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Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (PHOTOS)

Would it surprise you to learn that more American women than men have tattoos?

Would you be shocked to learn that tattoos were a trend among the upper class during Victorian times and considered a fashion trend?

Do you know the first documented white woman to get a tattoo in the United States?

When the book Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo was first released in 1997 it was the first history of women’s tattoo art. Author, Margot Mifflin, updated the introduction for a new edition in 2001 then updated and expanded it in the third edition because so much has happened for women in tattooing over the past decade: more women are tattooed, more women are doing great work as tattooists, and, for the first time in history, more women are tattooed in the U.S. than men. (According to the latest Harris Poll, tattooed women (23%) now outnumber men (19%) in the U.S.)

The book is a real page-turner, not only because of Mifflin’s superb research and writing but the photos she chose for the book are simply jaw-dropping. Bodies of Subversion is a riveting journey to a subculture that existed long before you thought it was around. The book contains many never-before-seen photos of tattooed women from the last century, many of which you’ll see below.

Mifflin tells me she “wanted to write a cultural history documenting the ways tattooing reflects western women’s evolving public image and self-presentation over the past 150 years. I was interested in the history of both circus women and leisure collectors, and in how tattooing relates to other disciplines like fashion, visual art, performance and body art, and literature, especially in the past few decades.”

She hopes readers will see the ways “tattoos can serve as a historical texts that tell us so much about ourselves sociologically—about women’s sense of their own self-determination and body image over the decades. And that goes both ways—it reveals ways we degrade ourselves as well as embellish ourselves.”

Not only that but Mifflin hopes the book might help deter a new generation of women from thoughtlessly seeking a tattoo and even prepare them for the beating society is about to give them about their bodies.  “Secretly I’ve always hoped it would introduce young women to the basics of cultural criticism and raise their consciousness about the semiotics of tattooing before they take the big plunge and end up wearing something forever that may have meaning they didn’t fully consider when they got tattooed. We’re all perpetually obsessing about our bodies and our beauty for one reason or another—I hope the book helps put those obsessions in perspective, so that women who celebrate their bodies with tattoos can do it with sense of artistic and cultural literacy.”

The book has changed the way I feel about tattoos. Truly. I’ve gone from passive, silent ridicule of the “Tramp Stamp” so often seen on women today to feeling awe, respect and even empowerment when viewing the tattoos of the women featured in the book. Much of my tattoo scorn stems from the fact that I ignorantly got a stupid flower on my toe when I was 15. It’s not that I hate having a tattoo so much as, like Mifflin mentions, I wish I had put some thought into it and worked with an artist to create a design that means something to me. Something artistic and beautiful with a story behind it. Instead, like a million women who went before me, I have a stupid, meaningless tattoo.

Below are a few more of Mifflin’s thought-provoking answers to questions posed to her via email.

Why do you think no one else has really tackled the subject of women ant tattoos before?  There are a number of reasons. Because it doesn’t fall squarely into any single traditional discipline–fashion, visual art or design–writers in those particular areas have never claimed it. And people writing about women’s bodies may have written about it, but not often as women’s practice separate from men’s tattooing. Historically, it has suffered from chronic class bias in the visual arts, where it’s never been explored at any length—and still isn’t. The only place it’s been seriously addressed institutionally is in history, folk art, and natural history museums, and because of their historical emphasis (and because men dominated tattooing for so many decades), the books linked to them have focused largely on men.

 What fact(s), story or bit of information that you learned in the course of your research really surprised you?

Well, the biggest surprise came after the first edition was published and I discovered I had left out the first documented tattooed white woman in Western history: Olive Oatman (pictured below.)   Her story was a mindblower from beginning to end, and I ended up writing her biography (The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman). She was captured by Southwest Indians who killed her pioneer family in the 1850s, then traded to the Mohave, who raised her as their own and tattooed her face.  Then she was ransomed back to the whites and lived out her life as a Victorian lady with a chin tattoo.

