Women and Tattoos

Judgement, art, beauty and a very brief history

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Once considered the lowest form of ‘art’, associated with criminality, carnival freaks and sexual promiscuity, women with tattoos have had a bit of a rough ride over the last couple of centuries. The stigma attached to being a woman with tattoos is very slowly receding. However, unlike a haircut or the jewellery that we can take off or the clothes we choose to wear, tattoos are permanent and as a result aspersions are often made about the bearer.

I got my first tattoo at the age of nineteen. Rather shamefully, I did not put the time and effort into choosing a design that I thought the forty year old me would be happy with (who cares about being 40 when you’re 19, right?!). I went with my instinct and (thankfully) to this day (22 years later) I do not regret it. I now have reasonably heavily tattooed arms – 27 individual tattoos in total. Some of them hold emotional significance for me and others I chose simply because I thought they looked nice or were a bit unusual. The question I get most frequently asked about my tattoos is ‘what do they mean?’ followed by ‘Do you regret it?’.

– Me, pictured above at the Ace Hotel in London. Image taken by my sister Annabel

Many of my tattoos are linked to music and artists I have liked throughout my life (big shout out to the wonderful artist Sunny Buick who inspired many of my tattoos). They are part of my story, my history and not for one moment have I regretted getting them. I’m not so naive as to think that this is the case for everyone, but why is there an immediate assumption that choosing to adorn myself with pictures that represent my life, my interests, that regret will follow?

I was recently discussing tattoos with some male friends who are also tattooed. We were pondering the questions that we get asked by confused grandparents, strangers at bars and inquisitive children about the pictures on our bodies. It became clear pretty quickly that whilst, as a woman, I am frequently asked about regret, my male counterparts were not. Why? Is it because tattoos are strictly reserved for men – sailors and gang members perhaps – surely we’ve moved on from this?

Women have been getting tattooed for well over 150 years. There has been an increase in the last decade or so in the number of women choosing to commit to this form of body modification; in 2012 it was reported that in the US there are now more tattooed women than men (59%) and the Uk is quickly following suit.

Even Winston Churchill’s mother had a serpent tattooed on her wrist. Who knew?!

Tattooing has an ancient history and can be traced back to neolithic times with the oldest discovery of tattooed human skin found on the body of ‘Otzi the Iceman’ – dating to between 3370 and 3100 BC. The history of tattooing and women reveals quite a journey also. ‘Bodies of subversion’ by Margot Mifflin was first published in 1997, with its third edition revealed to the world in 2o13. Mifflin chronicles the history of women’s tattoo art – ‘providing a fascinating excursion to a subculture that dates back to the nineteenth-century and including many never-before-seen photos of tattooed women from the last century’. (Powerhouse Books).

Here we read fascinating tales of nineteenth century sideshow attractions – many of which explain how women were abducted and forcibly tattooed. Mifflin also reveals how in Victorian Britain, tattoos were worn as ‘custom couture’. Even Winston Churchill’s mother had a serpent tattooed on her wrist. Who knew?!

It is Olive Oatman’s story that particularly sticks with me however. The rather haunting image of Olive, dressed in typical mid nineteenth century middle America clothing, seems unusual against the tattoos on her chin. Olive Oatman (1837-1903) was from illinois. Her family were killed when she was 14 years old by a Native American tribe and she and her sister were enslaved. It is said that she was sold to the ‘Mohave Tribe’ (whom she later spoke very highly about) and then to white society. During this time her sister, Mary-Ann, died from hunger. She was 11 years old. Both sisters were tattooed on their arms and chin, in-keeping with the tradition of the Mohave Tribe.

A post shared by Hannah Pixie (@hannahpixiesnow) on

Oatman is considered to be one of the first tattooed white women in the US. Whilst Oatman’s story highlights the notion that historically, tattoos are used as part of tribal tradition and have been for many hundreds of years, it also tells us that in the mid-nineteenth century, inked women were still very much a minority.

Then came the female tattoo artist – shaking up the expectations of traditional gender roles and showing the world that tattooing was an art form that could not only be adorned by women but created by them also.

