because these salons were essentially giving women exactly what they wanted, not revealing to them the exact process involved can be viewed as slightly less than sinister. What remains however, is the basis for a mindset that would eventually become one of the unspoken guidelines for modern society’s concept of female tattoo – that tattoo is unfeminine, unless the tattoo itself fits into the pre-defined spectrum of beautification. 

The desire for the exotic led many wealthy men and women of the time to get small tattoos, but for a woman to go out and tattoo her body to a high degree was unheard of. This began to change in 1882 when small groups of women began getting tattooed in order to join travelling sideshows and carnivals. These women provided what was both a horrific and fascinating show for the crowds who would converge to see them, but simply being tattooed women and on display was not enough for the time. Each woman also had her own story as to how she came to be tattooed and all these stories dealt with ‘being kidnapped by Native Americans and forcibly tattooed’. 

The women were pitied for the ordeals they had undergone and this in turn, created even more intrigue in them as tattooed showpieces. Perhaps these concocted stories helped the women to cling to some form of perceived femininity, erasing the blame for being covered in ink. Or, perhaps it was the stories themselves that erased the women’s femininity, keeping them just ladylike enough to be displayed and pitied, but not feminine enough to be admired for their independence and confidence in voluntarily choosing to be tattooed. Whatever the case, these initial dalliances with the ancient art of tattoo marked the start of modern society’s usurpation of the art form. The tattoo related roles that women had played in indigenous tribes for thousands of years had begun to be reduced to little more than the manufactured tales of savages kidnapping women and imprinting them with horrific markings only worthy of staged, public display. 

The initial roles of women in tattoo came from cultures that valued women’s purpose for being tattooed. It was not sexualised, nor was it frowned upon. The act of being tattooed did not limit or otherwise eliminate the options that women had within their society, but rather, women’s tattoos further solidified their important and functioning roles within their societies. In fact, two Samoan women, Taema and Tilafaiga, introduced the tradition of tattoo that has now existed for over 2,000 years amongst Fijians. While Samoan women are not as heavily tattooed as their male counterparts, their tattoos – based on and around geometric patterns – still provide the same function as that of the men’s, denoting rank and status amongst the tribe.

Going back even further and to yet another culture, tattoo made its earliest appearance in the excavated remains of ancient Egyptian mummies. Dating back to 2,000 BC, these remains were all tattooed and what’s more, they were all female. Oddly enough, even here in an educated, professional context, the male archaeologists who excavated the remains couldn’t help but be swayed by modern day, stereotypical notions of women with tattoos. After discovering that the mummies were female and tattooed, the archaeologists assumed that the women would have most likely been either prostitutes or dancing girls, neither of which would have held much validity in the society of the time.

With the passing of time, more tattooed female mummies were excavated, these in Deir el-Bahari, a burial ground for particularly affluent and respected members of ancient Egyptian society. The tattoos – located over the breasts, stomach and upper thighs, were a large pattern of dots grouped together in a net formation. As scientists eventually discovered, the tattoos were not the markings of prostitutes or dancing girls, but were used as protection for the women and their unborn children against evil spirits during pregnancy. The tattoos were also believed to keep unborn children healthy inside their mother’s wombs.

From Egypt, onto South East Asia, where the Mentawai peoples of Indonesia are said to have the oldest tattoo tradition in the world – the Mentawai have always held fast to their belief that all people within the tribe were equal. The tattoos that women don begin in the girl’s teens and continue throughout the years until the age of 40. When completed, these tattoos mark a woman’s upper arms, backs of hands, upper thighs, neck and chest areas, shins, calves and forearms. The thin lined and dotted tattoos are representative of the sago palm, which is considered the tree of life by the Mentawai, and the tattoos that decorate the women’s backs are intended to ward off evil from their bodies. The Mentawai believe that tattoos please the soul, allowing them to bring their material possessions with them into the next life. They also believe that tattoos will protect them from evil jungle spirits and that they enable their ancestors to recognise them in the afterlife.

When these ancient, yet refreshingly simple tattoo practices are juxtaposed with today’s tattoo efforts, there are more obvious differences to just what place women have in it all. For this reason, any comparison between ancient indigenous traditions and today’s may not be completely just. After all, the Mentawai people or the ancient Egyptians exist and existed in utterly different times and places, under completely different methods of life. Women of indigenous tribes and ancient cultures had the sole responsibility of living amongst their people and playing a vital role as a part of that group. Their tattoos reflected their involvement in that group and were not symbols of their individuality as women. 