Explain briefly how tattoos on women were perceived in Victorian times.

They were first documented among the upper classes in England and subsequently in the US., and they were considered a fashion trend. Women got their legs and arms tattooed with the names of their husbands or with decorative designs that functioned like jewelry. The trend subsided and around the turn of the century, partly because circus women started appearing in the 1880s, and the practice quickly became associated with lower class women. That bias remained for a good century, exacerbated by other factors like tattooing’s association with the military and some of the raunchy imagery that surfaced there.

Did women’s tattoos have a heyday? If so, when was it? Or is it still coming?  It’s now. More women are tattooed than ever in American history and though most of what I see day to day is astonishingly hackneyed, the good stuff is far better than it was a few decades ago, and there’s more of it. There’s also no longer a tattoo “type” as there was in the 70s and 80s. It cuts across a wide range of women’s demographics. You can see that by looking at famous women in various fields who are visibly tattooed: producer/actress Lena Dunham, author Rebecca Skloot, comedian Margaret Cho, and so on.

Mifflin sent me twelve amazing photos featured in the book. You can view them all below. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Oh. By the way. Margot Mifflin is not tattooed although she has been tempted a time or two during the course of writing her books.

I had to ask.

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  • Olive Oatman 2 of 13
    Olive Oatman
    The first documented tattooed white woman in the US. Courtesy Arizona Historical Society. You can purchase Margot Mifflin's book about Oatman, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by clicking the link.
  • Nora Hildebrandt 3 of 13
    Nora Hildebrandt
    The first tattooed female circus attraction. Courtesy Syracuse University Library.
  • Maud Wagner 4 of 13
    Maud Wagner
    The first female tattooist in the U.S.; she started in 1907. Courtesy the author. This is absolutely my favorite photo of the bunch. There is such a bold, defiant bad ass quality to the expression on Maud's face.
  • Jessie Knight 5 of 13
    Jessie Knight
    Britain's first female tattooist; she started in 1921. Courtesy Neil Hopkin-Thomas.
  • Elizabeth Weinzirl 6 of 13
    Elizabeth Weinzirl
    A pioneering leisure collector; she got her first tattoo in 1947 when she was 45; shown here in 1961. Courtesy Mary Jane Haake.
  • Charlie Wagner 7 of 13
    Charlie Wagner
    Legendary Bowery tattooist Charlie Wagner at work on an unknown woman. Courtesy Don and Newly Preziosi Collection.
  • Ruth Marten & Judy Nylon 8 of 13
    Ruth Marten & Judy Nylon
    Ruth Marten (tattooist) and Judy Nylon (singer). Photo by Jon Savage. Mifflin cites this as one of her favorite photos. "I've always had a soft spot for the one of tattooist Ruth Marten and the singer Judy Nylon, who wears Marten's tattoo of Man Ray's Le Violon D'Ingres (with the violin sound holes) on her back. It was taken by the writer Jon Savage, and it shows Marten looking like a fierce punk with her hand draped over Nylon's shoulder in a gesture of proud ownership. Because Nylon is showing her back, topless, wearing a black skirt, the white skin of the back stands out and the tattoo is framed perfectly. This is one of the few photos where you see both the artist and the subject, and they both look supremely cool."
  • Natasha Kai 9 of 13
    Natasha Kai
    Hawaiian soccer player, many of whose tattoos celebrate Hawaiian pride. Photo by Jonathan Pushnik.
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    Tattoo by Simone Pfaff and Volker Mershky of Buena Vista Tattoo Club. Courtesy the artists.
  • image-3313 11 of 13
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    Tattoo by Saira Hunjan. Courtesy the artist.
  • Shenni 12 of 13
    Shenni
    Tattooed by Roxx of Two Spirit Tattoo. Courtesy the artist.
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    image-3314
    Tattoo by Idexa Stern. Photo by Aurora Meneghello.


*All photos courtesy of Margot Mifflin

You can also find Monica on her personal blog, The Girl Who.

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