Love Affair with the Needle: Women are reclaiming their bodies through the millennia-old practice

I cannot recall when I first started noticing it, but before long I was intrigued. Stylishly dressed women my mother’s age had them on their backs and shoulders as permanent adornments. My own female friends were suddenly saving up for ankle and wrist pieces. Some were even getting elaborate floral work done on their hips and rib cages, which, by the way, are the two most painful places to get tattooed. Their determination to get inked, all the pain involved notwithstanding, led me to consider our culture’s evolving relationship with tattoos in general, and tattoos on the bodies of young women in particular.

From Taboo to Star-Power

Tattoos have always been at least a little taboo in modern western society. In fact, the last U.S. state to legalize tattoo parlours was Oklahoma, which did so in 2006, a mere thirteen years ago. Perhaps as a result of their former renegade status, tattoo parlours used to attract a mostly male clientele, and were usually frequented by those who wanted to be seen as edgy, a little on the risqué side of life. Think bikers and rock stars, to say nothing of almost every one of rap and hip-hop’s founding fathers. Even ten years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find a woman with clearly visible tattoos. Well, not anymore.

I do recall when I first knew that I wanted to investigate tattoos’ evolving place in our contemporary culture. When visiting the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a few summers back for a stellar performance of King Lear, I saw no less than fifteen young women with artful tattoos. Aha! So it is possible to be a lover of Shakespeare and of body art, I thought. For me, this was proof that contrary to what your grandmother may still think, tattoos are not an anti-intellectual, anti-establishment art form to be equated with anarchy and criminality. After all, Angelina Jolie has tattoos, and no one in his or her right mind can say that she lacks either class or glamour. In other words, yes, in this century it is possible to be both a special envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and to have a 12-inch tattoo of a Bengal tiger positioned snugly on your lower back. Now, in order to understand how we got here, it’s important to remind ourselves of this art form’s storied history.

History is rife with ink

Forget sailors and gangsters and criminals. The mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman, dating to the fourth century B.C.E., were discovered in 1991 in the Ötz Valley in Austria, and show that he had 57 carbon tattoos all consisting of simple lines and dots. This is the earliest evidence that researchers have of prehistoric tattooing practices, dating to 5 300 years ago. Ancient Egyptians also had a firmly ingrained tradition of tattooing that lasted for 4 500 years. Much like Ötzi the Iceman’s Bronze Age contemporaries, the ancient Egyptians viewed tattoos as therapeutic, and would tattoo ailing body parts for prophylactic purposes. They saw tattoos as having magical properties, like amulets, so many priestesses and high-ranking women would get tattooed to help with pregnancy and childbirth. But the ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones to extend the practice of tattooing to women.

The Siberian Ice Maiden, also known as the Princess of Ukok, is a beautifully tattooed mummy of a young woman dating back to the 5th century B.C.E. It was discovered in Russia’s Republic of Altai, in western Siberia, and was so well-preserved due to the region’s cooler climate that her tattoo designs have now spawned academic articles, as well as imitations. She was a member of the ancient nomadic Siberian people known as the Pazryk, who used tattoos to signify age, status, and family lineage. The mummy has extensive designs covering both arms, in what archaeologists are calling the earliest known example of full-sleeve tattooing. Judging from the highly elaborate tattoos of animals both real and mythic, the Maiden must’ve been a high-ranking and very powerful member of her community.

