A Brief History of Lady Tats

Tattoo Artist

Artwork and Post By Michaela Heidemann

In November 2015, I finally made the plunge and got my first tattoo. It was a text tattoo that I had planned for years in dedication to my deceased brother. It was small, meaningful, and well planned but I dragged my feet in getting it. I couldn’t stop worrying about the font, and the placement and whether or not I would hate myself in ten years for getting it; essentially all the things lambasted at you by friends and strangers alike whenever you mention you plan on getting a tattoo. Then, someone finally convinced me to get it. That person was a 5,000 year old mummy named Ötzi.  


Ötzi was a man who lived in the Ötztal Alps, on the border between Austria and Italy. Due to a perfect set of circumstances, (the manner in which he was frozen and thawed each year) his body was so well preserved that it was first reported as a recently – as in two years – deceased hiker. Everything, from his clothing to the contents of his stomach were still intact. This included his skin and, amazingly, his tattoos.  

Could 100% see these tattoos on someone’s forearm today. Image via www.iceman.it

This blew my fucking mind. Whatever garbage reason for not getting a tattoo somebody chided me with didn’t matter anymore. Getting lectured on considering my future or hearing them take a flat tone when they said, “Oh, huh. That’s a cool idea,” fell to the wayside. They tattooed people in the neolithic age! You can fuck off! Whatever comment a person might make or whatever doubts I had myself seemed sort of pithy when held up against a tradition that was at least five thousand years old.  The compulsion I had to set something permanently into ink suddenly seemed very human and not so strange after all.    


It’s probably not news to anyone that tattoos have had a massive resurgence in the past ten years.  I remember when it was hella edgy for Angelina Jolie to have tattoos. Now it’s a little surprising when a celebrity doesn’t have one.  Also, women are getting tattooed at a higher rate than men at 23% to their less impressive 19% according to a Harris Poll taken in 2012. No numbers indicate if that trend has continued, but more people are getting tattooed as of 2016, at 29%.


I’m not going to presume to know the reasons why a women gets a tattoo, or any person really. They’re as varied as the people themselves. What I do wonder, however, is where does the need to do this to ourselves come from? And why are we so averse to the concept? I think the answer lies somewhere within the most controversial group to be tattooed: women. The tradition of women getting tattoos has survived thousands of years, from sacredness to stigmatization, and to this day remains a symbol of empowerment. If it’s so problematic, why has it endured for so long?


It appears that the taboo of women getting tattooed is a relatively new thing when you consider the eons of history that came before it. In many ancient cultures, tattoos on women were a testament to their value, often relating to their fertility, so as to bolster it and also protect them against the very real danger of dying in childbirth. Prior to the rise and spread of Christianity, tattoos adorned bodies as status symbols and protective talismans in most cultures across the globe. While Ötzi remains the oldest evidence of tattooing on actual skin, other examples marked the skin of female egyptian mummies dating as far back as 2,000 BCE. Beyond this, egyptian figurines and painted tomb scenes have evidence of tattoos from pieces nearly 6,000 years old. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly), it was initially thought that these women were prostitutes and their tattoos were protections against venereal diseases due to the placement around the breasts and inner thighs. However, as they discussed on the podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind, the general consensus now is that these were used as protective talismans when carrying a child and giving birth. My favorite part about this little nugget is that initially the mummies found with tattoos were labeled as “dancing girls”. In all likelihood, this vague, dismissive title was given to women who were actually nobility. One of these mummies was positively identified as a high priestess.


History is plagued by societal biases. Which may or may not be the reason that I’m not a historian.


Tattooing was a cultural staple worldwide in ancient society.  Across Polynesia, the ancient tradition of tattooing or tatau (where our modern tattoos got their name), continues to this day despite the efforts of colonial christian missionaries trying to end the practice. Specifically in Samoa, tattoos were a symbol of status. Men and women alike endured an excruciating process of tattooing and therefore the tattoos represented their courage and strength. More tats = more badass. Tattoos were also common amongst the various tribes and clans of Northern Europe, prior to rise and spread of Christianity. Like the Egyptians, they demarked nobility and were also used as medicinal agents, place in specific areas to soothe pain and promote healing. In Algeria, prior to rise of islam in the region, tattoos were cosmetic as well as treatments to bolster fertility. Elsewhere in Africa, the body art was as wide-ranging and diverse as the continent itself. They could mean a number of things; social rank, warding off evil spirits, and as a mark of beauty.  


I think it’s easy to conclude that there was little controversy to a tattooed woman in most ancient societies.  


So when and why did a woman having a tattoo become so rebellious an act? One theory ascribes it to the Judeo-Christian takeover of the western world after it became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine in 312 AD. Simply put, if man was made in the image of God, then to mark yourself was an act against the Lord Himself. It could also be seen as an invasion tactic; tattoos were representative of Pagan religions and false Gods and therefore emblematic of the native culture. As time passed and the previous customs were buried like the mass graves of stonehenge, the practice of tattooing became lost to the western world.  


A woman’s place in pre-colonial Europe was diminutive, so it should be no surprise that the fear of feminine power manifest in the form of the witch hunts during the 15th century. To have the perfect human form marked in some way was to be touched by the devil, be it self inflicted or congenital. I have a red birthmark on my arm that looks like an island, a dinosaur or an eye depending on who you ask. If you asked a 15th century German blacksmith, he might say that it’s the same color as Satan’s favorite shade of lipstick. Given my natural disposition and the mark of the beast that resides on my bicep, I doubt I would have done well in Europe or North America prior to the 18th century. A woman’s body, made from Adam’s rib, is not seen to be her own. For a woman to slap a tattoo on that would be unthinkable.


