I got my first tattoo mere days after I turned 18: a black and red fairy in-between my shoulder blades. I was going through a goth phase, listening to a lot of Marilyn Manson and Evanescence, and you’d have to peel my Emily the Strange hoodie with cat ears on it off of my dead body. Within a few months I added a shooting star on my calf and some stars along my hip bone. And then I discovered traditional tattooing and three tattoos quickly became a sleeve, chest piece, feet tattoos, thigh tattoos, and various other pieces on my back. The funny thing was, when I first started getting tattooed I really didn’t like the look of sleeves or chest pieces. But as my love of traditional tattoos grew, so did my love for the aesthetic of larger pieces — especially on petite women.
I got the majority of my tattoos when I was living in the suburbs. Tattoos were still a really big deal circa 2005 and so I dealt with a lot of intrusive questions and comments from strangers. The most constant question was “what does your mother think of all your tattoos.” It would’ve been easier if they had asked about my dad, as my mom passed away when I was 11. Out of my two parents, she would’ve been 100% down with me getting tattoos. Probably would’ve gotten on with me one day. My father hated them for many, many years. But one day he realized that if the worst thing I did was get tattoos, well, I was doing okay. And now he gets super angry when I tell him stories about the negative feedback I get from strangers. His words: “I’d tell them to mind their own business!”
When I moved to Toronto almost no one commented on my tattoos, except to compliment them or maybe ask me if they hurt. After two recent confrontations with women who didn’t like my tattoos, I’ve started to think about the different ways in which women’s body are policed and how tattooed women are policed in a way that men aren’t. If you want to hear more about this part of my story, you can check out my Raconteurs story on YouTube and/or and an earlier blog post where I start to do some of this processing.
But this is still an ongoing conversation that I’m having with myself and with others. So I decided that I wanted to invite some friends of mine with tattoos to tell their own stories (good and bad) of being a tattooed lady. I also wanted to know more about the stories behind their favourite tattoos. I’ve got some positive messages like “one life” to remind me that each day is important (good or bad); and “rise above,” to remind me that I have the strength to overcome whatever shit life throws at me. I’ve got a strawberry for my mom. But other than that, I got tattoos that I liked the look of.
And then I went on a 7 year hiatus. The pain, well, it was too much and money was tight. This past spring I went to England to present at a conference and went to visit a good friend of mine and we planned a trip to Edinburgh together. I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo while I’m traveling and when Carla told me that arrows reminded her of me, I knew that’s what I wanted to get. That way whenever I look at the arrows I’ll think of her and our friendship.
And then I got my sad girl tattoo in September when I was about to submit my first dissertation chapter (by the wonderful Glennie at Pearl Harbour Tattoo and Gift Shop). Sad girls are a theme in my work; I love saying “all the feelings,” because, well, I have all the feelings all the time — so I got that saying as part of the tattoo. I think it’s really important that we make space for the “too-much-ness” of our feelings and others (you can read my post off the same title for more on that). And the cardinal represents my mom; and so the sad girl is me too.
A few weeks after getting my sad girl, I got a teacup and a lemon by Jennifer Lawes, also at Pearl Harbour). I’d wanted to get a piece of fruit to signify my dad (and to go with the strawberry I have for my mom). My dad developed a rare form of ALS after my mom passed away. 19 years later he’s lost the use of his arms and legs, and he’s now living in a long-term care facility. But he’s never let it get him down. He’s been the chair of various accessibility boards, learnt how to use voice recognition software and then started his own business as a certified trainer, and since he’s been living in West Park, he’s started his own positive-thinking food lovers group, where you go out for a meal once a month at a restaurant they’ve selected. The rule: you can’t talk about anything negative during this meal. When I find myself talking about my dad, I can’t help but say “life gave him a shit ton of lemons and he made the world’s best lemonade.” And so I got a little lemon for him and a teacup for me. So these two tattoos signify how his positive thinking has influenced me.
Now that’s enough about me. Let’s turn it over to some wonderful tattooed ladies and gender queer folk who volunteered to be in this post. In addition to answering my questions, I asked them to submit a couple of photos with their tattoos: a shot where their tattoos would be less visible, a “glamour shot” that focused on their face and one of their tattoos; and then a photo of their favourite tattoo. Hope you enjoy their answers and their photos — I totally did!
ME: How old were you when you got your first tattoo? What is it and why did you get it?