Though the specifics may change from culture to culture and region to region, one thing that remains the same amongst the indigenous peoples from whom we gained the concept of tattoo is that they do not view the tattooing of women as a negative. And while some may accuse indigenous tribes of following archaic beliefs or rituals, it is indeed arguable that even today, our own modern, fast-paced societies continue to remain entirely archaic on the issue of tattooed women. Modern women needn’t be bound by their tattoos to some sort of noble social effort, but women’s options as tattooed members of society should offer more than being cast as cute or sexy. No one can tell another person that their choice in tattoo is wrong, regardless of whether or not the tattoo is overly cutesy or entirely sex driven. That choice rests entirely with the individual. That being said, there should be a choice for women that does not compromise their femininity, integrity or self-respect. 

The truth that is all too often ignored is that as soon as tattoo was introduced to the West, tattooed women were undesirable as women but highly profitable as a commodity. Packaged as an item of beauty or sex, the commodification is still the same. This reality is underscored by the fact that even more than the profitability of female tattoo, it is cast as a fetish, alive and well in numerous societies around the world. Even a successful American porn video series has found a method by which to profit from tattooed women – the Cum on My Tattoo series, currently in its fourth incarnation.

Oddly enough, this legacy of pigeonholing tattooed women by way of their tattoos has become so commonplace and tolerated that to buy into it, is now somehow considered a form of female liberation. SuicideGirls is a website filled with photos of tattooed women, viewable to paying subscribers. Begun in 2001, today it boasts over 300,000 subscribers and through films, a best-selling book and a clothing line, it has wholeheartedly embraced the sexuality of tattooed women. A declaration on the site leaves little question as to its mandate: “In the same way Playboy Magazine became a beacon and guide to the swinging bachelor of the 1960s, SuicideGirls is at the forefront of a generation of young women and men whose ideals about sexuality do not conform with what mainstream media is reporting.” 

But isn’t SuicideGirls – as noble as it claims to be – still just selling sex and keeping tattooed women in the same old, tired role as a result? According to SuicideGirl’s founder, Missy Suicide, nothing could be further from the truth.

“It is hard to show off the beauty of your art work when half of it is hidden beneath clothes. Most tattooed women are comfortable with their bodies and decorate them with pieces to create uniquely beautiful art. For the most part they aren’t shy about showing this off, after all they put painful hours in to getting it that way. The nude female form is the most celebrated subject matter in all of art history, the body is beautiful. It seems a bit juvenile to put a sleazy slant on naked photos when art galleries are literally overflowing with sculptures, paintings and the like depicting boobies. To me it seems the next logical step in an evolution of art. Subjects really have an opportunity to participate more fully in the final work. In choosing to make their bodies the canvas to depict their personal idea of beauty and displaying their unique form the traditional female nude is a bit reinvented, no? That being said most women who are comfortable and confident with their bodies and themselves tend not to have too many hang ups with sexuality, sex being an intrinsic and fun part of life. The world would be a much happier place if everyone appreciated their body and themselves a bit more.”

Despite this assessment of reinventing the traditional female nude, perhaps the better and far more liberating goal would be to reinvent the concept of tattooed women as a whole? An uphill battle, to say the least. Today the mainstream understanding of women’s tattoo roles has even made its way into the very methods by which we speak about tattoo. For whatever discrimination that men may feel as a result of their tattoos, there is still no male equivalent to the term ‘tramp stamp’.

Located at the lower back, the tramp stamp is a tattoo term used to denote a tattoo that is ubiquitous, sleazy and an entirely female concept. While much has been done to frown on and disassociate tattoo from the outdated stereotype of being little more than a sailor’s pastime, tattooed women will forever linger behind the pack as long as terms like tramp stamp continue to exist. Such a term’s mere existence is further proof that women have specific guidelines in which they are to work should they choose to be tattooed.

One of the greatest and most inspiring things about tattoo is that tattoos themselves hold no biases or preconceived beliefs. Even when women are pushed into one role or another by the tattoos they choose to wear, it is not the tattoo itself that is responsible for this, but people’s perceptions that have been dictated by far too many years of unchecked complacency. Tattoo roles can be altered or smashed altogether. This is no simple task given how steeply they persist within our cultures, but there truly is no time like the present to pay homage to the lineage of this incredible art form and strive to place all on the same level once again, regardless of sex or the tattoos that we may choose to wear.


Text: Mike Jones; Photography: As Credited