Friday, January 18, 2013

A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

Maud Wagner, tattooist, 1911.
The third edition of Margot Mifflin's book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” was released on Tuesday. The book examines the history of female tattoo culture in the US which, surprisingly, dates back to 1851 when white Native American captives were inked by their captors. 

“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,” Mifflin writes in her book's introduction.
The New Yorker's Maria Lokke points out in her slideshow that Mifflin's work and photos are particularly relevant as today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

To view the Lokke's complete slideshow, click here.

Photograph from “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” by Margot Mifflin, published by PowerHouse Books.


  1. Really provocative idea about how tattoos can be used as instruments of female empowerment. Do you think female tattoo culture is largely independent of male tattoo culture or has reappropriated some initially male body art patterns into a distinctly feminist movement? I remember there was a show in Hicks a few months back about black male body art. I'd be interested to see the racial differences in the feminist body art movement as a larger insight into racial/gender identity. Then again, everybody is probably getting the same incorrect Chinese character tattoos (

  2. I'm interested in many of those questions too. What's also fascinating is that the first U.S. woman to get tattooed was inked against her will by Native Americans. She became a spectacle for the American public. I'm curious when and how the image of female tattoos shifted from objects of wonder to symbols of female empowerment. Do you think tattoos have/had the same connotations for men?

  3. I personally don't think men have to worry about making a political statement when inking themselves--the implied dominance of masculine power and control over their bodies is in stark contrast to women being forced to claim personal identity when they get body art. The fact that our society views female tattoo art through a prism of women asserting personhood and body control is a sexist framework. Female self-identity should be inherently accepted, not proven. Hopefully we can reach the stage when anyone can modify one's body to one's liking without physical appearance being in direct opposition with patriarchal power structures. Really great point you brought up about the first American woman who got tattoos was turned into a spectacle for public consumption. I hope our society has somehow progressed past this point and has become more accepting. For me, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is the most significant event to contextualize this article in, because the ongoing abortion debate is largely older white males trying to control female body choices. I think it's a shame women have to fight to gain respect/personhood, whether it be reproductive rights or external appearance. Brittany, can I be an honorary POWER member?

  4. Also, here's a NYT slideshow on Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith and his tattoos: In the corresponding interview, he said that tattoos were a lifestyle for him and he chose designs of personal/family significance. Outside of a gender framework, I'm interested in body art from a racial and class perspective. Do you think there's overlap when analyzing ink from a racial, class, and gender perspective, or are all three independent from each other?