Maud Wagner is considered to be the first female tattoo artist. She was a circus performer, born in Kansas in 1877.

Whilst travelling with the circus and working as a contortionist, aerialist and acrobat, she met Gus Wagner, who became her husband; ‘Gus Wagner was known as the ‘Tattooed Globetrotter’. He was a well-known tattoo artist and one of the last tattooists to only work by hand, using the stick and poke method. Some say Gus offered Maud tattoo lessons in return for her going on a date with him, but other sources argue that Maud demanded lessons in return for said date. The jury is still out as to which is the truth, but it is evident that he taught her how to tattoo her own body, not just the bodies of others.’ (The Heroine Collective)

– Olive Oatman (left) and Maud Wagner  –

Maud also exclusively used the stick and poke method (which incidently has recently seen renewed interest as folk undergo DIY tattoos using this method or recognise the impressive artistry involved) and passed on her skills to daughter Lovetta who, although not tattooed herself, continued the family tradition. Maud died in 1961, leaving a legacy of strength and determination as a successful female tattoo artist in an undoubtedly male dominated field.

Like Wagner, Britain’s first female tattoo artist was also a circus performer as well as being a stuntwoman and an artist. Jessie Knight was born in Croyden in 1904. A ‘sharp-shooter’ in the circus for many years. She was taught by her father to tattoo in 1921 and subsequently opened her own shops in Portmouth and later, Aldershot. She continued her artistry well into the 1980s before she passed away in 1992. Knight maintained that many of her clients were women.

Today there are many established, successful female tattoo artists out there. Including Emma Kierzek, owner of Aurora Tattoo In Lancaster, UK. Emma’s work is unbelievable and she is the deserved winner of many awards (Best Realism Tattoo – 2013, Best Portrait Tattoo – 2011, Best UK Female Artist 2011). She has been tattooing for over 15 years and has worked all over Europe and the USA as a guest artist. Emma’s portrait work is quite brilliant. When I look at tattoos like this (see below), I cannot understand why some people don’t see tattoos as works of art. Exquisite and alluring, beautifully detailed – I’m often left speechless Which is unusual for me!). Check out her work here.

Although mass and social media would have us believe that women getting tattoos is a relatively new phenomena, it would seem that women, for a multitude of reasons, have been getting inked and have been respected artists in the industry for quite some time. Modern reasons for choosing this wearable form of art vary significantly and I ask myself ‘does it really matter?’ If a woman chooses to dye her hair or paint her nails or apply fake tan, she is not (generally) faced with quizzical expressions or looks of despair and disappointment as the onlooker seeks reason for such a decision about the change of appearance. Perhaps society simply can’t cope with the permanency of tattoos, which is why it stands out from other ways that people adorn themselves. It has to be said that tattoo removal via laser is big business in the 21st century, suggesting that for many, regret may have reared its ugly head.  Although painfully slow and rather costly, laser removal is more said to be more popular than ever.

Tattooing is a magical, romantic, exciting and often misunderstood art form.

Dr Matt Lodder

Discreet decorative tattoos became popular amongst women in the western world in the late nineteenth century, originating in London then heading over to New York and beyond. Discreet being the operative word here – this was still a time where heavily tattooed women were referred to as a ‘violation of nature’ no less! And sadly, although most of would like to believe this is not the case, the stigma lives on. In 2011, Toy manufacturer Mattell released ‘Tattoo Barbie’. She received mixed reviews but overwhelmingly present were the voices of distraught parents who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. One review complained “whatever next, drug addict Barbie, alcoholic Barbie?” There we have it – the connotation that women with tattoos are likely to be drug addicted alcoholics. Nice.