The advent of Christianity put an end to Europe’s pagan tradition of tattooing, while in the land that is now Canada, Indigenous tattooing flourished. Different nations had their own unique tattoo designs that they used to signify social rank, family lineage, clan crest, and, most importantly, their relationship to the land. However, this cultural practice, like so many others, was eventually outlawed by colonial decrees. Back in Europe, it wasn’t until the late 1700s and the tail end of the Age of Exploration that tattoos were rediscovered by European sailors as a genuine art form. By this time, European colonizers had been coming into contact with tattooed Indigenous tribes in different areas of the world for quite some time, but it really wasn’t until they made their way to the South Pacific that their perceptions of the practice started to shift. The Polynesians and the Maori of New Zealand were especially fascinating to the early explorers, who were finally able to appreciate the great skill that went into the creation of their elaborate tattoos in a time when handmade ink and tools were all that was available. In fact, the word tattoo comes from a Polynesian noun tatau, which means “a puncture, a mark made on skin.” The Polynesians got the term from the sound made by a tattoo needle being tapped into the skin. Ta-too. Ta-too. Ta-too.Sailors were the first to get tattoos in places like Samoa and Japan, and the first to learn the craft while abroad. When the modern twin-coil electromagnetic tattoo needle was patented in New York in 1891 by Samuel O’Riley, it changed the fate of tattoos. They became faster and less painful to acquire, and easier for the artist to render onto the difficult canvas material that is the human skin. Early industry pioneers such as Sailor Jerry, Phil Sparrow, and later Ed Hardy and Jack Rudy, to name just a few, led the development of the art form in different directions, creating distinct styles by drawing on the varied history of tattoos from around the world. Discrete styles emerged, from photorealistic traditional black-and-gray to tribal to Asian-inspired to old-school American. The first female tattoo artist in the U.S. was the circus aerialist, acrobat, and contortionist named Maud Wagner, who learned the trade from her fellow tattoo-artist husband. She would go on to tattoo her circus coworkers by the early 1900s.

California of the 1970s and 80s was where the tattoo renaissance really took off. As a result of it, in 2010 more than 38 percent of North American millennials confessed to having at least one tattoo, and a fifth of British adults reported to have gone under the needle. There are now magazines, conventions, and academic studies devoted to the burgeoning tattoo industry, to say nothing of the ultra-popular TV series LA Ink, which gave rise to a generation of celebrity tattoo artists, including female ones, such as Kat Von D.

In this day and age, celebrities you wouldn’t associate with ink have had work done. Adele. Scarlett Johansson. Selena Gomez. And with more female tattoo artists entering the industry, it seems to me as though women, in general, are feeling more comfortable walking into a tattoo parlour and collaborating with an artist on a custom design. Just as the tattoo industry has embraced this new customer base, offering a broader range of colours and designs geared towards different tastes and genders, women, in turn, have become less concerned about what others think of their choice to get inked, and more faithful to their own desires. This, for me, is the crux of the matter.

Since the dawn of time, our society implied that women’s bodies have two primary functions: to satisfy men, and to bear children. Women have rarely been encouraged to enjoy their bodies, to have fun with them, to make full use of what they have to offer, to embellish and enhance and decorate them as they do their living spaces. Because a body is a living space, of sorts, is it not? Over the course of an average woman’s lifespan, her body gives so much and goes through so many changes. Think pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, not to mention the physical and emotional toll of being the primary caregiver to not only children, but often also one’s parents. Perhaps one of the biggest appeals that tattoos have is the ability they give women to, quite literally and indelibly, reclaim their bodies from these myriad societal obligations as places for personal, and thus personalized, enjoyment and self-expression.

But don’t take my word for it. In order to get a wider perspective, I interviewed three women who have all had extensive love affairs with the needle. The first is Olivia, a millennial free spirit who grew up in a time when tattoos were already becoming mainstream. Then there’s Jessica, a woman who can be seen as a pioneer, playing her own small part in making the tattooed female body more socially acceptable by simply daring to be herself. Lastly, I connected with Helen, a tattoo artist working in downtown Toronto, for her insider’s take on women’s relationship with tattoos. All interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


Valeria: Tell me a little about yourself. Name. Age. What do you do? What are you like? What are your hobbies? What are some things that people would be interested to know about you?

Olivia: Hello! My name is Olivia, but many call me Bug! I am 20 years old, a Sagittarius, in my fourth year at Guelph-Humber University, studying visual communications within media! I grew up very interested in anything art related, as my grandma first introduced art to me when I was a small one. She taught me about music, visual art (she created amazing paintings) and brought me up surrounded by creativity. I've been making drawings, paintings and art collages since I was a child. I also write music and am generally interested in various different art forms such as film, photography, fashion and makeup. Overall, I try to surround myself with as much art as I can because I believe that it has an incredible power to positively connect people with each other and with the earth.

V: How did you come to the decision to get your first tattoo? What was the experience like?