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Tattoo Taboo: What Tats Mean For Women Today

“Bad girls,” female executives and grandmas get them. Body art is an increasingly common statement for women.

| November 10th, 2011
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Women and tattoos

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 Guide

In 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.”

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