"The written word may in itself be too structured to describe adequately an art form which exists through [humans'] need to express [themselves] in visual symbols." Robert Brain
This experimental photo essay is an attempt to provide a more adequate description of women and tattooing. The women photographed were asked to come as they would like to be seen. Accompanying the woman's portrait is a page in her own handwriting responding to my open-ended request to discuss her decision to get tattooed, the tattoo(s)' meaning and its (their) impact on her life.
(Editor's Note - If you wish to see a larger version of the photograph, simply click on the images on this page. Because the handwritten texts could not be read on a web page, the editor has substituted typed versions but without any modifications.)
The women's portraits and writing are as follows:
1. Rachel, 30
i got my tattoo on my 29th birthday.
it was something that i had been thinking about for at least five years.
it took a long tim for me to decide to do it, because i was intensely aware
of the fact that i would live with it for the rest of my life. i wanted
to be certain that i was going to be happy about that (as certain as possible,
that is.) it's an ancient mexican design. i don't know what it meant then.
to me it's always had a lot of personal significance. when my parents were
still together, when i was around 2, they did some jewelry making. my mother
started making a brooch of this design. she cut out all the pieces, but
never finished it. years later, i ended up with the pieces, which i still
have. i guess the design symbolizes harmony, of sorts, to me. oh, &
that people are part of a whole greater than us. but it's pretty vague &
hard to put into words that don't sound stupid to me.
my life hasn't changed much by having a tattoo. i do feel that people look at me differently becuase i have one. i think they make assumptions based on it, that i'm a specific kind of person. many people react strongly to the fact that there was pain involved in getting tattooed. even though it didn't hurt much, they seem to think it's a brave thing, ot really a crazy thing to do, something that they could never do.
it has changed my life to have a permanent mark on my body that reminds me of my past & and also of what i believe is possible for the future. it keeps me from forgetting sometimes. i also get to tell people about it when they ask me what my tattoo means, which i like.
2. Sue, 28
getting tattooed has not altered the way
i live my life in any drastic way. my tattoos are more of an expression
of drastic changes that have already taken place below the surface of my
skin. they broadcast those inside changes to the outside world. they say:
this is my body. i reject mainstream standards of feminine beauty. i reject
corporate fashions necessary impermanence, planned obsolence. i commit to
living outside the rules & privileges of good-girl prettiness.
my tattoos are adornments, but they have meaning. they communicate my values. the tattoo on my arm is a symbol of wisdom. the tattoo on my back is a symbol if deep connection to another woman. the tattoo on my ankle is a symbol of self-transformation. they symbolize some of the things i value most. when i look at my body, i see a reflection of my spirituality. not an empty corporate fashion statement.
3. Kat, 27
I've gotten most of my tattoos at significant points in my life - almost
always crossroads of some sort. The designs are personally symbolic, but
they also function as important historical markers. The peace/anarchy sign
on my leg doesn't mean the same things to me that it did when I got it,
but it serves to remind me of myself at that time in my life in a way that
nothing else can. A lot of unmarked people cringe at the idea of permanence,
but that's one of the aspects of tattoos that's most important to me.
Being tattooed has definitely set me apart from conventional people in this culture. Which is just fine - maybe even part of the point. I don't want to think that I am very much like the people who react badly to my body decoration and modification choices. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that I necessarily have a great affinity for everyone who is tattooed.
The extent to which tattoos give strangers an excuse and opportunity to talk to me in public places is amazing. People who would never speak to me under other circumstances find it totally permissable to approach me, grab at my limbs, and ask me intrusive questions. Responses vary from admiration to ignorance to falt-out rudeness. Its actually given me a chance to talk to some interesting people that I otherise wouldn't have met.
4. Emily-Kate, 26
I have one tattoo. I've wanted a tatoo for a long time but it took me
a couple years to come up with the right design. Since I'm an artist I wanted
to design it myself & since it's permanent I felt it really had to mean
something to me. I have always been fascinated with eyes/eye imagry, symbolism.
It's a constant theme in my artwork. Eyes are the first thing I notice on
people, how they look at you when they're talking to you (if they do...)
I loked the storm of St. Lucy (the patron saint of eyecare who gauged her
eyes out for a man & sent them to him because they haunted him) I got
the basic ida form my tattoo from a painting of St. Lucy and re-drew it.
I used the eyes from a self portrait ofr the eyes.
I got my tattoo in a very visible place (the front of my lower rt. forwarm) because" I wanted to be able to see my own tattoo and I also think it "protects" me from the "real" "corporate" world. People always ask me "What if you want to get a real job? I never want a real job.
The only big change since I got my tattoo is it's conversation piece.
5. Wendy, 25
my skin is a map and i won't tell WHERE or WHAT the treasure is. i'm frightened and greedy. the legend is mine and you're lost.
this is MY state MY GARDEN and i don't give directions.
