To tattoo: to mark a part of the body with an indelible design by inserting pigment into punctures in the skin. (Oxford Dictionary)
Use of the tattoo as a means of self-expression spans across centuries and cultures—from the indigenous Maori tribes of New Zealand to members of fin de siècle New
York’s fashion-crazed upper class. Over the past few centuries tattoos and tattooed women have occupied a fascinating and controversial place in the American popular imagination. As Christine Braunburger, an assistant professor of English at Onondage Community College in Syracuse, NY writes, “early efforts to keep women away from the tattoo—and then perversely to draw women in—both involved degradation of the female body as a desirable object and desiring subject.”
Throughout Western history women’s tattoos have been seen as a physical insult to societal norms, and as a kind of “come hither” mark signifying sexual promiscuity. One instance in which these questionable associations were illustrated is a 1920s Boston rape trial, in which the prosecutor dropped all charges against the alleged male rapists after discovering that the female victim had a small butterfly tattooed on her leg—the judge and jury agreed that the tattoo had unfairly “misled” the men.
For much of the twentieth century, tattooed women fought against associated with prostitutes, circus freaks, and biker chicks. But as Stephanie Yin, a senior at Brown, posits, “tattoos have become much less taboo since the 1980s and 1990s.” When asked why that might be, she suggested that the twenty-first century has brought about “more of an idealization of going against the grain” than existed in earlier decades.
While it is unclear whether the strength ofour general urge to conform to societal expectations has waned significantly, there is no doubt that young people are increasingly open to
the idea of tattoos a means of self-expression. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, thirty-six percent of eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds have at least one tattoo, compared to only fifteen percent of the Baby Boomer generation.
Tara Kane, a senior at Brown, believes tattoos are a way for women to choose which story their body tells. She describes her tattoo—a soaring phoenix encircling a globe, on the center of her back—as a “deeply personal illustration of a belief system I wanted to remind myself of.” Her peer, Maria Kinkina, sees her tattoo—a downward-facing arrow on her forearm—as a visual reminder of her “life philosophy.” “My tattoo symbolizes everything that has helped me grow, and everything that is a part of my identity,” she says, “—both the good and the bad.”
Members of the current college-aged generation may be likely to view tattoos as a legitimate form of art and self-expression. Some parents, like Tara’s react surprisingly well and can even come to embrace the trend as part of their own identity. “Now my dad wants to have a wedding band tattooed on his ring finger,” she says. Stephanie, on the other hand, admits that her parents “weren’t too excited” about the seahorse she decided to have tattooed on her shoulder at eighteen—a tribute to her self-declared “obsession” with the sea creature, and lifelong passion for marine biology—but were placated by the assurance that it could be covered by most clothing. As for the large pukeko bird tattoo that she recently had done in New Zealand, that is a piece of information she has yet to divulge.
Maria’s tattoo, on her right forearm, is usually visible in the outfits she wears to work. While she believes an employer’s reaction to tattoos probably varies by profession, her tattoo actually helped her make a personal connection with her most recent boss at an education consulting firm. “She asked me about my tattoo and it turned into a great bonding experience” due to the deeply personal nature of her tattoo. “She said it helped her learn more about me, and to realize how driven I was,” says Maria.
While tattoo brought into existence by drunken nights, spontaneous decisions, or brief but passionate affairs are likely to, sooner or later, herald some misgivings, it appears that those that reflect enduring worldviews and months of deep contemplation will be worn with pride for decades to come. “I have no regrets about my tattoo”, says Tara. “It is a part of me. I can’t see it, but I can feel it.” Maria agrees, but is also quick to make the caveat that “if I ever change my mind about my tattoo, by the time I turn fifty there will probably be a really easy, high-tech way to remove it.”