As Europeans invaded other parts of the world, they became exposed once again to the practice of tattooing. Eventually, a tattoo was a sign of solidarity for sailors as they bonded over far travels.


This is the point where Margot Mifflin’s book, Bodies of Subversion, picks up. She saw an astonishing lack of anthropological or artistic discourse on the subject of women with tattoos, particularly in Western culture in the modern era.


The first tattooed woman in American history was Olive Oatman. When she was 13 years old, she was captured by Southwest Indians who later traded her to a tribe of Mohave. It was here that they gave her a blue chin tattoo as a symbol of belonging and kinship. She was eventually “rescued” and brought back to white society to live out her days.  Mifflin was so inspired by the story that she wrote a second book on the subject, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

Olive Oatman tattoo

“Olive Oatman, 1857” by unattributed – Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


By the late 1800’s, tattoos became fashionable with the royal elite when Prince Charles got a tattoo of a cross when he visited Jerusalem during a world tour in 1860. This trend spread amongst royalty in Europe until it eventually trickled down into the aristocratic and wealthy ladies of Victorian England and New York. Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Churchill, was inked. That’s right, Victorian women – who were covered from toe to chin, who drank tea out of delicate china, who sewed needlepoint pictures for fun – had tattoos. Keeping in line with the times, they were meant to be private pieces of adornment, to be seen only themselves, their husbands, or God I guess. This may be why nobody’s ever heard about it.


The practice petered out with the rise of tattooed women as circus attractions. It became accepted that if you were a tattooed woman and you displayed your tattooes in public, you were “loose”. Have you ever really considered the word? Loose, as we know it today, means to be slutty, but when you go back to the basic meaning of the word it means”uncontrolled”. In this way it makes sense that women who tattooed themselves were seen as out of control because they were taking agency over their own bodies, not their husband or priest or father. Tattooed female circus performers were popular attractions because not only did the marking of their body go against nature, but also put their exposed skin on display. This was a tantalizing prospect to the men (and women) of the time.


I think it’s also important to note that this period was the peak of European imperialism. The practice was tied to the perceived inferiority of the cultures that were invaded by European nations. Invading colonists and missionaries made a concerted effort to end it entirely, thankfully to no avail.  

Image via The Atlantic and Powerhouse Books

Image via The Atlantic and Powerhouse Books

Through the period of the 1920’s to the 1960’s, tattoos were almost entirely a masculine pursuit. They were often symbols of camaraderie between soldiers during both World Wars and Sailors throughout the period. They were often graphic pin-ups and considered too raunchy for women. Eventually, the practice became illegal in some places.


Of course, the history of tattoos is not entirely light hearted in nature. Be it in ancient Rome or in the Transatlantic slave trade, tattoos denoted a person as someone’s property. In slaver’s minds, forcibly marking someone was all you had to do to entirely strip someone of their humanity. Also, after WWII, tattoos gained a new, morbid reputation. Once again tattoos were a tool for dehumanization. Holocaust prisoners were marked with identification numbers, like barcodes on packed meat. Even in modern times, tattoos are a necessary evil for some cancer treatments. These horrific connotations are, to this day, understandably hard to shake.


After the tumultuous culture wars of the 1960’s, tattoos rose once again as a part of the counterculture. Janis Joplin was among the first celebrities to openly flaunt a tattoo. In the 1970’s they became an aspect of second wave feminism. Mifflin got the idea to write Bodies of Subversion in the early 90’s because, “[She] saw that tattooing was an amazing barometer of women’s dreams and fears and passions at that time—a period when body issues were at a peak of controversy at the end of the culture wars—and it made me wonder what women’s tattoos revealed about them going back to the 19th century when European and American women started getting inked.”


The caliber of work out there today is incredible and there are more female tattoo artists than ever.  It seems the stigma against women with tattoos gets gradually lessened with each irritating stab of an ink-filled needle. Technology and expansion of the art itself has created tattoos of wide variety and quality. One still hears sneers about the traditionally shit-on tattoo for women, the “tramp stamp”, but my hope is that goes away eventually. Why pick the placement for your tattoo because of some deeply sexist garbage spewed from the mouths of a bunch of know-nothings in the early aughts? Don’t listen to them! Remember those sequin purses? You also hear, “that’s gonna look bad when you’re old!” As if your skin wasn’t already going to be wrinkled, and, if it was, that that’s a bad thing. Just check out this goddess divine:

Billie Librarry Photo via Imogen Cunningham Trust

I think a tattoo is one of the most quintessential acts of agency. The pain and the permanency are perhaps bigger statements than the image itself. Whatever reason behind someone’s tattoo, it was important enough to forcibly inscribe on their body for as long as their skin or pictures of their skin remain. With the amount of people getting tattoos these days, it would be easy to write off someone’s ink as little more than a fashion statement.  But you see, there ain’t no tat like a lady tat cuz a lady tat is symbolic of female bodily autonomy and the individuation of a self that has been bound to outside standards of a racist and sexist patriarchal society.
In other words, IDGAF if you think squidward playing the clarinet was a dumb tattoo for that woman to get on her neck. Because that Squidward playing the clarinet on her neck is a quiet protest against a whole tradition of fuckshit.  And whether or not she deeply regrets the decision either immediately or in ten years is her own goddamn business.