"Love life enuff to struggle." Anonymous Graffiti-writer
I found that when I mentioned my thesis topic to anthropologists and academics -- people supposedly used to viewing unaccustomed sights -- it provoked a reaction. A few professors whose daughters were tattooed attempted to discuss tattooing in an abstract theoretical manner, but were unable to escape having a negative reaction -- a reaction they intellectually know is a specific Western cultural construction. The portraits provide this kind of personal connection for the reader. They ask us to look at the women and the tattoos; to consider the visual, thus presenting the women in this thesis as complex individuals rather than invisible others.
Tattooing is visual communication that must be looked at within a given culture to understand its meanings. In the United States, these meanings exist within a set of rules and regulations; standards of appearance. The ideal beauty standard in the West is one of "femininity."
If we view the body as a site of social control and as a potential site of resistance, then it is possible to see tattooing, a practice historically linked to deviance, as oppositional. And gender is important because tattooing is not gender-neutral. For women an ideal standard of "femininity" operates. Appearance standards' social control, or power, does not play out in a directly repressive fashion, but resides in institutions, practices and images. It subtly shapes desires and subverts rebellion.
While many people denounce tattooing as mutilation, a barbaric permanent alteration and marking of the "natural" body, cosmetic surgery, which is a mutilating surgical process, is a socially-sanctioned money-making enterprise. Since cosmetic surgery's goal is to make people closer to the beauty ideal, it is an acceptable altering of the natural body; tattooing, which is outside of that standard, is not acceptable.
Despite its negative image, interest in the practice of tattooing in the West is on the rise. More women are getting tattooed and becoming tattooists. Historically, very few women got tattooed, and those who did generally stuck to a limited number of designs and placements. Although tattooing largely remains the domain of men, in the past 10 or so years, influenced by a more artistic element in tattooing, more women are choosing bolder non-traditional designs. This is indeed "new" tattooing for women -- unconventional placement, size and imagery.
New tattooing and "femininity" are exclusive categories. The visible tattoo is a powerful mark which invites the gaze on women's own terms. With the "new" tattooing, women are choosing tattoos for themselves but not as marks of possession, socially-sanctioned rites of passage or class markers. Yet tattooed women still face discrimination, even within the tattoo world. Women are still not normally comfortable or welcome in tattoo shops, so they often must find other routes for getting tattooed. The exclusion from the traditional tattoo parlor results in a different way of viewing the tattooing process. Women choose the tattooist more carefully and get to know him/her. Many learn to tattoo themselves or have friends tattoo them. Two of the women I photographed and several others I interviewed are women tattooists.
Tattooing is outside the mainstream. Since tattooed people are considered responsible for their deviance, the tattoo is especially discrediting. Societies reward their members for conforming and punishe those who do not. Often women with tattoos reject other things that go along with "normal" society. Tattooing is not from any particular class, but does determine where
one is in class status (Chapkis 1986:83); the markings are not comfortably upper- or middle-class, but are not working-class either.
I photographed seventeen women (including myself) and asked them to write about their tattoos. For the photographs, the women were simply asked to come as they would like to be seen. I did not direct them to pose in a particular manner and they chose what tattoos they wanted to show or focus on. I also interviewed other tattooed women.
Not all of the women's tattoos show in the photographs. Some even forgot that they had certain tattoos and said they usually only remembered them when people stared at them. The tattoos are more apparent in warmer weather, especially in such settings as the beach, but they are still seen by people in the winter in more intimate settings.
The women photographed are young, in their late-teens to mid-thirties, and white. The few African-American women I spoke with said that, in addition to tattoos generally not showing up well on black skin, tattooing is not generally regarded as an "African-American thing" to do. A heavily-tattooed Asian-American physics student, said that her ethnicity only adds to the stereotype of "exotic" and "strange." It was a very bold thing for her to be so visibly tattooed.
The women are an equal mix of straight, bisexual and lesbian and come from a variety of economic backgrounds, although most are not now middle-class. These are not women who are so economically privileged that a tattoo makes them merely eccentric. Few have class privilege to fall back on.
The women have diverse occupations and interests. Some of these are journalist, graphic designer, photographer, artist, massage therapist, food cooperative manager, nurse, musician, teacher, activist, mother, jewelry maker, carpenter, food service worker, non-profit literacy program administrator, retail clothing worker, physics student and graduate student.
