If one Googles “tattoos + feminism”, a lot of…interesting results come up. Everything from powerful declarations of autonomy to brash “slut shaming” to images of feminist symbols will be offered. To say the message is mixed is quite the understatement. And that’s to be expected; it wasn’t all that long ago that women with tattoos and piercings were generally pushed into three categories: the promiscuous (see: “tramp stamp”), lesbians (see: any woman with short, brightly coloured hair and a nose-ring), or freaks (see: all of us). These stereotypes were never very accurate, of course, but they did, for better or worse, connect body modification to the feminist movement. Society was forced to view women as more than housewives and care-givers. We had autonomy; we were in charge of our own bodies, our own appearance, and our own symbolism. And that philosophy continues today. As Margot Mifflin writes in her 1997 book, Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo, “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”
It’s hard to say whether tattooed women followed feminism or vice versa, mostly because it’s difficult to say when feminism arose. Depending on whom you ask, feminism has been around for centuries, or only a few decades. What we can say, however, is that the tattooed women of history, whether consciously or not, were making feminist statements. In eras where a woman’s role was clear, and mostly involved cooking and breeding, these women bucked those expectations. They had careers. They were independent. They often stayed single, or partnered with like-minded individuals. A handful of them became tattoo artists themselves – a move that is still, sadly, fairly uncommon. These bold women created an intrinsic link between the female self and body modification by defying societal standards and claiming their bodies as their own.
And yet, despite the progress, the history, and the normalizing (approximately 23% of American women – compared to 19% of American men – are tattooed), a lingering stigma remains. Caroline Biggs, a blogger and Women’s Studies grad student, details her experience with having a feminist tattoo here, and how drastic the difference between female responses and male responses to it are. While most women express admiration for it, many men see it as a challenge, and sometimes even a threat. Joanne Ogilvie, a feminist writer, takes that point even further, stating “The assumption that, as a female, my body should be “pure” leads a whole lot of people to question my tattoos, why I have them, and whatever will I do when I’m old and wrinkly?”, issues that most tattooed men will never have to deal with. Even now, in the 21st century, in an era where women can do or be almost anything we wish, the concept of a heavily tattooed woman seems to run counter to what we perceive as feminine. We’re still faced with a dichotomy of softness, purity, and femininity, or hardness, boldness, and debasement. A woman who chooses to get tattooed is, effectively, sacrificing part of her perceived femininity. She is opening the door to statements about how a woman “should” look. How a woman “should” exist in society. And, as obnoxious as that may be, as much as many of us would rather not politicize our appearance, we must be proud of that fact. We must smile in the face of those ignorant shoulds, content in the knowledge that, as our numbers grow, the power of those attitudes lessens. They are the last whimpers of an outdated standard, and our tattoos are a fitting send-off.
Once considered little more than a fad, Asian-inspired tattoos are one of the most enduring and popular styles in North America. From koi fish to yin-yangs to Oni masks to Kanji, everyone likely knows someone donning such art. But where did this trend originate?
Depending on which Asian culture we’re talking about, tattoos have been considered deeply sacred, or grossly barbaric, for thousands of years. In ancient China, tattoos were largely shunned, given only to criminals – though a classic Chinese novel also features three heroic main characters who are tattooed. In the Philippines, tattoos have denoted rank and accomplishments for centuries. In Japan, the tradition of tattooing goes back nearly ten thousand years, and has symbolised everything from rites of passage to gang affiliation. What all of these cultures have in common, however, is the process itself. Traditional Asian tattooing involved attaching handmade needles (or sometimes just a sharpened bone or shell) to a thick piece of wood, usually with silk string or leather, and puncturing the flesh thousands of times. Sometimes a specially prepared ink was used, other times black ash was rubbed into the punctures. Large pieces could take years to finish, with the recipient returning every few days for two or three hour sessions.
So how did such a long and secretive process make its way to the other side of the world? Most of the tattoos we recognize as “Asian” are actually strictly Japanese. In China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and numerous other Asian countries, tattoos were largely symbolic, and did not feature distinct images – instead, they were series’ of dots, dashes, and contained patterns. The huge and detailed koi fish, pictorial representations of gods and demons, oni masks, cherry blossom trees, etc., that we associate with traditional Asian tattooing could, for many decades, only be found in Japan. As such, they could only have been discovered, and brought over, by someone who could bridge the gap, both geographically, and culturally. Enter the infamous Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. While it was certainly not him alone who brought Japanese tattooing to North America, most agree that he had the largest role to play. At 19, Collins enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and spent much time in Asian waters. There, he was exposed to various styles of art and tattoos, and got to know several prominent artists. As a life-long sailor, he was able to keep correspondence with various groups of people from both the underground and professional sectors, and most importantly, with Japanese tattoo masters. This allowed him to immerse himself in the world of Japanese tattooing and bring these ideas and techniques home. So while the name Sailor Jerry may invoke images of old-school flash, it is also him that must be credited for the large and intricate “traditional Asian” pieces we marvel at today.
Oddly, these pieces are now far more popular here than in Japan, or anywhere else in Asia. Still often seen as the domain of criminals and gang members, these large pieces are shunned by the general public throughout Asia. When Sailor Jerry began tattooing in this style, and apprenticing others to do the same, he may have had little idea that he was reinventing, and preserving, a long hidden tradition.