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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?

O: As a wide-eyed kid, I dreamed about growing up and covering my body in tattoos. When I started high school, I experimented with stick-and-pokes on myself as my craving for tattoos grew. I got my first “real,” paid-for tattoo when I turned 18, after I had returned from a pilgrimage I did in Northern Spain back in 2016. The pilgrimage is called Camino de Santiago, and its symbol is a scallop shell. I was enchanted by Spain and this incredible adventure and simply wanted to commemorate the journey with a tattoo. That’s what my first one represents. A scallop shell with a rosebud replacing a pearl. It was based on a drawing of mine that the amazing Jennifer Lawes had redrawn and improved, and it truly means a lot to me.

V: Please tell us about your tattoos. What inspired them? What style are they in? What do they mean to you?

O: The three on my left arm were original sketches I created myself and then were redrawn by the wonderful artists to fit their style. The mushroom and moth (both done by Maxine Mahood) join the shell and form some kind of medieval garden on my arm, but there really isn't any rigid concept behind anything. I just liked some of my drawings and wanted to decorate my arm with them. On my right arm, I've got one of my favourite pieces ever. It was done by my very close friend, Mariya Granich (@knucklenotches), who creates incredibly captivating and beautiful art. This piece is called “The Kiss,” and it is an image of an extraterrestrial about to kiss a human. Having an art piece done by a friend that is so close to me is something I will cherish forever, so this one is very important to me and always makes me smile.

V: In Western culture, tattoos have traditionally been a mostly male domain. What does being a young woman with body art mean to you?

O: I think society often forces women under specific labels. I see it all the time. For example, women with lower back tattoos have been ridiculed for having “tramp stamps” for years. The lower back tattoo on women is constantly sexualized, as if it somehow suggests that a woman wants to have sex. The patriarchal control over women's bodies is absurd and still very real, even though now more women are tattooed than were 20 years ago. It’s a liberating feeling to be able to express myself and my love for art on my body. I hope that other women aren't afraid to make their own decisions about their bodies. I hope that we can come together to celebrate everyone’s bodies and choices in positive ways.

V: Have you ever faced opposition from friends, family, or loved ones based on your decision to get tattooed? Have you ever encountered opposition in society (school, work, etc)? Have you ever been stereotyped a certain way based on your tattoos?

O: It’s tricky with family because they grew up in a generation that wasn’t as progressively accepting of tattoos, so I understand where their concern comes from. The fight for acceptance is a struggle for many young, creative individuals. I have had to cover my tattoos before job interviews in fear of being rejected. I have had to cover my tattoos from family members to prevent unwanted negative conversations regarding my body choices. It is truly heartbreaking to have to consciously hide art that is such a big part of you out of the fear of being misunderstood.

V: Do you think that our society’s perception of women with tattoos is changing? Please elaborate/give examples.

O: I do believe that society is becoming more accepting of this art form. I am truly privileged to have my tattoos, be able to afford them, and wear them proudly. I want people to be more open to art in general. I want it to be acceptable for women to make whatever choices they please regarding their bodies. I hope more and more people realize that art is important and a positive way to bring people together.


V: Please tell me a little about yourself.

Jessica: My name is Jessica Silva. I am 53 years old, and I worked in media sales for most of my life. I am now a vintage curator. I find myself to be a very caring person, especially towards elderly people. My hobbies are going to the gym and practising yoga on a daily basis. I would like people to know that I am a loyal and caring person and friend.

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

J: I was very young when I had my first tattoo. I was a bit of a rebel back then, as my mom would say. I honestly did not know that getting a tattoo would be so addictive. For me, it is a form of self-expression.

V: Please tell us about your tattoos. What inspired them? What style are they in? What do they mean to you?

J: The most important of all my tattoos would have to be the vertical line running from my wrist to my ankle. I had this done when I turned 50, and it's a yoga alignment tool as well as a reminder of how well I am doing mentally, emotionally, and physically. I also have two stars above my breastbone, and they represent my children. I have 29 stars running from the neck down to my left arm, and that is my favourite soccer team from back home that had won 29 championships at the time of me getting this tattoo. My tattoos help me tell a story. I use my body as my canvas.

