Tattoo Education: Bodies of Subversion: All About Eve

Published: 29 April, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 224, April, 2013

In a new edition of her book Bodies of Subversion, Margot Mifflin traces the history of women and tattoos over the centuries, from sideshow freaks to modern artists. She took some time out to tell Skin Deep about the progress women have made in the industry, and why there's still work to do...

When art critic and lecturer Margot Mifflin published the first edition of 'Bodies of Subversion' in 1997, the tattoo world – hell, the world in general – was a rather different place. We were yet to fall under the thrall of Facebook, Tony Blair seemed like a decent enough chap and Brian Cox was playing keyboards for D:Ream instead of blowing our minds with science.

Kat von D was 15.

Times have changed, and a new edition of the book has just come out exploring some of those changes in detail, from women's relationships with their bodies to how those bodies are portrayed in the media, as well as looking at some freshly uncovered tales from tattoo history.

However, we begin our discussion with one area that hasn't altered one bit, to the author's enormous frustration: despite the evident technical accomplishments of tattoo artists the fine art world remains  blind to the merits of tattooing. According to Mifflin the situation was the same in 1997, and was one of things that prompted her to write her book in the first place.

“What really struck me was how tattooing was being neglected,” she says. “People who were interested in visual art had a blindspot about tattooing – which is a visual art form you see every day. How can you not be interested in that? It has a history just like any visual art that's well worth exploring.”

In 2013 very little has changed, she believes, and the art establishment's indifference to tattooing surprises and vexes her. “Tattoos have become so popular, but the art world remains stubbornly indifferent to them. It's not that they pay them little attention: they pay them no attention at all.”

Well, perhaps it's the art world's loss in that case (although she hopes that a growing interest in street art may eventually spread to body art as well). But over the years her own interest in tattooing and how it relates to women's identities continued – so she's revisiting the subject to see what's new and what implications it might have for the 21st century tattooed woman.

One of the obvious 'new' things is the rise in social media and the conversations it starts. In a nicely postmodern twist, an image from 'Bodies of Subversion' recently popped up online, went viral and duly illustrated some of the contemporary debates over women's body issues that so intrigue her and form a large part of her new material. The image, of a woman sporting a full chest tattoo to cover the scars of a double mastectomy, was posted online by a Canadian studio but was repeatedly taken down by Facebook.

“I was amazed by that,” she says. “Basically the woman had no breasts, it wasn't much different to a photo of a shirtless man; and also she's wearing a tattoo that functions almost as clothing. But even more interesting to me is the kind of American puritanism that says nudity is objectionable when breasts are in the photo, as if some kind of indecency is implied – even when the 'indecent' element [the breasts] have been literally removed.”

Contrast this social media scuffle with the way the female form is depicted elsewhere and you get an idea of the “chronic” body issues and contradictions facing women, Mifflin argues.

“We're caught up in something difficult now: we have greater freedom with our bodies with things like abortion rights, but we're also more constricted in that we're expected to present ourselves sexually more than at any time in history. We have more freedom to show the body, but a greater requirement for that presentation to be sexual.”

Representations of tattooed women can be particularly guilty of this, she argues, focusing on women's sexual allure rather than on the artistic merits of their tattoos. “I understand why it's happening – there's a correlation in people's minds between a tattooed woman and a sexy woman, which may or may not be true – and I understand that if women are stripping down to show their tattoos there's going to be a sexual element to it. But there's a way to do that where the emphasis is on the tattoo, while still celebrating sexuality.”

Whatever your views on how tattooed women appear in the media, it's hard to deny the rise in the number of women getting tattooed. Numbers have increased dramatically since 1997 to the extent that in the US more women (23%) are tattooed than men (19%), and this rise goes hand in hand with an increase in the number of women tattooing.

For Mifflin it's a sign of women's changing attitudes to body art, with the rise in female artists also signposting changes within the tattoo industry itself. “Tattooing seems to have become much more inclusive,” she says. “It's relevant to a wide range of people, and one of the really great things I noticed this time around was the number of lesbians working as artists. The first time around none of the women identified themselves as gay; now there seems to be a number of great lesbian artists at work.”

But while women in general are being better represented behind the needle as well as under it, there's an elephant in the room: where are the black women artists? “There seems to be a very big gap in the tattoo world, there are so few black women artists and yet I know that black women are getting tattooed,” says Mifflin.

It's an issue addressed in more detail in 'Bodies...' with artist Kimberley Williams suggesting that part of the issue is a lack of role models. “The civil rights movement wasn't a hundred years ago,” she tells Mifflin, “our parents lived through it. It wasn't so long ago that blacks were getting integrated into the school system and into positions of power in business. So there is no referent for it. I think it's sad you have to identify with people who look like you in order to do what you want to do. But you're a little black girl and you think, 'This is something we don't do.'”

