Women and Tattoos

From the boudoir to the boardroom and beyond

“I beg your pardon, tattooing? What permanent ones? On real people? Oh dear what a waste of your talent.” My poor mum probably thought she was hiding her disappointment, which for a northern-born septuagenarian is nigh on impossible.

To be honest though, I could see her point. I was hardly in my first flush of youth, and had a successful career as a Creative Head. I managed a large team of people and worked very long, stressful hours… I even wore proper grown up office clothes and everything. Why on God’s green earth would I throw all that away to enter the dark underground world of tattooing? Didn’t you have to join a motorcycle gang and bite the head off a chicken or something? It wasn’t a good idea.

Everyone knows that tattoos are sported by sailors who’ve travelled to some dark corner of the globe inhabited by savages. Or scary convicts who’d murder you in your bed as soon as look at you. Women? What tattooed? No. They’re at best prostitutes, or at worst some kind of self-harming sideshow attraction. It definitely wasn’t a good idea.

But I knew I had to do it anyway. All I’d ever really wanted was to draw and paint.

It started thirty odd years ago. I saw a good friend’s new inking and immediately thought, “Who the fuck did that? It looks like they did it in the dark, on a very choppy sea… with a blunt eye-liner pencil!” Obviously I didn’t air my views out loud. “Er… yeah looks great. What is it? A bundle of straw?” “No, it’s a lion.” “Oh, right, yeah I see. Er… d’you fancy a drink?”

Surely there was a place in the tattoo world for an artist who actually knew how to draw?

I’d always seen tattoos as a form of art. Like comics and graffiti, album sleeves or illegal band flyers. I didn’t at that time really consider why an individual would have a tattoo, I just wanted them and I was fascinated by them – I also wondered what possessed people to put up with ones that were clearly shit.

Nowadays of course there are some truly amazing tattoo masterpieces being produced. Tattooing has entered the mainstream. It’s socially acceptable, it’s cute, it’s hipster cool and everyone is tattooed right? So who decided that getting inked was suddenly ‘allowed’

Many cultures claim to have ‘invented’ tattooing and of course it’s nothing new

for men or women. The earliest evidence of human skin that has been tattooed was found on the body of Otzi the Iceman from as early as 3370 BC. Proof of tattooing has been uncovered on mummified female bodies from ancient Egypt. Native Americans were heavily tattooed as were Islanders from the South Seas and other peoples from around the world all adorned their skin with important spiritual or indeed, frivolous designs and marks.

From deeply meaningful custom designs to social media logos and trends, anything these days is fair game. Magazines depict yet another celebrity tattoo gallery (yawn) and of course an obligatory shot of Mr. Beckham with his shirt off. But maybe the sad truth is that the latest CBB’s newest inking seen in the hot tub really does influence our next generation of tattoo collectors.

There are, of course, more intellectual reasons for getting inked. There are now an estimated 20 million Brits tattooed and for the first time in history some figures suggest that the number of women with tattoos has overtaken the number of men with them. (Harris Poll). Is that because a pop star has them? Or an X factor judge has a floral allotment tattooed on her arse? Yes probably. Women in the public eye are often role models, politician or human rights activist, singer or reality TV personality, these women influence fashion, creative thinking and behaviour and morality.

In the US in the mid 1800s, a young girl named Olive Oatman was captured by a tribe of Yavapais Indians who later ‘sold’ her to the Mojave tribe for some horses and provisions. The Mojave treated her as one of their own, and tattooed her chin as part of their culture to enable her safe transition to the afterlife. Some years later having been negotiated back into polite white society, Olive was a major celebrity recounting her adventures on the social circuit. As a result women began to get secret skin etchings and tattooing had crossed cultures.

For posh people it gradually became quite the thing. In strict Victorian Britain there was a huge swell in tattoo popularity for women and even Victoria herself was rumoured to sport a large tiger and snake design. By the 1920s tattoos were seen as the epitome of style for upper class women. Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie, had a serpent wrapping around her wrist that she rebelliously displayed, or hid with elaborate bracelets, depending on her mood.

In the roaring social change of the 1920s, Jessie Knight became Britain’s first female tattoo artist and became the stuff of legend after a career spanning up until the 1960s. Tattooed women of respectability were flexing their feminist muscles. Albeit on the quiet and usually in the comfort of their own homes, with their husband’s approval, and with the curtains drawn.

By the 1970s and 80s that began to change, it was time to strip off and show some attitude. Women’s Lib meant the start of a fight for equality and freedom of choice. Lingering hippy-permissive culture and the new aggressive desire for change saw a time of experimentation and expression. Sisters were doing ink for themselves. Then into the 1990s and the 2000s tattoos quickly jumped from quirky bucket-list item to a personal statement of artistic expression and individual choice.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter how tattooing and its current acceptability came about. It’s more about how lucky we are that it did. Tattoos make women look scary, they make women look beautiful, they can make women more confident and they make women feel special.

Tattooing is often depicted by the media as being a fad, something fashionable or an experiment for the ‘youth’, and that it will of course soon blow over and will be replaced by something else. And they’re probably right, after over 5000 years it’s probably had its day, I doubt it’ll catch on…

But it’s not just the recipient that changes the tattoo industry. Kat Von D, star of TV’s Miami Ink and latterly LA Ink, has influenced and inspired millions, rising through the world rankings to become one of the most successful tattoo artists in history. New York’s Stephanie Tamez is now similarly one of the world’s most sought after artists, having switched her focus from graphic design to the tattooist’s chair. (I of course particularly associate with that route). So, we have artists and “the tattooed” altering our conservative world… speaking of which… Samantha Cameron is famously tattooed.

So tattoos are acceptable and beloved by everyone then? In the interests of balance, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that children’s toy giants Mattel launched Tattooed Barbie in 2011 to some degree of outrage from a certain section of society. One Daily Mail reader (that surprised you didn’t it?) ranted; “Whatever will they bring out next? Drug-addict Barbie? Alcoholic Barbie?”

Tattoos are, for the moment at least, still a bit edgy then? They still have the ability to make your Gran wrinkle her nose in distaste or provoke some bosses to want them covered from customers or colleagues.

Most people wouldn’t dream of commenting on another person’s hairstyle or their dress sense, but to have visible tattoos is to invite unbidden comment, and seemingly open judgement, from a complete stranger who thinks you give a shit what they think.

Whatever your stance on body art it’s probably fair to say that it’s here for a good while yet. For me, tattoos are a fascinating barometer of our cultural and sociological development. They are a visual record of how women are perceived in society and how that has changed.

But mostly, I just love ‘em.


All Images from Orange Dog Company

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