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Technology of Ink: A study of the implications of tattoos on gender identity

…….One of the greatest problems in modern analytic philosophy is the relationship between the mind and the body: the dualist theory of separation between the physical and non-physical. Although throughout the semester, we have discussed the concept of gender – the many interpretations of the male, the female, and the in-between and the implications the concept of gender has on modern society, I believe that there is a distinct difference between the physical male and physical female human, but the mind is nonaligned. Throughout history, we as human beings have been transforming, altering, and mutating our physical bodies to become closer and closer to our mind’s interpretation of perfection. Each alteration we make is conscious, premeditated and thus, a connection between what we mentally think and what we physically do must exist. Therefore, I would like to examine the implications of body alterations, specifically the tattoo. By the end of this exploration, I would like to present the history of tattoos and how they have changed in meaning and significance over time and the impact tattoos have on our identity as gendered humans, specifically for women.

…….Tattoos have had a cultural and social significance across the world for thousands and thousands of years. Over time, the meaning and significance of the tattoo has varied and altered. “The record of human history shows that tattoos have served in many various and diverse cultures as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talisman, protection and as the marks of outcasts and convicts.”[1] The first tattoo was discovered on the mummified body of “Ötzi the Iceman” in the Alps, dating back to 3300 B.C. His fifty-seven tattoos consisted of horizontal, vertical lines and random dots, located on various joints across his body. Though arguable, the most common reason for the existence of these tattoos was for medicinal purposes, as the sites are now used pain relief through acupuncture.[2]

…….The oldest known picture tattoos were found in Southern Siberia. A row of graves were found in the Altai Mountains, where a chieftain was discovered with various totem and game animal tattoos.[3] However, the most famous illustration of tattoos was those of the Egyptians dated back to 2000 B.C.. These tattoos were found on women. Tattoos in ancient Egypt were an exclusive female practice, signifying that the women were of “dubious status,” or a part of a “royal concubine.” Some tattoos represented pregnancy and birth. Common patterns, such as a net-like distribution were inked onto the abdomen and breasts and expanded in a “protective fashion” as the woman grew during pregnancy, thus deeming Egyptian tattoos gendered as female in practice.[4] In ancient Greece and Rome, tattoos were marks of power, ownership and criminality. The Greeks associated tattoos with barbarians.[5] The practice was used to differentiate the “undesirables” from the rest of the community. In the Roman era, slaves were tattooed on their forehead with the phrase “Tax Paid.” However, it was not until the Christians were tattooed by the Roman government, did a tattoo transform from “a mark of punishment…into a mark of glory, honor and a victory of God’s power.”[6] Tattoos then started to diminish in the middle ages after the ban by Pope Hadrian in A.D. 487 but continued to have a strong significance in cultures of the East. For example, Japan focused more on face tattoos as a sign of the untouchable class.

…….Finally, after years of fading, tattoos came back into Western culture during the rise of colonialism. Captain James Cook, of the British navy brought back a native from Tahiti, Omai. He was inked and used the word ta-tu, or tatau, the Tahitian word for “to strike”[7] to describe his body art. Since then, sailors were one of the first to integrate tattoos into Western culture, peaking during the time between World War I and World War II. Tattoos were thought to be patriotic, especially in the United States.[8]­ “After WWII, tattoo popularity started to decline in America as tattoos lost their patriotic appeal and became instead associated with bikers and criminals who appeared defiant and rebellious. The 1961 outbreak of hepatitis further cast tattooing in a negative light, and very few people wanted to get them.” [9]­ It started to become very masculine, and women who participated in this culture were lesbians or scags. [10]­ In the 1970s, tattoos became a reflection of the social movements during that time, including the peace movement and the fight for gay and women’s rights. They became less and less of a working class mark to a middle class form of artistic expression.

…….Though it is important to note the number of cultures that have used tattoos as a form of identification, this paper will focus more on the implication of Western tattoos. “…Western tattoos, in particular, literalize the vision of the body as a surface or ground onto which patterns of significance can be inscribed. They thus serve as a useful metaphor in our exploration of theories that posit culture as ‘writing on the body.’ Indeed, the relationship between Western tattoo and the body, most commonly one of self-contained images which relate to the body as imposition, may contribute to Western imagery of culture as something imposed from the outside.”[11] Tattoos are a form of skin modification, which represented, symbolized, and illustrated stories deemed important by the individual and the culture. In terms of identity, the tattoo is considered an illustrative extension of the natural body on the skin for both men and women. However, there is a difference in the identity of men and women, when it comes to the presence or absence of tattooed skin. “…The notion that tattoos are primarily sought by men as a mark of identity, symbolizing personal interests, associations and most generally, a rebellious masculinity…[is true, yet]…applied to a woman, they indicate not her identity, …[but a] mark in order to exist, [for] women who are ready to be identified.”[12] These gender differences allow for the discussion of female gender identity and the implications that tattoos have on this formation of character.