Jessica: I was 22 when I got my first tattoo: the poem “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams on the inside of the left bicep. It was a poem that kept coming up throughout my undergrad in English at York University. I especially remember seeing it on the board in my very first English survey course and being blown away—look at these weird things that poetry can be. While it’s not my “favourite poem,” it’s one that represents the initial connection and inspiration to poetry that I hope to never lose. I would, and still do, come up with ideas for tattoos constantly, but as soon as this one occurred to me, I knew it would happen. I’d just entered the Creative Writing program and was beginning, for the first time, to conceive of myself seriously as a Poet. But when I would tell people that, I kept getting hit with the response: “That’s great—I used to write.” The thought of writing ever being in the past tense for me was terrifying. This tattoo was a commitment to myself—you’re a poet now. Forever.
Laura: I was still at school when I got my first tattoo, in Year Twelve, on my 18th birthday. It’s a dove. It was taken from the Picasso sketch, Dove Of Peace, 1949.
I decided just to get the outline of the dove without the flowers (a decision I now wonder about) and I think I got it because I wanted to put some art on my body and feel like a certain type of adult! Also, I was a fan of world peace. Because the tattoo is on my back, I had to lie on a chair face forwards and after about half an hour of scratching pain the tattoo artist said ‘well, that’s the first wing done!’, to which I replied, ‘I can’t bear anymore, just leave it as one wing!’. He told me then that he was joking, and it was finished, to my relief. That day I also found out I have a low pain threshold and a very low level of resolve!
Krystle: I was 20. It was free from a friend who was apprenticing at the time. Two of my best friends got mean looking panthers, so I got a silhouette of a cat with a halo. We used to call ourselves “The Dangercats” so we got the tattoos mostly as a joke.
Pippa: I was 17 when I got my first tattoo. I had to use a fake ID (gasp!) to get it done. I was away in Montreal, starting my BA at McGill. I first considered getting a tattoo when a new friend at school told me she was thinking about getting one done, and asked if I would join her for support. I knew right away that I wanted to get one done too, and I also knew instantly what I wanted: a star on my wrist (pictured in my “glamour shot”). It’s strange, because I’m usually a very indecisive person, but when it came to this tattoo, I was certain from the moment the idea came to me. I wanted a star because it was tied to the imagery used surrounding the deaths of a group of my classmates who were killed in an avalanche on a class trip when I was in the 10th grade. For whatever reason, their funerals and any related commemorations always figured them as stars in the night sky. That image always resonated with me, and there still isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about my friends who died too young. I wanted the star on my wrist to remind me to carry them with me, always.10 years later, I still fall in love with my tattoo every time I look at it.
Erin: I was 27. I got it after I finished my PhD candidacy exams. It is four crows in all black ink—no detail, just the crows flying. I got it to mark an important transition in my life.
Anna: I got my first tattoo when I was 21 on a whim with a few of my girlfriends. I was an undergraduate at UCLA and we had taken the weekend off for a short road trip up to the Joshua Tree desert. On our way there we decided – on an impulse – to stop at a tattoo parlor in 29 Palms (yes that is the name of an actual town in the Mojave desert) and just pick something to permanently put on our body. I think I was playing with permanence a lot that year (broke up with my boyfriend of 6 years, got a dog, quit studying for medical school, got a tattoo……..) We all chose very differently and I went for a red rose on my wrist: I wanted something classic, Americana, feminine and I liked the idea of telling people it was my “Desert Rose”. Not sure what that really means for me if anything but the act of getting the tattoo was important to me: it was about spontaneity and about doing what I wanted with and to my body.
Poet, MA in English & Creative Writing, Teaching Assistant, & Research Assistant
Me: How many tattoos have you gotten since then? Is there a story that goes along with your collection? If you only have the 1, do you plan on getting more? If yes, what would it be?
Jessica: I’ve gotten 4 more tattoos since. They all represent aspects of my life that are deeply important to me, to commitments that I’ve made to myself. Because of this, I can’t imagine ever regretting any of my tattoos—they’re all a part of where I’ve been, who I am, and who I hope to become. It’s really empowering to be able to carry that with me on my skin wherever I go. I definitely plan on getting more tattoos! A long-stemmed rose in honour of my Grampa who passed away last year, a poppy on my elbow for Sylvia Plath’s poem “Poppies in October”, and a raccoon in honour of Toronto. I’ve just moved to Montreal and there are some amazing neotraditional artists here—I’m even considering getting a (reputable) stick & poke. I used to have a rule that I wouldn’t get another tattoo until one year from the date of my last one. It’s tempting because I love the look of traditional tattoos and women who are fully covered, but ultimately I know it’s not for me. That said, I can definitely see myself continuing to get tattoos throughout my life, so we’ll see how much skin I can cover!
