Ultimate expression of individualism and creativity? Or a relatively cheap way to piss off your dad? Pure artistic statement? Or a symbol of feminine empowerment?
No matter where you stand on the issue of female tattoo culture, the fact remains that tattoos are more popular amongst women now than they have ever been. Whilst tattoos on girls is by no means a new phenomena, it is more prevalent today and far more widely accepted by society at large.
Maud Wagnar – 1901
Historically in Western society, tattoos signified cultural deviance or rebellious behavior and those who were tattooed were often stigmatized or marginalized as a result. Nowadays tattooing tends to focus just as much on the motivations behind the practice; on notions of decoration, protection, ritual and identification as it does on “body art”.
But whilst tattoos used to stereotypically make men sexier, too many tattoos could make a women seem intimidating. You only have to visit SuicideGirls.com to see that this is no longer the case today. Tattoos on girls are more “in” than they have ever been and alternative female beauty is being celebrated in the mainstream unlike ever before.
Bodies of Subversion, a book by Margot Mifflin, was the first photographic history of women’s tattoo art when it was first released in 1997. Sixteen years later and the book is still performing in print selling more copies than ever before.
In the book it is suggested the Queen Victoria may have had a tattoo on her vagina and that Winston Churchill’s mother was alleged to have been tattooed. In fact, famous tattooed figures are perhaps the best way to examine how the culture has changed over the eras…
Gus Wagnar, Maud’s Husband, & Client 1910
The Wild West – Olive Oatman
If the ancient Greeks were the first people to denounce the tattoo as “uncivilised” when they met their neighbours the ancient Thracians, then it wasn’t until some 2000 years later, with the story of Olive Oatman, that the idea of the tattoo as savage became engrained in our collective imagination.
Olive was raised the daughter of a Mormon family in the American west sometime around 1850. Her family were killed when she was only fourteen and she was sold into the slavery of the Mojave people – a Native American tribe. The tale of Oatman came to be retold in her “memoirs” and speeches as well as in novels, in plays and in popular later movies. The story resonated greatly with the American media, partly owing to the “prominent blue tattooing of Oatman’s face”. Years later the story continues to be circulated with particular emphasis on the monstrosity of her tattoos and perceived barbarism of her tattooers.
Olive Oatman 1895
Victorian America – Maud Wagner
Maud Wagner was a contortionist, working a traveling circus when she met Gus Wagner—a tattoo artist who described himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America“. The two were destined to fall in love and to travel the nation together pioneering what would later become American tattoo culture.
Somewhat surprisingly, inviting a tattoo artist to entertain you in your drawing room was a serious past time for many of the women from rich families. Maud Wagner is just one dramatic example of how prevalent inked skin was at the time amongst upper class women. At first only an apprentice of her husband Maud later graduated to the status of ‘artist’ herself. Together the two are widely credited with bringing tattoo artistry inland, away from the American coastal cities and towns where the practice had started and where, without the Wagners, it may well have died.
1950′s London – Jessie Knight
The Kat Von D of her day, Jessie Knight was Britain’s first professional female tattoo artist. She won the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England in 1955, way before it was commonplace for women to take up tattooing as a full time profession. She clearly laid some serious foundations for the future wave of female tattoo artists working today. Jessie and her work define the 50′s pin up style of the time precisely.
Julia Gnuse, The World’s Most Tattooed Woman
In Burma’s hilly Chin province, women have sported full-facial and body tattoos for generations, an ancient cultural tradition and rite of passage for many – it can also be seen as a sign of beauty, strength and pride. Julia Gnuse is an interesting example of how this practice has morphed, coming full circle today by being incorporated, if only by a few people, into Western tattoo culture. Cartoon art depicting the faces of pop culture characters like Snoopy and Charlie Brown have been worked into Julia’s skin in a similar tribal style to the Chilean full body covering.
This officially makes Julia the most tattooed woman alive and probably the most tattooed woman ever to have lived.