What they have in common is that they are choosing a "new" type of tattooing to break and reject standards of female appearance. For many this symbolizes their love of and control over
their own bodies. They regard their bodies as their own to do with as they see fit. It is the permanence of the tattoo that makes it so special to them.
The following are topics that were raised by a number of the women. Various issues and themes emerged from the photographs and interviews.
Among the women I photographed and interviewed, none expressed regret or remorse at being tattooed. Indeed, the main desire seemed to be for even more tattoos. Of the seventeen photographed, only four have just one tattoo. Of those, all but one had plans for more. The majority of interviewed women are multiply tattooed.
Regret was expressed about designs. One woman originally wanted a large wrist bracelet, but her friends talked her into getting something smaller that she could hide with a watch. She said, "I don't want this tattoo photographed, it isn't what I wanted. I'm getting cover work soon to make it larger, more like what I originally wanted." Another wished she had gotten her face tattoo larger, so that it would be more prominent.
Appearance standards often are most strictly enforced at the workplace. There was a spate of "Dress for Success" books for women in the late 1970s/1980s when for the first time large numbers of women were entering certain sectors and levels of corporate America and getting elected to office. Looking like they fit the part, even though they were the "wrong sex," was half the battle. (They can't look like the secretary because that is what they are assumed to be.) Early attempts to simply transform the pinstripe suit didn't work -- it just wasn't "feminine" enough. In the workplace, generally, we must eschew individuality for uniforms and standardization, which tattoos are not.
Tattoos are not acceptable in most work areas. They are viewed in a way akin to showing underwear in public and have even been called "unhygienic." Many tattooed women reject this mainstream value. But not all can or want to, and they need to think about hiding their tattoos or facing the repercussions.
One woman who works as a nurse was told by her supervising doctor that if any of her tattoos were visible she would be fired even though a male colleague had visible tattoos. She
thinks that it might be "okay if I really regretted it. But the tattoos show through my scrubs anyway." She finds that she is able to talk to patients more, as many who are shocked by it are also curious and it becomes a topic of conversation.
One woman who has a seven-pointed star on her arm worked in a non-profit office that did not set explicit appearance standards. This didn't necessarily mean she was accepted. One of her co-workers in another department told others that the mark meant she was a Satanist and would not talk to her, often making it harder for her to conduct her work. This woman is now a journalist and reporter, and says that in certain interviewing situations, she must attempt to cover her tattoos because she can't ever predict what the reactions to them might be when she is trying to get a story, although she is generally very public about showing them.
Another woman was fired from her job because of the tattoo on her face, even though the diner she worked at allowed tattoos on other areas of the body. The owner and customers could not accept that she had chosen to mark her face, and she was fired for disrupting the work atmosphere with her tattoo.
One of the women models for art classes and found that while at first it was not a problem, there have been complaints about her from teachers and students because she is tattooed. Although she still is able to work, her status is much less certain. She noted that some of the students will draw or paint on the tattoos, treating them as if they are part of her body, while others ignore them.
Some women are able to hide their tattoos in certain situations, but others aren't and must find work outside the mainstream. This often suits them fine. A number have worked in bars and in food service jobs, and although they are often harassed by the customers, they are able to dress more as they want.
For many women, the tattoo's connection to deviance and masculinity makes it powerful. One woman said that when she wears short sleeves, the patrons of the bar she works at say, "But
we thought you were a nice girl." She said she confronts them for making assumptions that tattoos automatically make women not "nice."
Many of the women expressed the feeling that now that there is more mainstream interest in tattooing there will be fewer problems with their being visibly tattooed. However, a number expressed dismay that tattooed women in fashion magazines are viewed only as "sexy" and said they hope this doesn't cause people to treat them more sexually.
Some of the women are conscious that getting tattooed is an act of rebellion, claiming one's body and defying convention. For one woman, it was tattooing's link to non-Western, non-Christian cultures that made her decide to get one. As a woman who rejects the values of Christianity and the patriarchy, she sees it as tying her spiritually to a pagan past. Another woman began getting tattooed during her years as a teenage runaway on the streets of New York. She wanted to express her disaffection with society and tattooing was her vehicle.
