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Women and tattoos

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More women than ever before are getting tattoos, but even in these liberal times, are we still guilty of judging those who choose to go under the needle?

Words: Anita Bhagwandas

What do Rihanna and Samantha Cameron have in common? Surprisingly enough, it’s not the tweeting of half-naked self-portraits or a deep abiding love for upmarket stationery. They both have tattoos. And while you couldn’t get two women with more diverse and extreme lifestyles, they’re hardly in a minority. Angelina Jolie, Victoria Beckham, Megan Fox, Scarlett Johansson – they’ve all set a date with the tattooist’s needle at some point in their lives as have many of us; latest statistics show that 29% of men and women in the UK aged between 16 and 44 have a tattoo. And it’s on the rise, especially among the female of the species.

“Women are definitely getting more ink,” says tattooist to the Beckhams, Louis Molloy. “These days 50% of my clients are women.” Tracy D, currently one of London’s most in-demand artists, agrees, having seen a drastic increase in the number of women having tattoos: “In the last six months, the majority of my clients have been female,” she reveals.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a long time coming. When the Spice Girls burst onto the charts in 1996, Mel C was easy to label as the tomboy with her, at last count, 11 tattoos, including a Celtic band around her arm. Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes from TLC had large tattoos on both biceps; All Saints, Britney – they all chose to mark themselves and, naturally, a generation of young girls followed in their wake. And as it became mainstream, and as important a part of our first festival outfit as an ill-judged tie-dye skirt, we stopped – overtly at least – thinking negatively about the small, discreet tattoos that ended up on our ankles, shoulders and small of our backs. Nowadays, they’re found on professional men and women of all ages, from all walks of life. Hell, even David Dimbleby’s got one. They’re used to commemorate events and loved ones; remind ourselves of life mantras or just mark a turning point in our lives – even to reclaim our bodies after the trauma of surgery.

They range from the line of a favourite poem etched around the wrist to an intricate sleeve in a full spectrum of colours and they’ve become so common that, more often than not, you feel in a minority without one. “We don’t need to justify it anymore,” believes Tracy D. “It can be decorative. It’s more of an art, and people love how it looks, which is all the justification a woman needs. The new generation is so exposed to, and enamoured with tattoos that they think nothing of having them.

There’s no big, ‘What will I look like in 30 years’ saga, they’re just living for now”. Julia Seizure, another tattoo artist believes the sheer variety of styles now available is a reason why women are flocking to tattoo parlours: “The advances in tattooing, since its origin, now offer so many different stylistic options; not everything needs to be heavy and dark. Softer and more feminine art – often created by female artists – is available, and that’s what so many women are going for now.”

But despite this acceptance, and our increasing liberalism, there is still a moral code attached to tattoos of which we’re not completely free. And while we may not recognise it, there is plenty to suggest that tattoos still divide and carry class messages that, even in 2013, can make the most liberal of us shamefully judgmental.

A different class

One of the negative underlying judgments about tattoos can find its roots in history. “The association of tattooing with ‘lower classes’, criminals, ‘deviants’ and prostitutes has persisted throughout the 20th century,” explains Gemma Angel, from UCL’s History of Art department. “These associations were largely constructed by 19th-century criminologists who believed that tattooing indicated a ‘criminal nature’ or ‘primitive morals’ – most of their studies focused solely on prison populations and prostitutes, which only reinforced these assumptions.”

But that was then, you might think. Well not so. Evidence to the contrary suggests we haven’t quite shrugged off the ‘fallen woman’ mentality. When Cheryl Cole revealed her latest inking – two huge roses on her lower back and bottom – it found its way onto the lurid pages of every tabloid. The online comment sections bulged with criticism. The overriding sentiment was that one of the world’s most beautiful women had ‘ruined’ herself, succumbed to the type of behaviour expected of her social background and inevitably that she’d regret it when ageing took hold. Comments ranged from, “I really can’t believe that such a naturally beautiful woman would do this to herself… It’s almost a form of self-harm” to “Bloody awful. No class” to “A pretty girl with delusions of grandeur has now ruined any possible chance of fame by defacing her body”. One particularly charming commentator on the Digital Spy forum felt an urge to express their feelings in this pithy vignette: “Nice tattoo, pert little arse and an extremelyhot, albeit ever so slightly slutty, bird. Perfect combo.”

