Women & Tattoos

How many tattoos do you have and what do they represent?

I have 17 tattoos; my first tattoo was a feather on my hand. I had to walk into about three different tattoo parlours in Dublin before I got an artist who agreed to give me my first tattoo, explicitly explaining that it’s not something I can just rub out off my hand. Apparently, one of the bravest places to get a tattoo is on your hand as it can be seen by everyone but I wanted it to be seen by everyone. “Women don’t usually get tattoos there” was what the tattoo artist told me. Wonder if he’d have said the same thing to a man?

I went looking again. After showing a tattoo artist in Dublin Ink my own artwork on my iPad, he agreed to get one of his visiting tattoo artists to do it. I was a fellow creative so all was grand yeah. I ended up drawing the design and he added the ink. It was done in about 10 minutes. And from that point on I was addicted to ink. To my mothers great discontent.

The feather on my hand symbolises the Emily Dickinson Poem, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers. I had written a Eulogy for my Grandfather when he died and I used part of that poem near the end of the eulogy. The next tattoo I got was 7 crows on my left arm which was something I had seen on a wall in St Lukes Radiation Oncology when I used to bring my Grandmother before she eventually died of cancer.

In short, my tattoos meant something to me as they do to many other women. In 2012 around the time I began getting tattoos, it was the first year in which more women than men were tattooed in the U.S (twenty-three per cent of women, compared with nineteen per cent of men). It wasn’t all a stylish trend, it was a movement of women being empowered.

The tattoos that followed after my initial two, included a unified design of black lives matter and women’s rights/equality logo, a massive crow symbolising magic and the arcana of being a wicca, the eye of Horus, which is a symbol and protective amulet originating from the ancient Egyptian and associated with the goddess Wadjet, daughter of Ra, a European Goddess of War and many more. I won’t stop at 17, I am only getting started and they empower me along the way.

I never actually knew how or why they empowered me though – I just felt it, so I decided to do some research into why women feel empowered by tattoos and here is what I found out.

A little bit of history on women and tattoos:

Tattoos were an early way that women took control of their bodies. For thousands of years, way back 5000 years, tattoos have been indicative of the passage from girlhood to womanhood, of female power and female beauty. Polynesian and Egyptian cultures embraced tattoos on women for centuries. In ancient Greece and Rome women with tattoos even added value to the cost of marriage.

When tattoos first emerged in ‘popular ‘ western culture in the 1800s, they were considered a sign of being a criminal or deviant. Today, they are increasingly commonplace. According to one estimate, 38 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo.

Tattoos eventually become popular in the Western world in the 19th century. Specifically, you’d find women with tattoos being paraded around in circuses and sideshows. It may not seem like the places you’d think to look for stories of female empowerment as such, but historically speaking the performers who appeared as such acts played a surprising and important role in women’s history–thanks to their tattoos.

Artoria Gibbons
Artoria Gibbons was born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1893 and she moved away from home at the age of 14 to join the circus. Once at the carnival, she met a man named Red Gibbons who was a tattoo artist. Red promised Artoria that he’d let her travel the world with the circus if he could tattoo her because they didn’t have a tattooed lady in their act. Gibbons went on to perform in sideshows for over 35 years, touring with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus as well as Hagenbeck-Wallace. Gibbons is regarded as the highest-paid tattooed lady, earning an impressive male following throughout her years in the circus. Gibbons continued to perform until the time of her death, showing off her collection of ink into her eighties. 

The height of sideshow and circus popularity in the mid–19th century came at a time when women had few opportunities for economic independence, and providing for families was largely a man’s job. Not so for the female sideshow performers, many of whom capitalized on the fascination with body art by voluntarily tattooing themselves, enabling them to make their own money. (Though some were forcibly tattooed.)

TIME Magazine
This woman seen being inked by legendary Bowery tattooist Charlie Wagner, ca. 1920s

Although tattoos were also highly popular amongst the upper class during the Victorian era, they suffered a time of being out of favour after the Great Depression, due to the stigma that they were related to the criminal element, and were even outlawed in many states in the USA well into the 20th century. Those who didn’t care about stigmas were the wealthy socialites. They got tattoos as a form of rebellion in the era and as a sign of wealth.

At the time, social moral and ethical codes of conduct required women to keep their whole bodies covered, you know so as to prevent intimidating the red-blooded men. The wealthy elite, however made their own rules and being highly influenced by tales of tattooed British royals, they started summoning ‘ink artists’ to the private comforts of their homes, to give them designs they could hide.

Winston Churchill’s mother Lady Randolph Churchill is said to have had a snake tattoo on her wrist (which was easily covered by her sleeve); by the turn of the 20th century, roughly three-fourths of fashionable New York City ladies had gotten similarly trendy tattoos, including butterflies, flowers and dragons, according to the New York World.

Deafy Grassman tattooing his wife, Stella, ca. 1930s

In beginning in the 1970s, tattoos amongst women once again celebrated a boom in popularity due to the feminist movement. This time, the popularity of tattoos was in response to the fight for reproductive rights. Women wanted their bodies to be their own, and tattoos seemed to once again lend them a secret source of power, although most women no longer chose to cover their tattoos with their clothing. They now choose to show them off. Tattoos have since come to express a type of rebellious beauty and have even been linked to a stronger sense of self-esteem.

In a study done in Psychology Today The primary motivation for people who get tattooed mostly has to do with its personal meaning such as to mark a significant experience or struggle. Participants reported reasons such as “to keep my mother’s memory,” “a way of honoring my first child,” and “presented what I was going through at a certain time of my life.” Some participants (12%) also felt that their tattoos were an extension or expression of who they were. For the participants who opted not to get a tattoo, the main reasons revolved around social and cultural factors, primarily religion (11%). One participant reflected, “I am a religious person so my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I’d like to keep clean.” Another expressed, “I am a Christian, it is conflicting as in the Christian religion to treat and respect one’s body as a temple.”

– Psychology Today
A servicewoman has a tattoo done on her arm in Aldershot, England, in 1951.

So there you have it. People get tattoos for many reasons: for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, a visual display of a personal narrative, reminders of spiritual/cultural traditions, sexual motivation, addiction, identification with a group or a defining moment within the feminist movement of owning your body and using it as a powerful statement to the world.

Will you get that tattoo you were thinking of getting?

One response to “Women & Tattoos”

  1. I started getting tattooed at 16, and have gotten tattooed at many stops along my travels, mostly by women artists whom I prefer and like to support…I am now 65 and have 41 tattoos ,and counting…have lived a full and interesting life so far, and am still a circus attraction to many, a fascination and inspiration to others…

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