Laura: I have 2 more tattoos. My 2nd tattoo is a Picasso owl that I got when I was 21 in Melbourne, and the other is a cartoonish sketch of a tree that I got when I was 28 in Thailand. The owl doesn’t really have a story. It’s the inside of my left wrist and I got it because I wanted another ‘arty’ tattoo (cringing now) and thought his sketch of an owl was cute. I also like owls, I think they are odd and wonderful. My 3rd tattoo of a tree is on the inside of my right forearm. I got it in Pai, a tiny tourist/hippie town in Northern Thailand, during the week where I met my now partner. I got it for my Mum, because she’s a horticulturalist and an original tree-hugger and we have a loving, if slightly complicated relationship. It’s my favourite tattoo. I love looking at it, and it was done really well, despite only taking the tattoo artist five minutes!
Krystle: I have 9 tattoos in total. I have Philippine tribal symbols behind my ears and on my shoulder that are indicative of the islands my parents come from in the Philippines. I read an article on the BBC (sent to me by one of the friends who got a panther tattoo, we’re still besties) about this organization called the Mark of the Four Waves Tribe located in California. They are a group dedicated to the revival of the dying art of Philippine tribal tattoo culture. I contacted them and asked if I could get one and now I am proudly the President of the Toronto chapter of the Four Waves. I’m also dedicated to 90s wrestler named the Ultimate Warrior. Apparently he had an iconic mask which is what most of the tattoo features as well as a famous sound byte, “to parts unknown” in a victorian script. One of my oldest friends asked if I would get whatever tattoo he said if he paid for it. I agreed, and thus I have the Ultimate Warriors mask and those words forever marked on my body. I don’t even know anything about wrestling!
Pippa: I have only gotten one tattoo since then, but it covers a substantial portion of my back. I’ve wanted to get another tattoo since my first, but waited until I was 26 because I was always unsure about what image I wanted. I finally settled on the image last year, right around my birthday. I was telling 1 of my best friends about it, but had to put it on hold because I needed to save money for it (being a broke grad student!). I was going through a rough patch around this time too, and so when my birthday arrived, this same friend had gone in with my two other besties to pay for the tattoo in full. It is the most thoughtful, generous gift I’ve ever received, and it makes the tattoo that much more meaningful. I feel like I get to carry a piece of each of these 3 friends with me on my back, like armor: they keep me strong and protected.
Erin: I’ve since had 3 more. I got a common sparrow tattooed on my forearm after I defended my dissertation. I got another large piece on my shoulder blade after finishing my first year teaching at Dalhousie in 2009 (my first “real” job—a 10 month contract for which I moved across the country. This tattoo is a version of the Fabritius painting of the chained goldfinch. In mine there’s another bird coming with a key. Heavy-handed metaphor aside, I like it. The birds rise up.) I got my most recent one—an owl on a belljar which is covering a red tree—when I moved from one town to another for work and for life. It marked another transition. They all do. I don’t know if I plan on getting more. I never think I do, and then something happens and I find I want to mark it on my skin; I want the landscape of my body to move through the world marked by what has happened.
Anna: Since my “desert rose” I’ve gotten 6 more tattoos and I’m fairly certain that with time there will be more to come. For aesthetic reasons the rest of my tattoos are all black but there is no story to connect them all. Although I really love the idea of coherently piecing together one’s tattoos (it can look so fucking lovely) I’ve never been very good at seeing my tattoos as a whole story or piece – maybe because each time I get a tattoo it is the singular tattoo that connects to a rather singular life event or story or to nothing at all, often just an urge to put something permanent on my skin. I got my 2nd tattoo because a friend of mine had been tattooed by an artist in LA who could work with super fine needles, and I really liked the way it looked. The image I chose was based on a dried up piece of cactus that I brought with me from Joshua Tree into the studio.I think it was the desire to remember the feeling of freedom and happiness I felt every time I went to the desert. It was a great recollecting zone, an escape from the madness of Los Angeles and school and my breakup. When I moved to Berlin I got a lot more of my tattoos because my good friend Adria was learning to tattoo at the time, I loved his work, and was really happy to let him practice on me. I have a few tattoos with “deeper” meaning but they are the smallest ones on my body (go figure). One with my partner Henry and one with my sister.