…….The formation of the female identity has changed a great deal throughout the history of tattoos. The first public depiction of female tattoos was on Circus Ladies. Circus women were “tattooed attractions” on display at freak shows in the late 19th century. “As the popularity of freak shows grew throughout the century, a combination of economic need and the growing post-war influx of women into jobs outside the home emboldened them to pursue this tantalizingly lucrative livelihood.”[13] These women would be inked from head to toe for the sole purpose of a costume, for a job. The identity of a circus lady was not associated with liberalization and respect, but of capitalism and a business investment. “Tattooed circus ladies may have sacrificed social respectability for their vocation, but they were rewarded with travel, money, and public recognition, as well as an active social circle that, for those who were disowned by disapproving relatives, functioned as a family.”[14] It was not until society women, the socialites, began to take interest in the tattoo culture, did inking have positive associations.”Tattooing experienced a revival during the 1920s and the suffrage movement; it became in vogue among the upper classes to have a tattoo.”[15] This was challenge for women identification, as the female was initially associated with nature, the primitive, and the [pure, unmarked] body.[16] Tattoos were not hidden behind clothes in the 1920s, countering the identity of feminine conformity seen a century before.

…….Fast-forward to the late 1960s, where the counterculture movement of peace and freedom instigated the revival of the tattoo. Women were questioning their womanhood and a radical reaction was to get inked, to become different, and counter the norm. “…Men got tattooed just to get tattooed, whereas almost all women were getting tattooed for a reason.”[17] Tattoos were a gender role violation for women and evaluated negatively by society as a social outcast or rebel. Fortunately, in the 1970s, women inked as a means of protestation. However, the backlash of the women’s movement in the 1980s changed the attitude towards women’s tattoos. Tattoos, in a way, represented women’s rights; a fight for feminism and the counter-norm so a negative attitude towards tattoos seemed logical, yet obviously unfair. “Critics of women who use tattoos as a means of empowerment often question its “real world” impact, arguing that tattooing shifts the focus of women’s issues from society to the self; that tattooed women are empowered only in their minds…[In addition,]…women’s tattoos do have “real world” ramifications to the extent that they defy conventional standards of feminine beauty and force the recognition of new, largely self-certified ones.”[18] Tattoos were no longer a form of art; it is a stain on the pure skin of a woman.

…….A study on the factors that influence attitudes towards women with tattoos concluded that “given the cultural constraints on women’s appearance norms and on gender role violations, more generally,…size and visibility of a woman’s tattoo would affects the reactions to her,”[19] and this was most apparent during the 1980s. The most important factor of this study was the actual design and placement of the tattoo – there are gender-normative tattoos for women: small and hidden. In addition, it claims that “women with tattoos are viewed as more powerful and less passive than women without tattoos. [Yet, our culture views] passivity and weakness as socially desirable traits for women.”[20] The study argues that in a counter-culture where the strength of a woman is important, there would be a positive attitude towards women with tattoos in society,[21] contradictory from what we have been discussing thus far. Two important conclusions were made: tattoos can either symbolize freedom from gender norms or, the opposite – a threat to a woman’s traditional place in society.[22] Consequently, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the female body gained independence. Women were cosmetically reconstructing their bodies, from bodybuilding to plastic surgeries to inking and piercings. There were two kinds of women during this decade, the one that wanted to fit in and the one who wanted to stand out. The first woman would get plastic surgery to become closer and closer to perfection. The second woman would get tattooed for the means of self-validation and nonconformity. Feminism during this time of reconstruction and rebellion was split into a dualist representation of female gender identity.

…….The rise of the punk age popularized tattoos as a rebellious fashion in the 1980s. It became a staple illustration of the rebellious generation, where it was all about a tough image, and health concerns did not matter. Women were more aware of their power and inked more visible and larger tattoos on their skin. Additionally, women considered placement of the tattoo more significantly in terms of the image and identity they wanted to give off to society. Women are heavily scrutinized for the placement of their tattoo, as the study discussed above showed. There are “girly” places, such as the wrist, ankle and shoulder, and more provocative places such as the pelvic bone and lower back. Depending on where the tattoo is inked, the implications are more or less unforgiving. Another article, discussed the “infamous tramp stamp” – a very recognizable name for a lower back tattoo. The ‘tramp stamp’ is assumed to have associations with sexual liberation, curiosity and confidence – typically illustrated negatively. This was another implication of tattoos on women, as the ‘tramp stamp’ was both liberating and inhibiting as in the formation of some sort of female gender identity.

