Women with Tattoos

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Tell me about your tattoo

“A tattoo is often a mark of rebellion, a kind of irrevocable snub to parents or churches or other authorities that have tried to tell someone who she has to be.” as Beth Felker Jones as states in her article Marked for life.  While society is now accepting tattoos on women, without the stigma associated with them in the past; there may be regrets later in life because they choose to get tattoos that are visible and elaborate.  Some women in management positions are very happy with their tattoos, whereas, others have serious consequences as a result of being “inked”.  Reasons given by those getting tattoos, range from fashion statements to symbolic spiritual meanings.

The practice of tattooing dates as far back as Early Dynastic Egypt (4,500BC).  Hoag Levins reveals in The changing cultural status of the tattoo arts in America that according to the 1996 edition of the 30-volume Macmillan Dictionary of art: “The art is attested in almost every culture worldwide . . . the earliest surviving examples of tattooed human skin comes from 12th-Dynasty Egypt (1938BC), but representational evidence suggests that tattooing was practiced in Pre-dynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt (4,500 BC).”   In Jenny Hettenbach’s research of The history of modern women and body art, she cites, “Both women and men were tattooed, but as common in many cases, the markings were different for each.  The women more commonly had tattoos on their hands and forearms.  Most had tattoos also on their breast and legs below the knee.

The current acceptance of women with tattoos by society has changed drastically from a time when tattoos were seen only on sailors returning from their tour in the Polynesia islands.  In the 1970’s the choice to get tattoos began on a small scale for women, however; the practice had been common with men for years.  According to Levins, “The cultural status of tattooing has steadily evolved from that of an anti-social activity in the 1960s to that of a trendy fashion statement in the 1990s.”  Tattoos on women began showing up in places that were visible to the eye, such as the ankle or even on the shoulder. As the years progressed, the tattoos women purchased became bigger, and more elaborate; covering more parts of the body, from the top of the hip to the tip of the toes.   Themes of tattoos became all-encompassing, and rather than just a flower or butterfly, things like vines, faces, names, ships, crosses, demons, symbols and the like were seen.  The reasons women give for getting a tattoo vary from simply wanting to be in fashion to symbolize events in their lives that are special and memorable.  Levins states that, “Today’s fine art tattoo studio draws the same kind of clientele as a custom jewelry store, fashion boutique, or high-end antique shop.”

 According to Barbara Duncan, a local tattoo artist in Kansas City, MO, approximately 80% of their customers are women. The evening I spoke with her, their shop had 22 customers; only two of them were men.  Barbara has been a tattoo artist for five years and she always wanted to be involved in this art form since she first studied art in school.  “Women usually get tattoos that are bright in color, small, and pretty with cursive lettering. They want to make their bodies beautiful, and by getting a tattoo, women believe it will enhance the beauty of their body forever.”

Although, most women are satisfied with their decisions to get a tattoo, Barbara indicated that occasionally a woman customer will return with “buyer remorse”.  This is usually the name of a boyfriend or lover.  Unfortunately, the best way to remedy this problem is to cover up the original tattoo which, of course, is costly and could be difficult if the original artist did not take this option into consideration.  She will counsel women concerning location of a tattoo being visible as respects to career goals; however, she will proceed with what the customer wants.

What better way to know what a woman thinks about tattoos, then from a lady who has them.  Leah Schaak has been store manager for a large nationally known coffee shop that does not allow visible tattoos.  She has large and elaborate tattoos on her leg, arms, and her back. Leah states that “I have admired and appreciated tattoos as an art form since childhood, and have always imagined myself to be the type to get tattoos.”  When asked what “type” she was referring to, she indicated that women with tattoos have been stereotyped in the past and she does not believe you should put someone “in a box”.  Coming from a sheltered Christian upbringing, it was her hope to live “outside the social norm”, and, “part of me has always had the idea I could change the stigma of: success and tattoos, women and tattoos, or stereotypes and tattoos”.

When asked how the fact that she has tattoos located in visible locations has affected her career or society’s view of women with tattoos, she said, “I don’t believe it affected anything. They were always covered up during interviews or when I am at work.  I never expected tattoos to speak for me; once people get to know and respect me, then the tattoos will not matter.”  Each one of Leah’s tattoos has either a story, a part of her life, or a spiritual meaning.  When she made the decision to stop living the lifestyle of going to the clubs, drinking and doing drugs, she had the idea of a “tree of life”, which is a tattoo located from her foot to her knee.  “This represents that I want to live instead of being part of the ‘living dead’, basically the tree of life.”

Not to say Leah does not have any regrets in having a tattoo done, she does. When asked what they were, she indicated that had she researched, found the best artist to bring her idea to, and saved the money to have her idea created properly; the “tree of life” would have been exactly what she wanted. Unfortunately, she took her idea to an artist that altered her idea into something entirely differently from what she had envisioned; he included “hidden” images of a penis in the vines of the tree.

It can be said that there are women with tattoos who have more serious regrets. Candi Brown is a store supervisor at a large nationally known bagel restaurant.  She has what is commonly known as “penitentiary tattoos”, which are tattoos that are made with Indian ink, a needle, and thread. These are located on her forearms and wrists. For Candi, they carry shame and embarrassment.  When asked what their meanings were, she said, I only had them put on to be cool and to fit in with the people I was hanging out with. The dot her wrist is a symbol for hatred of Afro-Americans.”; yet today she is married to an African American.

Although she has changed her lifestyle completely since having had the tattoos done, the stigma associated with them haunts, not only her personal life, but her workplace as well.  A customer had called the company’s hot-line to complain about being served by someone with “tattoos all up and down her arms”, Candi was very hurt and embarrassed.  She said, “I wished I had never done such a stupid thing.”

 A popular tattoo that mothers are getting is their baby’s footprints.  This represents a milestone in their lives and they enjoy sharing it with their children.  Although one might feel differently if her child suffers embarrassment due to their mother’s choices, however that all depends on the lifestyle of the mother.  Perhaps one might be lucky enough in her relationship with a husband, boyfriend, or significant other that is accepting of their past, and the permanent symbols of it. The only comment Leah Schaak received from her mother after her first tattoo was, “I didn’t think it would be so big”.

The current viewpoints from the business standpoint is as such, depending on where the tattoos are located, and what career path is chosen; will determine if a tattoo is acceptable or not.  If they are visible, and can be covered up with the current fashions available today, then it is quite acceptable in most business settings.  Some career women consider a tattoo to be the equivalent of cubicle photos, and will proudly put their tattoos in visible areas of their body.

Although women have valid reasons for getting “inked”, there are sometimes consequences for choices made. These may be manifested in various aspects of a woman’s life including career, relationships, children, and lifestyle changes.  While society is now accepting tattoos on women, and the art form of tattooing has been around for a long time.  However, tattoos visible on a woman still remains unacceptable by certain members of society.    

More about this author: J. James

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