Me: I would always get asked, “What does your mother/father/family think of your tattoo(s)?” I’ve always hated this question because it felt so intrusive and judgemental. But I’m curious about how your family felt about your decision to get tattooed. Why might they have been resistant? Has that changed over time?
Jessica: I have a good relationship with my family—they trust and support me in the decisions that I make. That said, I didn’t tell them that I was getting that first tattoo beforehand. While I wouldn’t say they’re ‘in favour’ of the tattoos, I think they know at this point that I’m not going to do anything truly catastrophic to ruin my life. It’s more of a nodding, eye-rolling situation when I show them my latest addition and then it’s a non-issue, just a part of who I am, like anything else. Over time, we’ve even managed to bond a bit over tattoos—my dad has a small Canadian flag on his chest from his early twenties that he’s let fall into disrepair, so for Father’s Day a few years ago, we went and got our tattoos touched-up together. And my mum has agreed to get matching tiger tattoos (mini for her, half-sleeve for me)—she even got upset when I postponed it!
Laura: Strangely enough, my Mum and Dad don’t seem to care at all that I have a few tattoos, and when I showed them each one, Mum sort of said absentmindedly, ‘oh yes, that’s nice’, and Dad said ‘is that a safety pin?’ when I showed him the owl tattoo and ‘is that a piece of broccoli?’ when I showed him that tree tattoo. My family has never let me take myself very seriously! It was a bit disappointing to know that I couldn’t really rebel. But not that disappointing.
Krystle: I’m the youngest of 3 kids. My father passed away when I was 11, so it was really my mother’s opinion that counted. She was very upset when she found out my siblings had tattoos, so by the time I got one, she had chilled out and resigned to the fact that we would do whatever we wanted with our bodies. The best part, at 63 years old, my mother decided to get her first tattoo, a tiny flower the size of my thumb nail, in memory of her late sister. The general attitude in my family, like most conservative, christian, Filipino families, is resistance and resignation. But most of the younger generation of relatives have at least one, so it’s become no big deal! Specifically in the Philippines, I was met with a lot of archaic ideas about women and women’s bodies and tattoos were the least of my troubles as far as criticism went. (My partner and I were moving in together, unwed, and I am a bold, independent, racy fashion choice making, arts professional who didn’t have a desire to birth children at my ripe birthing age of 26 at the time. I feel like that offers a bit of explanation to that.)
Pippa: My dad was definitely the most resistant person toward tattoos in my life. When he saw my first tattoo (the tiny star) he was just sad. He said that growing up, the only women who had tattoos were prostitutes and ex-cons. I know this is hyperbolic, even for his generation, but he truly felt that tattoos were a marker of delinquency. He’s since shifted (somewhat) in that he realizes how mainstream tattoos have become (he has eyes!) but he still worries that if I continue to get visible tattoos, it might affect my ability to get a job. My mom has a similar perspective: she feels that my tattoos are fine for the liberal arts world that I currently inhabit, but she thinks that I might face prejudice if I try to enter the private sector job market. I haven’t shown my large back tattoo to my extended family yet; I think it’s because I fear their reaction. I already get teased for my face piercings; I guess I have a really conventional extended family, when I think about it. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my tattoos, I just cringe at the thought of having to defend my choices (and ultimately my body) to a huge group of relatives.
Erin: When I got my first one, which is small and very easily concealed, my parents loved it. I live fairly far from my mom and dad (& am an only child) so when I see them we don’t much focus on what I or they look like; we focus on hanging out, eating, being together in the same room. That said, I think when I got my larger more visible tattoos my dad had some concerns—generational ones. I think he was worried about whether or not people would judge me before they knew me because of my tattoos. I think he still worries about that, but I’m also older. I have a baby. Those other things—age, becoming a mom—have changed the way my parents see me, and they have changed the way I see myself—far more than having tattoos ever did.
Anna: Although my parents are super liberal and generally very open-minded it was interesting (and sometimes hurtful) to see how they reacted to me being tattooed. When I got my first they worried that perhaps my play with permanence was a sign of some deeper misery. It may very well have been but I don’t think that all the rest of my tattooing has been so intertwined with pain and healing. It is my dad that seems more bothered by my tattoos. He worries that I’ll cover my whole body, but I’m not really sure why this scares him so much. It is probably partly because people with tattoos in his time were often in prison or living on the fringes. I think he also has some socially learned (sexist) ideas that a woman’s body is somehow precious – tattooing a precious body is tarnishing it and this is especially so when the body is your daughter’s. Part of being a parent of a child transitioning into true adulthood is letting go of any “ownership” you may feel about your child and allowing the child full autonomy over their body – me getting tattoos was a serious affront to my parents’ feeling that they made me and that all of my skin (as it was) was precious. But I think they’ve really let go of that more recently and our relationship is healthier because of it. My parents have both, on their own, complimented (albeit somewhat forcibly) a few of my tattoos and my dad has even played with the idea of getting one himself.