Others are much more direct in their opposition and find tattooing both a meaningful practice on the personal level and a useful practice on the societal level -- thus marked they cannot be easily assimilated or converted and they will always be different. Two women even mentioned the tattoo as a sort of talisman, or protection, against the corporate world. These women are defiantly breaking ideas and preconceived notions of women who have tattoos.
Loving one's body, decorating it and creating meaning was mentioned by a large number of the women. Many of the women's bodies even without the tattoos do not fit into the paradigm of what is considered beautiful and acceptable for women. They find that tattoos have helped them love their bodies just as they are, to exhibit them, invite the gaze and feel no shame.
One woman says: "I always hated parts of my body -- thought I was too fat, even though I was nothing of the kind. Even though I worked through a lot of issues about my size over the
years, I still couldn't bring myself to wear any sleeves that weren't down to my elbows. When I decided to get a tattoo, I realized that I really wanted it on my upper arm. Since then I've been really proud to show it off and have really overcome much of my negative feelings about my body. I feel proud to be who and how I am. It reminds me that I can be me and not struggle to fit someone else's ideal."
Pain and permanence are two of the things that make tattooing a powerful practice. Many people's first impulse when they see a tattoo is to ask about the pain. They seem to think tattooing is usually a brave macho thing and have a hard time understanding how a woman could stand it. One woman usually retorts, "Well, your mother went through more pain to get you here."
Tattooists who have been working for a long time often say that women are better to work on than men because they can handle the pain better and sit still longer. But this doesn't stop men tattooists who have not had many women customers or who have not been tattooing long from bringing sexist notions into the tattoo parlor. One woman had two bad experiences at tattoo parlors. She got her first wrist piece to celebrate her sixteenth birthday. The tattooist in the shop at first refused to do it, not because of her age, but because he didn't "want to deal with [her] making [him] stop in the middle of it." When she convinced him to tattoo the piece she said, "He treated me like trash." When she went to get an ankle piece done, the nephew of the tattooist she was waiting for told her she shouldn't get it, she couldn't handle the pain, women are too sensitive, etc. Only when she showed him her wrist and extensive body tattooing did he acquiesce.
Most of the women were reluctant to tell family members about the tattooing, and several haven't yet. One woman didn't tell her parents for two years fearing their reaction, but finally figured she couldn't hide the tattoos any longer. Another is showing them to her parents slowly -- they only know about a fraction of the tattoos that she has. One woman tried to show her mother who ignored the fully visible tattoo and refused to talk about its existence. Another woman who has a matching hand tattoo with her sister, said her parents' Jewish faith provoked a negative
reaction, due to the edict in "Leviticus" forbidding permanent marks on the body.
Another said that her father hates the fact that she is heavily tattooed, but not because she is a woman or his daughter, but because he is gay and for him tattoos symbolize a homophobic, macho, military aesthetic. This same woman's mother tells all of her friends about her daughter's tattooing before they meet her. She said, "She doesn't really accept it, but this way her friends won't think that it has anything to do with her. She beats them to the punch, before they can say how weird I am."
Another recurring theme is that tattoos mark certain events or periods in one's life. For some women, the tattoo represents the place and time of the tattooing, although the tattoo's meaning has now changed. For others the design itself is representative of a certain event or time in her life. Five of the women photographed have matching tattoos, all with another woman whom they consider their best friend. Tattoos can function as rituals in women's lives which might not include the traditional markers of marriage and motherhood.
Another issue mentioned repeatedly by all the women was increased communication with strangers, which is one clue that tattooing is still not considered "normal." This particular theme, which was brought up over and over again, is not really mentioned in any other literature about tattooing but is a key point. Tattooing provokes a reaction of some sort, it breaks some sort of cultural barrier, shaking up normal interpersonal ways of relating. This communication can be positive or negative.
A common question is "Can I touch it?" Reasons for this vary from curiosity as to how the tattoo might feel to the demand for male privilege to violate a "deviant" woman's space. Other common responses are the question "Did that hurt?" and disapproving looks.