– Via Amazon –

So why are women with tattoos looked upon so disdainfully by some members of society? Is it because they and other types of body modification (piercing, transdermal implantation etc) question, or even disrupt the traditional notion of what a woman should be? Is it because they represent some form of independence over their own bodies? Is it because they can empower women, help them tell their story, encourage healing from a traumatic experience? Is it because they challenge the ‘types’ of bodies that society tells us are acceptable to show in public? Is it because they make us question traditional ideals of femininity and beauty? I don’t know whether any of these questions provide a suitable answer, but I do know that we need to ask them and keep asking and asking…

Over the last decade or so there has been an increase in the amount of women who have undergone a mastectomy, getting tattooed. Whether it be because they want to cover scars or to add something special  after reconstructive surgery or feel a renewed sense of ownership over their bodies, many women who have chosen to do this, describe how empowered it made them feel.

“I came up with the idea of a tattoo after seeing internet pictures but it took me some time to decide on a design. An Iris, my grandmother’s name… It has elevated my self-esteem more than I could ever have predicted. Now, when I look down, I see a beautiful piece of art rather than a scar,” – Kerry A (pictured first/left below)

These and more images available via Breast Cancer Awareness

Love them or loathe them, tattoos look like they are here to stay. Although still frowned upon by some, the beauty of this art form is becoming more and more recognised by wider society. Many people, male and female, are choosing to honour loved ones through tattooed portraits or choosing to embellish their bodies as a way of remembering a person, a song, a moment in time, a painful memory, a happy memory. Tattoos can represent so much to so many and the artistry itself is truly astonishing! All we need now is to break down those last few remaining barriers that mean people (particularly women) and their abilities are not unduly negatively judged due to them having tattoos. Hmmm, think we’ll need a sprinkling of  good luck.

Check out these amazing female tattoo artists on Instagram:

I’d  love to hear from our readers – do you already have a tattoo/s? Are you considering it? Are you completely against them for any reason? All views and opinions are welcome here.

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18 Comments

  • LOVE them on other people – they’re fascinating. Wouldn’t have one myself as I’m certain I’d dislike it eventually (unless I was a cancer survivor or something) and I’m terrified of the painful process!

    • Totally understand that Clare. Love how you refer to tattoos as fascinating – I think so too! It’s not as painful as it looks btw 😉 Cx

  • I have three tattoos. Two which would count as discreet and my first one that wouldn’t last year. I got a beautiful piece designed for my ankle that marks 2017 for me, the year I got married and the death of my beloved grand mother. Having one that’s more visible has been so liberating and I’m actually really proud of it. I love tattoos and how they are becoming more accepted. I hope they’ll age with me but whatever they mark a time in my life that I wanted to mark. Just need to decide what next!

    • Tattooed and proud!

      So wonderful to hear how your tattoos make you feel liberated Alison. I totally hear you on that front!

      I love the ideas that we carry around with us memories of significant moments in our lives. Both comforting and empowering.

      Cx

  • Great piece. I got my first tattoo over twenty years ago, and at the time, I’d have been quite happy to have been associated with criminals, carnival freaks or sexual promiscuity! It’s a small and cheesy design – a black rose – that I didn’t put a lot of thought into, but saw as a rite of passage. I still do, and I would never change it because it represents who I was in my early twenties. I’ve got five now, including two designs that were planned to be expanded. I’ve also got a wish list for when money and time permit.

    I love tattoos in general, and I particularly loathe the “what will it look like when you’re 80?” argument. Who cares? What will my face look like when I’m 80? We have such little control over things like wrinkles and scars, but tattoos are a way of marking our journey through life that we get to decide for ourselves.

    • Totally agree Sarah – I too have had the “what about when you get old” query! I really don’t want to live my life worrying about what others might think of me when I’m old – It’s a total cliche but I intend to grow old as disgracefully as possible! 🙂 Cx

  • I love tattoos as art form and I generally find most woman who have them really beautiful, though I obviously don’t like all tattoo art work.

    My sister has three tattoos, all reasonably discete. I would have gotten tattoos on a few occasions when younger but felt pressured not to by my parents’ utter dislike of them due to the associated negative symbolism and meaning. My mother said they made people look ‘cheap’, the same was said of piercings. It was less about what they thought but what they felt others would judge me for and how that would affect my job prospects.

    I choose to have my lip pierced instead as that was less permanent and when I got my first proper job I was told I would have to remove it, that’s just under 20 years ago now. Which I think now was a scandalous thing to ask.