…….However, there is another aspect of the tattoo world that I did not mention: that of a woman tattooist. In terms of gender identity and the implications of the occupation of tattooing for women, “the issues of sexism and separatism in the tattoo world divide women along the same feminist/post-feminist lines that define similar debates in mainstream culture: there are those that accuse women who’ve been helped by men of being blind to the inequities of the profession because they received special treatment, and others who say women artists who cry sexism are simply lamenting their own less than stellar careers.”[23] Female tattooists have almost never been accepted as an expert in the profession. Female tattooists focus on legitimizing their art, not themselves. As I presented earlier, it is the wearers of the tattoos that fight to justify their actions in our society. However, tattooing became popularized by the rise of the music culture and Hollywood in the 1980s. The larger public came to know about tattoos, formed stigma against it, yet in a way, accepted them.

…….Because of the popularization of tattoos for both men and women became more and more mainstream, “…[tattoos] lost much of their ability to outrage.”[24] Tattoos do not have to be permanent, which gave it its initial legitimacy as the mark of a rebel. There are permanent tattoos, vanishing tattoos, semi-permanent tattoos, temporary tattoos, sticker tattoos, clothes that look like tattoos, and more. Tattoos have become a trend, accessible to anyone and everyone. From A.D. to now, they have transformed from a rebellious concept to a fashion statement. Tattoos are more popular, much more socially accepted, and viewed as a form of art that does not inhibit the functioning of the inked individual. Tattoos have extended beyond class, race and gender and are not a passing trend. Tattoos have become a statement of uniqueness and creativity. It denotes a passion for art, music, politics, love, and sex. The technology of getting a tattoo has advanced over the many years, designs have become more refined, and colored ink has been incorporated. In addition to being fashionable, women are now inking themselves for subtle sex appeal, both for their own self-confidence and to share publically. Mary Jane Haake, an artist from Portland, Oregon, wrote her undergraduate thesis on the importance of tattooing. She claims that,

“ [in] all societies, the man or woman who is not decorated in some way – changed from their natural state – is, in a sense, decoratively inarticulate…body decoration is a type of language or code, which is spoken through hairstyles, mutilation (pierced ears), tattooing or painting (makeup). In the West, because of our obsession with clothing for almost all parts of the body…we have restricted the amount of skin available to be used as a cosmetic language. Most of us have forgotten that perhaps the first works of art dedicated to the combination of form and color were carried out on the skin.”[25]

However, in modern society and in the last three decades, individuals have found skin as a crude canvas to express their identity; tattooing is no longer taboo. We have gone back to the first works of art and are “getting inked” now more than ever before.

…….Getting inked has many implications. Tattoos have had a long history and the significance of inking has changed over time. Tattoos are a gendered concept, having an impact on our identity as gendered humans. Women took much of the burden as tattoos evolved over time, as they were expected to justify their act of inking no matter how society was reforming. There is much cultural significance of tattoos across the world, but in the West, tattoos went from a notion of patriotism to a mark of rebellion to a form of artistic expression to a fashion statement. Gender identity has been formed and transformed as the significance and meaning of the tattoo evolved. Women with tattoos were once homosexuals, tattooed attractions making a profit, radicalists, tramps and eventually, statements of uniqueness and creativity. The implications of tattoos in the “real world” were more or less unforgiving, given the time and image that tattoo had in history. However, after this exploration, I can conclude that there is some sort of association between tattoos and gender identity in women, as they had to and are still fighting for the freedom to ink.

[1] Hemingson


[3] Krcmarik

[4] Lineberry







[11] Mascia-Lees 147

[12] Mascia-Lees l 152-153

[13] Mifflin 12

[14] Mifflin 32

[15] Hawkes 594

[16] Mascia-Lees ?

[17] Mifflin 57

[18] Mifflin 117

[19] Hawkes et al 602

[20] Hawkes et al 602

[21] Hawkes et al 601

[22] Hawkes et al 603

[23] Mifflin 163

[24] Mifflin 156

[25] Mary Jane Haake, quote

Works Referenced

“A History of the Tattoo.” Socializing Bodies. 26 July 2008.

…… 10 May 2009


Hawkes, Daina, Charlene Y. Senn, Chantal Thorn. “Factors That

…….Influence Attitudes Towards Women with Tattoos.” Sex Roles

…….50(2004): 593-604. Print.

Hemingson, Vince. “Tattoo Culture.” The Vanishing Tattoo. 1999. 10

…….May 2009 <


Krcmarik, Katharine L.. “The Art of Tattoo.” History of Tattooing.

…….April 2003. Michigan State University. 10 May 2009


Lineberry, Cate. “Tattoos .” The Ancient and Mysterious History. 01

…….Jan 2007. Smithsonian. 10 May 2009



Mascia-Lees, Frances E.. Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment:

…….The Denaturalization of the Body in Culture and Text. 1st. New

…….York City: State University of New York Press, 1992. Print.

Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and

…….Tattoo. 1st. New York City: Juno Books, 1997. Print.

“Tattoos.” The History of Tattoos. 2009. 10 May 2009