Non-traditional tattoos prompt people to ask "Why did you get that?" or "What does it mean?" This querying opens up communication and allows people who are often wondering why a woman would choose to mark herself with a design they don't recognize as immediately
decorative to reconsider their assumptions of how people should look. With it comes questioning of the idea that one's body is "public property" that it is supposed to conform to certain rules.
Another woman who is tired of discussing her tattoos talks about writing her answer to my question as a poem: "i wrote this poem about a week ago, got sick of folks asking me 'is that an oil rig?' don't take it personally -- i just get tired of trying to explain things that don't fit into words to people i couldn't care less about. if i had to explain, i'd say that my markings are a very intimate map of the places i've been and the people i've met...i don't care if it confuses everyone else, it all makes perfect sense to me."
This new style of marking represents the act of taking something that was once stigmatized, gendered and generally hidden and using it to create personal meaning and subvert norms. These women are not just simply picking a design from a wall, but they are creating something unique with meaning for them, even if that meaning is shaped jointly with the tattooist.
Finally, tattooing also is about creating community. I was able to meet, talk with and photograph women more easily because I am tattooed. Tattooed people share something with each other. This is useful because tattooing may never be completely accepted in the West, and will be even less accepted for women than men. But when people who are not expected to have tattoos do, or when the marks aren't simple recognizable decorations, there is a level of curiosity or interest among the non-tattooed..
How does this change anything? By forcing people to look at and either accept or deal with the phenomenon. Because tattooing goes deeper than fashion, it is also more meaningful, more challenging. It is subversive to create permanent meaning and fix an image in a society where constantly shifting images is the norm. The tattoo makes it more difficult for women's bodies to be multifunctional -- to change looks at whim.
Is resistance still resistance if women don't think of it as such? It can be because of tattooing's history and its relation to beauty standards. Tattooing is not going to change the world
necessarily, but in a small way it challenges the complete control of women's bodies. Women are claiming their bodies and marking them in a way that counters traditional standards of "femininity." Tattooing helps women to control their body image.
Finally, alternative images in the form of photographs break down hegemony. The tattooed woman presents another image option for women in a forceful way that cannot be easily dismissed. With tattooing, women are taking a symbol of "deviancy" and using it to seize power in a sexist society.
As an initial attempt to combine these media, this project works on a number of levels; the images were interesting, the handwritten text included information not volunteered during interviews and the topic is situated within a historical context. A tension remains between the photo essay and my written text. Photography's power is in its ability to make statements that words cannot. The photographs "show" the phenomenon of tattooing and work well with the women's handwritten text, but it has been a struggle to find a way to make the connection with the photographs and my text more explicit.
These photographs are not just illustrations, they are visual communication. But it is difficult to "talk" about the photographs and the information that they provide without resorting to empty adjectives. Even though we are a visual society, we are not yet visually-literate. Can photographs be anything more than just entertainment, intellectual or otherwise? Yes, but until people begin to think of images as text, photographs must be presented in ways that stress their informational rather than aesthetic aspects.
This is why intent, why the photographs are included at all, is critical. For my project, the purpose for including the images was a central idea in the thesis as well -- to work against image hegemony and idealized standards. Tattooing is a visual phenomenon and the photographs show what I am describing in the written text. The images present the tattooed women in a non-exploitative manner, countering current representations.
Finding a method of photographing was hard without a good model. More diversity in the photographs would add to the project, as would more time for fieldwork. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the beginning of my research discussing my ethical concerns about taking portraits, and I did not find a method that felt completely comfortable. What I ultimately realized was that it is important to begin to make images with these concerns in mind, and to try to find collaborative means of representation.
An issue brought up by one of the women photographed was that although I did not pose them, they could not really control how they posed because of the conventions surrounding portrait photography and their awareness of those conventions. She thought that the process was collaborative within those conventions, which give me final author status. I am not sure whether it is possible to eradicate people's preconceptions of portrait photography. I initially tried to photograph the women while they were going about their daily routines, but the photographs were not interesting and tended to hide my place as photographer. I settled on the simple backdrop with natural lighting as the best method.
As with current efforts to rethink the written ethnography, it will take more anthropologists and photographers working to combine visual images and social theory to develop adequate models. Hopefully, this thesis is a step toward recognizing that the use of visual media is important in anthropology, as well as presenting an example of women's resistance to social control.
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