    I still have no tattoos because I can’t handle the permanence of them.

    • I think your story is a very familiar one Steph. Many people still think of tattoos as ‘cheap’ and negative judgement is still very much out there.
      I would love to see a change in judgement in the workplace (and amongst some members of the older generation) when it comes to tattoos and piercings as they are still very much frowned upon in my experience.
      They are about as permanent as you can get, but I guess those of us with tattoos tend to go into it with our eyes wide open…Cx

  • Love this piece. I don’t have any tattoos although I quite like them on other people. The main reason being that I always thought I might regret it later. Maybe it’s just something I heard too many times! Also I didn’t think I was cool enough to have tattoos. Which is probably still true! Love the history of them and interesting how the Mojave Indian chin tattoo looks similar to the NZ Maori moko. A rich history of NZ and pacific island tattoos here.

    Reading this makes me think that I might have missed out – maybe one for my bucket list 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment Kate – I’m sure you totally qualify as cool enough for tattoos 😉

      I’d love to delve a little more into the history of women and tattoos with a focus on cultural differences. I understand that Maori women are tattooed and respected for their ink as much a men…now that’s cool!

      Cx

  • I love them…..the artistry that goes into them is wonderful and some of the realism pieces out there are jaw dropping.
    I have a female friend who was an art teacher, became disillusioned with teaching and is now a tattoo apprentice.
    I had my first one 4 years ago, just a small discreet one, and would love more but just haven’t got round to it yet!

    • Thanks for your comment Jo – you’re so right about those realism pieces…I’ve lost hours of my life to amazing Instagram accounts that document such pieces.

      How cool that your friend is now a tattoo apprentice – living the dream! 🙂

      Cx

  • This is fascinating Camilla. I have three tattoos myself, and I did have some regrets in that none of the designs are exactly what I visualised, I love them all the same now. To an extent, my first was a bit of a rebellion against the fact that my mother hates them (not that I would get one for that reason alone!) Interestingly, she’s come around to the idea a bit as mine are all quite ‘pretty’ and ‘girly’ which I think she didn’t realise was possible.
    The tribal tattoo history is interesting. I lived in NZ for seven years, and the use of Ta Moko tattooing was suppressed for many years by European culture, and then associated with gang culture. It’s fascinating and beautiful to see people reclaim their heritage and embrace traditional tattoos again.

    Thanks for the links I’m off for a mass Instagram follow now!

  • Fascinating article Camilla- I would love to do some more reading around this. I don’t have any tattoos myself (mainly as I’m horribly indecisive) but I’ve seen some fantastic artwork on others and been very envious. Maybe one day!

  • What a great article, Camilla. I wish I’d asked to examine your tattoos when we met, I do love ink!
    I got my one and only tattoo twenty years ago, and I kept it hidden from my father for a good ten years until he saw it by accident. He was very upset (unreasonably so) but I knew he would be – for all those negative reasons you mentioned. If only he knew me better!
    I’d love more ink, but don’t feel I can justify the spend on myself… Bring on a lottery win, and I’ll get myself a huge sunflower! 🙂

    • Awww thanks Vanessa – and a huge sunflower one day you will have!

      The cost is so often an issue…I would def have more if I could justify spending more money on me and not my offspring, which I can’t.

      What a shame that your dad reacted in such a way – seems so trivial to judge a person for such a thing rather than taking an interest, but such is life I guess!

      Love me Cx

  • I’ve been a lover of tattoos since I was a little girl. I was always disheartened by the negative comments that were hurled at those with body art. It didn’t discourage me from getting my own, however. My first was a butterfly on the back of my shoulder, as a birthday gift from my boyfriend (now husband). I I still love it 20 years later! I have 4 of them now, getting another next month and planning out a sleeve. My husband loves them and is my biggest supporter. In my opinion, people will always find something to complain about, tattooed or not. Life is just too short to worry about everything and everyone. Body art is a wonderful thing and I’m very proud of mine.
    Awesome article, Camilla!

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