Tattoo Taboo: What Tats Mean For Women Today

Lori Peters, then a 40-year old single mother of three, spent weeks saving to pay for her first tattoos. She gathered her cash and a manila folder of eleven Japanese kanji characters that she had imagined carved along the length of her spine.At the Crimson Dragon, one of the oldest tattoo shops in Austin, Texas, she told an artist that she had chosen the symbols—which included wisdom, courage, laugh and mother—to represent her hard-won strengths after years of family violence and homelessness.GALLERY: Celebrities with Tattoos“I asked if $35 was enough to get one tattoo,” she says. “I lifted my head to look at him, expecting to see contempt, but he had tears in his eyes. He said that he would give me all the tattoos for free—that this is what tattoos were meant for.”“I stripped to the waist and got on my knees, leaning over a chair. It was terrible work. He’d hold his breath to carve a straight line, and when he finished the line he’d exhale explosively and push himself back. My body was slick with sweat and my muscles were doing tiny little writhing movements while I tried to stay still.”When Peters’ artist said, “this is what tattoos were meant for,” he called up a long tradition in which tattoos demonstrate the strength to endure pain and a physically hard life. Tattooed sailors—think Popeye’s forearms—didn’t have it easy. Body art once meant that you were tough.MORE: Body Art GuideIn some cultures, it also meant that you lived at the bottom of the social ladder or off to one side. Ever since 1769, when Captain James Cook first noted in his ship log that he had seen “tattows” on the natives of the South Pacific, body art has been a badge of membership in sub-cultures, popular among sailors, circus performers (sideshow tattooed woman, anyone?), bikers, and prisoners. In Japan, tattoos still strongly signify your involvement with the yakuza, Japanese organized crime.Drawing upon that history, in the 1980s, teenagers, punks and some in the gay movement got tattooed to shock and protest.In the last ten to fifteen years, however, body art has enjoyed a renaissance that makes it no longer “fringe” but something else. Between 8 and 24 percent of respondents in national surveys in North America and Europe report having at least one tattoo. Because getting a tattoo is now safer and cheaper, you might choose to wear a rose on your ankle just because it’s pretty. Tattoos show up on celebrities, in advertising campaigns, on action figures, and even on Barbie.

 For an older person, a tattoo can be a statement that you’re still up for the ride. Jane Bryant Quinn, a prominent journalist, gave herself a tattoo as her 60th birthday present, along with a red convertible.“It was my fight against the dark,” she says. “I found a tattoo parlor by looking at tattoos young people had and asking who did the one I liked best. It was Big Joe’s in Yonkers—me in my LLBean puffy coat and a bunch of kids, all very polite, in leather jackets and pierced in one place or another. The hardest part was deciding what I wanted; I’m interested in Mayan art, and chose a Mayan agricultural symbol. My only regret is that I was too timid—I made it too small.”QUIZ: Start Your Beauty Journey HereAlthough Quinn has no interest in getting another, she loves showing it to her grandchildren.Despite the growing acceptance and popularity of body art, it still prompts strong reactions. “People are disgusted, intrigued, or astonished, but rarely indifferent,” says one man in his twenties who has debated removing the tattoo. Some see body art as provocative, an intimacy made public. “Tattoos blur the line between public and private,” says YouBeauty Attraction Expert Viren Swami, Ph.D. “The process of getting a tattoo is incredibly personal, whereas the act of wearing a tattoo can often be a very public affair. Interestingly, though, when asked, most people with tattoos don’t think they got tattoos to ‘stand out in a crowd’ or ‘to have a beauty mark.’ So, I don’t think it’s an overtly sexual statement,” he says. However, he notes that people do get tattoos to be unique.QUIZ: How Healthy is Your Skin?Jesse Lee Denning, a 30-year-old public relations representative with a Masters degree in art history, has published a calendar with twelve photos of herself revealing a lot of skin covered in extensive tattoos. She’s also graced the cover of tattoo magazines. Her tattoos make her “feel more beautiful,” she says. “It’s 100 percent vanity—I’m not into pain.”As covered as she is, she’s nonetheless deliberately kept her tattoos in areas she can cover up, and she kept them under wraps for her first meeting with her boyfriend’s parents. “People do judge you,” says Denning. Although women are as likely as men to get tattooed like Denning they tend to pick private spots—for example, the small of the back, a rare location for a man’s tattoo, says Swami. That may be because women hear more criticism, especially from their fathers and doctors. When strangers compare a woman with a tattoo to one without, they’re more prone to guess that the one with tattoos sleeps around or drinks heavily, Swami has found.The bad-girl image may not be all wrong, though it’s increasingly outdated. Full-time college students with four or more tattoos (or seven or more body piercings) are more likely to report smoking marijuana regularly, using other illegal drugs occasionally and a history of arrests. To a lesser degree, they admit to cheating on college work, drinking in binges and having more sex partners, according to a 2009 study of 1,753 students drawn from two major state universities and two expensive and selective religiously affiliated colleges. The authors of the same study, however, noted that 14 percent of the respondents, who were successful enough to be in college, had at least one tattoo. Swami has four himself, including a quote from an Indonesian poet on his left forearm, and plans to get more.The positive effects from receiving a tattoo last at least three weeks, Swami has discovered, though there is no research on how long that boost continues. And negative reactions can hurt self-esteem, interfering with the tattoo’s positive effect, Swami notes. After her first tattoo, for example, Marnie Galloway’s usually supportive father said he was “disappointed in her,” a “harsh rebuke” for him,” she says. Now, Galloway, a book artist, gets off her bike a half block away from her part-time secretarial job to cover up her arm tattoo.QUIZ: How’s Your Self-Esteem?These experiences haven’t made her lose interest in body art. Outside the office, she says, “I try to be more out and open with my tattoo to change the stigma.”  Galloway recently had her first sitting for her second tattoo, an image of Athena: a feminine symbol of physical strength and wisdom in battle, “of knowing when to fight the right fight and how fight it well.” The image also includes the owl from the facade of the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, where the native Texan has chosen to live.For 25-year-old Benjamin Ehrenfeld, a tattoo was a big lesson in permanence. On his 18th birthday, he got a tattoo of a cross in order to set himself apart from mainline fundamentalist Christians while affirming his belief in Jesus. “Eight years later, I find it rather amusing,” he says, in part because he’s become an observant Jew.Denning advises people to be careful. “Some people say, ‘I want one, but don’t know what I want.’ I say, ‘wait. This is for the rest of your life.’”It is possible to remove a tattoo, and some 6 percent do, studies show. Some people develop an allergic reaction to a tattoo several years after getting it. Deeper blue and black inks and pastels colors are particularly hard to eliminate. In a 2006 study of 196 people who had come to a clinic to have a tattoo removed, they had on average waited ten years to get rid of a tattoo they typically received around the age of 20, many in order to feel unique. Some said that they’d grown bored with the tattoo, but two of the most common reasons for removal were embarrassment or negative comments.MORE: How to Talk to Your DoctorBut permanence is part of the appeal, a source of a tattoo’s power. “I am always aware of these characters on my back,” says Peters. “They are the story of my endurance and triumph.” Life is good, and she’s planning another tattoo. “I can’t wait,” she says.

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