6. Jenny, 23
Since my early teens I wanted to be
tattooed and I gave it alot of thought, pro and con. I guess why I wanted
to be is because I am a creative person. I don't really buy into all this
modern primitives' shit. Even tho' possibly the style of my atttoos may
look like Im into that headtrip for some.
The dseigns so have meaning + such. I am also planning whoat goes on in their design + placement + making that work together. I won't go into the particular meaning ofthem. Id some can figure it out - OK. Im not into getting that personal here,
I am on my way to be exstensively tattooed. And that is, I feel, quite a serious commitment to myself. In the way that this is what I am + am becoming. Its also a commitment to accepting the societal backlash a being a woman with big fucking tattoos all over her arms. Which also is part of what my personality is too; a woman who does it on her own terms. Im someone who never could deal with the role that Im excpeted to play.
I guess its a statement of a redically anti-conformist whoman, and in a way the commitment to that path.
7. Liat, 21
Looking at all of my tattoos I can see how they illustrate my life. They are a constant reminder of where I've been & what I've done. They remind me of things I never want to forget. People always want to know what they mean, as if they are a seperate entity from me. They are a part of me & people who know me can understand them. Other people with tattoos understand them. Tattoos make me feel whole. I can't imagine my body without them and I would not want to look at the bare parts of my body as a blank canvas that I would want to illustrate.
8. Jo-Ann, 26
My tatoos to me, show that life in
my body is not a permanent thing. My tatoos will exist on this plane longer
that I will. My tatoos mean nothing. They are ideas that me & my tatoo
artist friend came up with.
People look at me differently since I've been tatooed. I find that people approach me more readily and ask alot of questions. I find some people look at me and sneer or give dissaproving looks. I don't care. My tatoos are for me and I love them.
9. Self-portrait, 27
i've always liked looking "differently."
i think part of the urge comes from growing up on military bases. getting
involved with the punk scene as a teenager also influenced me. the potential
power of visual dissent through appearance was made really clear when my
father was transferred to Ft. Bragg, NC during my last two years of high
school. i bugged the other kids cuz i looked wierd. which was fine with
my because i hated their oppressive attitudes. i first thought about getting
a tattoo during my late teens -- they had fascinated me since i was a kid.
i waited until i was 24 -- when i was sure about the design and placement.
i have two and plan on at least one more. i think my tattoos have more that just personal meaning. i like the fact that people look at them and have to re-think their assumptions about who is tattooed -- and about how women are supposed to look and act. i never want to look like this society's ideal "woman."
10. Noelle, 22
Getting tattoed is, for me, the closest I'll ever come to an addiction. The analogy goes beyond the obvious comparison of tattoo gun to needle. The attraction is as much the process, or ritual, as the result. Just as a junkie can't say why or when s/he became an addict, neither can I. I don't remember when i initially decided I wanted a tattoo, or even seeing one for the first time. And after actually getting my first one, Egyptian eyes, I didn't think much more about it. Then impulsively I got my second, my seahorse, and even that didn't give me the bug. I waited a year between each of my next two. But in the 15 months since the fourth tattoo I've gotten my three most extensive pieces. Now I have more ideas than I have spare money or skin. Much of what I do have now I consider work-in-progress because I plan add something here or color there. My backpiece will evetaully be a depiction of conception, birth, life, and maybe death. my inspiration for designs come from appreciation or admiration of people, whether on a personal (my mom), artistic (Susan Seddon Boulet and Edward Hughes) or historical (Ancient tribes, especially Celtic) level. Persoanlly, I lack what it takes to make mental pictures visible to others, so I take my "concepts" to a tattoo artist and I become the canvas. That is tattooing on its most basic level, a form of selfexpression.
11. Alexandra, 23
I never wanted tattoos until I was about 19, and suddenly knew what I wanted and where to put them. The first was the one on my ankle, which is part of my father's family crest. The second was the Celtic one on my back.
The only tattoo that really changed my life was the next one, a white one on the inside of my wrist. It wasn't healing after a month. I started talking to someone who was about my age with a lot of tattoos - I'd never met him before - because I thought that he might know why. It turned out that we became friends and he was a tattooist, so he taught me. I've had my own equipment for about a year and a half now, and I've been tattooing out of my house.
I don't think so much about the ones I have, because they're not usually visible to me or to others. Sometimes I forget that I even have them. Whey they are visible strangers approach me and ask stupid questions."
12. Diana Nemea, 31
My tattoo is a combination of two different papyrus.f lower designs from ancient Crete. Crete is an island and as such was one of the last strongholds of the Mother culture against the waves of marauding barbarians who ushered in the dark age of the patriarchy. the papyrus flower, like the lotus, is a beautiful flower that grows up out of the mud, swamp, primeval ooze, but it also has practical use in that it was used to make the first paper. For me its a symbol of the creativity that comes from the interplay of chaos and pattern/order and also of the strength of spirit to endure through the ages. I got this tattoo several years ago from my friend colby, who also did the artwork, and it was also a way of connecting with her as she moved to Switzerland shortly thereafter. My next tattoo work will be a spiritual armband beneath the flower to involve the watery element from which it springs. For me the tattoo is a commemmoration of passage through a difficult phase of my life and an invokation of my personal power.