Tattoos also still go hand in hand with perceptions of anti-social behaviour, ably illustrated when Mattel launched ‘Tattoo Barbie’ in 2011. The company was accused of promoting tattooing to young girls; one woman in a Daily Mail article screamed, “Whatever will they bring out next? Drug-addict Barbie? Alcoholic Barbie?”

As anyone who’s had a visible tattoo knows, the truth is, there’s something about having body art that ‘allows’ people – from the random drunk sat next to you on the bus home to your mother-in-law – to have an opinion on your body. Comments such as, “You’ll regret that when you’re older,” or, “What about your wedding day?” are de rigueur for women with tattoos; yet, passing judgment on somebody’s dress sense, hair colour, or weight isn’t quite so socially acceptable.

Journalist and editor Terri White, 34, has had polar reactions to the five visible tattoos on her arms and hands. “One guy I was once smitten with listed my tattoos in the top five things he liked about me; that was wonderful. But a lot of men hate them. In a bar in New York, I was approached by a man I’d never met before to ask why I’d ‘ruined myself’. He told me that I would be pretty if it wasn’t for them, but it was ‘like putting a bumper sticker on a Ferrari’. He told me that I was disgusting.”

Vintage salon owner ReeRee Rockette, 30, also experiences extreme reactions to her extensive arm tattoos: “I get a lot of positive feedback on my tattoos, although they seem to make people forget their manners. I get stroked, poked and touched by strangers – usually women – and it’s very unsettling. The negative reactions are quieter; stares and pointing, or questions tinged with passive aggression. I have had women at parties tell me why they don’t like tattoos. Despite me never asking.”

“This has something to do with cultural expectations of what’s ‘feminine’,” explains Angel. “A dainty little rose is an acceptably discreet decoration, but an entire back piece is much more confronting. The difference between these two examples is that one is about adorning the female form, perhaps to accentuate femininity, whereas the other is more about the tattoo itself – the body becomes a canvas onto which the person’s idea of themselves is projected. I think that Western standards of beauty do not accommodate heavily tattooed women because, like any form of body modification taken to an ‘extreme’, it disrupts the ideal of what is feminine.”

The stigma survives

Tattoos still seem to affect more than what people think of you on the street; there are career implications in your choice of body art too. While most employees don’t mind tattoos, “what really matters, is how customers might perceive employees with visible tattoos,” explains management expert Dr Andrew Timming, who led a study into tattoos in business at the University of St Andrews. Jane Firth, business director at recruiting expert Hays, advises her customers to tread very carefully: “Of course there is a difference between what’s acceptable in a corporate law firm and a creative agency, but we encourage clients to cover up until they know what’s considered appropriate.”

The Center for Professional Excellence at York College in Pennsylvania revealed that up to 61% of HR managers believe a visible tattoo damages a job applicant’s chances. “They make a person look dirty,” was one female manager’s response to tattoos during The British Sociological Association’s conference on work, employment and society in Warwick earlier this year. Similarly, Dr Timming’s research found that tattoos would “subconsciously stop” some managers hiring. “I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of hand and facial tattoos I’m asked for,” admits Tracy D, “but I won’t do it unless they’re older and already fully tattooed. It could ruin their future career chances and I don’t want that responsibility.”

In fact, in 2011, Jobcentre staff were informed they could use public money towards tattoo removal if it was preventing a jobseeker getting employment, such is the message that visible, large tattoos still send to many people. So, for some jobs, and some vocations, that rash decision in a tattoo parlour in Ibiza might just backfire. Between 2011 and 2012, there was a 32% rise in demand for tattoo removal, suggesting people found that their plans for the future and the foot-long dolphin inked down their back weren’t ideal bedfellows.

And it seems age is the biggest factor in our regret. According to research by tattoo removal company Picosure, the demographic least likely to regret a tattoo is women who had one after the age of 21. So what’s next for the tattoos? Will we become so aesthetically desensitised to them that lawyers and GPs will be allowed to reveal them at work and tattooed women could stop being demonised by the tabloids? By the time our children are teenagers, tattoo avoidance may be a thing of the past, but the urge to redefine ourselves is intrinsically human whether that’s through ink or fashion. As the lifecycle of any trend dictates, once it becomes saturated in the mainstream we could see bare skin as the new form of rebellion. Only time will tell.

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