V: In Western culture, tattoos have traditionally been a mostly male domain. What does being a woman with body art mean to you?

J: I believe as women we are empowered to do anything and everything men can do. There is never a limit to what we can achieve and do.

V: We know that it is now becoming more and more common for millennial women to get tattoos. Are you seeing a similar trend emerging among older women?

J: For sure, women are now more secure of themselves than ever before, and this gives them the assurance to do as they please.

V: Have you ever faced opposition from friends, family, or loved ones based on your decision to get tattooed? Have you ever encountered opposition in society (school, work, etc)? Have you ever been stereotyped a certain way based on your tattoos?

J: My Mom has never been too fond of tattoos, but she has learned that this is something that reflects me as a person and makes me happy.

V: Do you think that our society’s perception of women with tattoos is changing? Please elaborate/give examples. I do think that it’s changing, little by little, especially in the West.

J: I think that as more women get tattooed, it will be seen as something that is positive rather than negative, something that is less about rebellion and more about aesthetics and self-expression.


V: Please tell us a little about yourself.

Helen: My name is Helen. I am a tattoo artist. I started drawing at a very young age, essentially, as soon as I was able to hold a pencil in my hand. My love for art and drawing was as evident as my belief in art. I love watching movies and working out during my spare time.

V: How did you become a tattoo artist?

H: By following a lifelong passion for creative self-expression. Tattooing came naturally to me. I was a graphic designer for about a year before I became a tattoos artist. I got really tired of being a graphic designer because I could not fully express my artistic vision in this job. So I quit and dove right into the tattoo industry, never looking back. My tattoo style is known for its femininity and versatility that offers individuals elegant, delicate pieces that embellish and flow well with the body’s natural contours.

V: Over the course of your career, have you noticed any prominent shifts in the demographic of your clientele? Are more young women getting tattooed now than when you first started? What about older women? Are you seeing any trends emerging?

H: My clientele is primarily female. I feel there is definitely a shift in people who are interested in tattoos, especially with the emergence of social media. For example, with Instagram artists are able to show their artwork in an open space, giving them the opportunity to put together a portfolio that can easily be accessed by potential clients. Prior to this, tattoo parlours were very private, and most artists relied on word-of-mouth, so marketing was highly restricted. I have clients who are over 60 years old, but I wouldn’t call them “older” women because I feel there shouldn’t be a “suitable age” for getting tattoos. For me, tattoos should be marks you engrave to symbolize where you are in your journey through life. We should embrace the experience and the artwork from a judgment-free perspective.

V: Have you ever faced opposition from friends, family, or loved ones based on your decision to become a tattoo artist?

H: I am very lucky to have support from my friends and family. Most of them have known me long enough to say that they are not surprised by this decision I made.

V: What is it like working as a tattoo artist in a mostly male-dominated industry? Are you finding that the industry is becoming more open to female artists?

H: “Male-dominated industry” is definitely not the right term to describe the tattoo industry now-a-days. I find many popular tattoo artists in Toronto, and they are all women or LGBT artists. I feel this new emerging wave of tattoo-art awareness brought on by social media is definitely changing the image of tattoo artists, showing people that we are friendly and all have our own unique artistic style.

V: Do you think that our society’s perception of women with tattoos is changing?

Yes, indeed. Back in the old days, women with tattoos got labelled as being “easy-to-get.” Now, if you go on Instagram and search for women with tattoos, you will see that most of the photos are not sexual at all. They are mostly of women with very amazing tattoos that are smartly designed to express their personality. One girl had her whole body tattooed with abstract lines that look like seaweed. The flow of the tattoo goes perfectly with the curve of her body. This work really spoke to me because it does not convey any literal meaning, like most tattoos do, but simply embraces the beauty of free flow and natural curve.


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