Many different types of people are attracted to my tattoo and ask about it. It seems to instantly communicate a part of my psyche which cannot be conveyed in words, and makes the way open for further communication on those matters. I love people and this is an interesting way to interact. I also share something in common with other tattooed people, and its as though we are all intiates into a sacred clan.
13. Jennifer, 26.
Since i've had my tatoo, weel, let's see, yes, undoubtably my life has been different ~ rather subtly though. I bear my tatoo on my left arm, + most times it is unseen. I know it's there, I feel its presence. I wanted an armband for specific reasonsI had been studying many of thr Greek epigrams, as well as the art and architecture of Ancient GreeceThe era felt close to me. So i decided that i would have an armband tatooed- the design, a variation of a corinthian vase pattern circa 400 B.C. This seemed to me to make perfect sense- woman in Greece wore their bracelets high~ I liked the idea of the tatoo~ an expression of timelessness. Sometimes i feel my tatoo, + it's slightly raised~ or other times i just visualize it + can almost feel its form- + these moments i derive a sense of strength- a blessing perhaps, or just an impluse.
14. Nathalie, 24
I have one tattoo on my upper left
arm. It is a peacock inside a paramecium. The paramecium has no significance.
The peacock was taken from lattice work on a building in Center City. As
a child, I had a mechanical peacock that was my favorite toy. I alos went
to a nursery school that had peacocks roaming around all the time.
My life hasn't been different since i got my tattoo. Although, I think older friends and family treated me a little bit suspiciously for a while.
15. Theresa, 23
I got my first tattoo when I
was 20, though I had wanted one since I was a small child. I feel very strongly
that it's important for me to wait until I know exactly what I want done
and where it goes, before having it done. I really love the permanence,
though, but since the work is forever, it's important to really think it
Since my first tattoo I use them to mark myself in ways that have meaning to me. they are decoration but not only decorative. My favorite one is the crest of St. Joan which I had done on my chest. It is very beautiful and I had it done in homage to the greatest (female) saint, one of the few who were not simple virgin/martyrs (I feel it important in my life to be neither).
My body image has improved exponentially since being tattooed. I often tell people who ask "why", that I love my body and so I decorate it. The same is true with some piercings I have. Being tattooed or peirced has made me much more aware of my skin and my flesh. In a way its fighting againstr that idea that mind/spirit is good and body is base and defiled. That Christian spirit/body split was a bad idea.
16. Heather, 25
I wanted my first tattoo to
be small so I could get a feel for the process. However I also wanted it
to be in an obvious place, so I chose my face. I had a small tatoo of a
ladybug sketched onto my right temple. I wanted a tattoo in part because
I have many scars on my body from a pregnancy, and since the birth of my
child my complexion has gone from good to rather acne prone. i had a desire,
after all of these marks I didn't ask to have, to be responsible for a permanent
brand of my own design and choosing. The choice of an insect is significant,
I would like to have several more tattoos of other members of the insect
world. I collect them and keep them, dead and living. The next one will
be a praying mantis I've had since August.
My life has not been drastically affected since my tattoo, but i have some concerns that it could be with respect to jobs. Some mainstream employees may find it strange.
The good things about my ladybug are: the original experience of having the work done was great because someone I know and like alot did it for me at it's just how and where I wanted it to be, and finally when I see my relfection I'm always thrilled to see it still there, it hasn't rubbed off yet.
17. Maura, 26
The tattoos on my left arm are psychadelic
waves, scarabs and arabesques. I find these images some how fateful as though
they were beneath my skin at birth, only waitng for the proper moment to
emerge visibly and be indelibly traced. The scarabs I have designed for
my own body hold the shapes within their folded shells of Arabian doorways,
the doorways in the crowns, godesses, snkaes that entwine and beguile humankind
through yet more doorways. Their meaning to me is of everlasting question:
What is behind the door? What is beneath the skin? What do you want to do,
Maura, and where do you want to go?
I spend most of my life eating, partying, having nice afternoon cat naps and making paintings. Tattooing other people is the income that allows me such luxury. Being so extensively auto-didactically auto-tattooed is a fine thing for me, one who will never return to the land of respectability, or even waitressing. I like my tattoos They make me feel Special. Not more powerful in defiance of the world, just more powerful in conjuring my own lovely joke of life to the surface. I believe in being my own motion picturea spectacle, some might say. In reply to the notion that the body is a temple not to be defiled, I say,"My body is a temple waiting to have its vaulted arches painted". i know that one day this temple and its queen will go the way of all things. But I certainly also know that these images, which are of everlasting question, will never die.
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