Although there have been pioneering artists like Jacci Gresham, Mifflin observes that the trails they blazed in the 70s aren't being followed. She'd like to see more positive artist role models for black women, “especially now, when there are so many more possibilities for tattooing on black skin; there was a time when it was considered limited but I don't think that's really the case now.” She points to Miya Bailey's 'Color Outside the Lines' documentary as an awareness-raising step in the right direction, but suggests there's still some way to go.

All the same, tattooing has certainly extended its reach into many different corners of society. “You can't say there's just one kind of person who gets tattooed,” Mifflin says. “There was a time 30 years ago where only a particular kind of celebrity, like Janis Joplin, would be tattooed; now there's Angelina Jolie, Rihanna and Lena Dunham [from TV show 'Girls'], who are all very different kinds of celebrities.”

Whether celebrities or girls next door the fortunes of inked ladies have waxed and waned over the years. 'Bodies of Subversion' takes a fascinating canter through the stories of the different women involved in tattooing in the past, from PT Barnum's circus dolls to Jessie Knight, the first female British tattoo artist, in the 1920s. Mifflin explains that for a while before the Depression our little island exported the trend for society ladies to sport tattoos to the States, until the crash put a stop to all that. “That's when it started to get a bad reputation, and I think it took until the 70s and 80s to come up again, when people like Ed Hardy were embracing it as fine art.”

It's clear that tattooing is definitely 'up' again now and the popularity of the various editions of 'Bodies of Subversion' could almost act as a barometer for how body art has been perceived in the wider world. The first edition was a cult hit amongst tattoo insiders and feminist thinkers; now, the revised edition has featured in the Daily Mail (yikes). “It seems to be appealing more to the general public,” says Mifflin. “I feel like people are more open to appreciating the aesthetic and sociological values of tattooing.”

The final sections of the book consider the great advances in tattoo techniques and quality of work. Mifflin herself is a fan of more abstract pieces like those created by artist Roxx, which she believes will last better than others. “They're timeless. I think Roxx has a real sense of tattoo design as a fashion that will endure. She has a forward thinking, long term vision of the life a tattoo might have.”

So is there such a thing as a feminine style of tattooing? “I think less and less so. If you look at the 19th century and the women who got tattooed then who weren't circus ladies, they got a lot of religious and patriotic images, or family crests, along with some decorative images like vines and bracelets,” Mifflin explains. The early 20th century brought tattoos reflecting the growth of mass media imagery: movie stars, cartoon characters. In the 70s a feminine style using organic, decorative imagery like flowers and the ubiquitous butterfly developed, but now she's reluctant to say women have a 'style' of tattoo. “They have a much greater freedom of choice in terms of their tattoo imagery.”

That said, some subjects and approaches do seem to appeal to women. Joey Ortega tells her that 90% of his clients are women and that they prefer organic designs “because they're more elegant and flowing,” Mifflin explains. “Not necessarily because of how they look on the female form, but because that style appeals to women's tastes.”

While 'Bodies of Subversion' explores many avenues of tattooing and asks questions about women's relationships with ink over time, it certainly doesn't claim to be the last word. There are many areas that still intrigue Mifflin.

“I'd like to explore why the 1930s style woman – conflated into 'gypsy girl tattoos' in many cases but drawing influence from flapper girls or Gibson girls [an idealised feminine form created by illustrator Charles Gibson at the turn of the 19th century] – is so popular with modern women,” she says. “I'm not sure why that's being drawn on so heavily. Maybe they're gentler, less sexualised pinups who designate feminine beauty without being as in-your-face?” I suggest they might also be fun for artists to draw. “Maybe!” she laughs.

Will she be working on another book? “When something like the photo of Lesya Toumaniantz [the Russian designer who allowed her artist boyfriend of 24 hours to tattoo his name across her face] goes viral I find it hard to resist thinking about it or writing about it,” she admits. “So I can't imagine not continuing to be interested in tattoos; but I'd probably not write about it, I have other topics I'd want to pursue first.”

And as someone who is yet to be tattooed she not tempted after all these years of writing about it? “I considered a tattoo when I first wrote the book but I never booked the appointment,” she says. “I was tempted, but I resisted because I was trying to maintain my journalistic neutrality.” It's a topic she gets asked about a lot, but while her students may be tattooed, she's fine without them. “If you question whether someone should be writing about tattoos if they don't have tattoos, it's like saying an art critic shouldn't write about art if he doesn't own a workshop and create pieces!”

Inked or not, male or female, 'Bodies of Subversion' is a fascinating and impressively researched piece of work with input from some great artists and writers. Mifflin hopes the new edition has some useful lessons to share with readers. “At the very least, exploring women's tattoo history and their reasons for getting tattooed can only enhance your understanding of women's place in culture,” she says. “I hope people will find the book enlightening about women's history beyond tattooing. Hopefully it will give you a handle on how history shapes culture, fashion and art.” And maybe, in the end, great tattoo art will get the recognition it deserves.


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: From Bodies of Subversion