Social Worker and Fiction Writer
Me: Have strangers asked you other questions? Some of my favourites are: “aren’t you worried about finding a husband?” “Don’t you think it’ll be hard to find a job?” “Aren’t you worried you’ll regret that one day?” And how have you responded to them?
Jessica: Most of the comments I get are compliments or positive questions (who is your artist, did it hurt, etc.) which are always a pleasure to answer. I’m not sure how to account for this, other than that I’m not ‘heavily tattooed.’ I can’t imagine a stranger asking me a question about the decisions that I make around my body that I wouldn’t have already asked myself. Except for the one about finding a husband. That’s just stupid. I often consider the body politics around tattoos—how they exist in the ‘public’ realm in that they’re a means by which we present ourselves physically, but also ‘private’ in that they are a wholly personal decision regarding identity. Ultimately, I believe that everyone’s body is their own business and no one deserves to be interrogated on the street by a stranger for their decisions. And I especially wish I didn’t have to make a point so obvious as that.
Laura: I only have 3 fairly small tattoos so I rarely get comments. Sometimes people say they like my tree, or ask me what the owl tattoo is. They never, ever know that it’s an owl. Other than that, I have been lucky enough not be bothered much by strangers about them.
Krystle: I’ve mostly only ever worked in environments where tattoos were acceptable. I have never really been asked dumb questions about my tatts like “What are you going to do when you get married?” etc, and I’m thankful for that. However, I have been touched without permission so that people could see the tattoos better. That was invasive and violating.
Pippa: Surprisingly, the reactions that I’ve gotten from strangers have been far more positive than the ones I’vve gotten from family. Maybe strangers are too afraid to be judgmental to my face? I hope there’s something about me that reads, “Don’t police my body!” Whenever a stranger has commented, it has been complimentary. Even more surprising, most of these comments come from people over the age of 50! Maybe they’re living vicariously through me for a moment? There seems to be hint of playful envy that says, “I wish I could get tattoos” when I get compliments from people who are closer to my parents’ generation.
Erin: Nope, not really. I think I give off a don’t-mess-with-me-vibe. I have had unexpected folks comment on liking my tattoos—elderly women, for example—which is always a great moment of remembering to check my own assumptions about people.
Anna: The most common questions I get from strangers about my tattoos are: “why did you get this or what does the tattoo symbolize for you?” It seems people have a deep need for narrative, especially with such permanent body modification and they tend to be really bothered when I say “no” or “it symbolizes nothing” or “it symbolizes everything that I was doing or feeling when I got it and everything and nothing right now.” Sure, there are snippets of story in the imagery of my tattoos, but no true narrative or symbolism that I can easily explain away. And the anxiety I feel from strangers when I answer so ambiguously can really rub off on me. I often begin to question myself and why I have them.
Multidisciplinary Artist & Logistics Manager for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival
Me: Do you feel that having tattoos is accepted in your field of work/study? What sorts of narratives do feel might exist around being a tattooed lady who works in x field? How have you worked to overcome/ignore/respond to those?
Jessica: I recently rejoined the academic world as a grad student and TA, and before I got here I worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously by my students or professors, not only because of my tattoos, but also because of my coloured hair and eclectic fashion sense. I’ve never explicitly experienced any prejudice because of these things, but for some reason I have it in my head that I won’t be taken seriously in the worlds of literature or academics because of my focus on fashion—as if you can only be interested in ideas or style, the former proving you intelligent and the latter proving you shallow. I’m happy to say that this has not been my experience at all and is a totally bunk narrative! Some of the most memorable professors and TAs from my undergrad were intelligent young women with tattoos or great style. I didn’t realize it then, but they inspired me by setting the example that a woman doesn’t have to fit into some stuffy old box to be in academia. I recently taught a full lecture as a TA and two young women came up afterwards to tell me how much they’d enjoyed the class. The thought of not only being free to represent myself as I am while I do what I love, but also to be able to set that example for other young women—well, that’s pretty special.
Laura: I’ve only worked professionally as a social worker or a counsellor and have found that it’s been fine in the areas of social work I’ve worked in (mental health, homelessness, telephone support and addictions). When I worked for 6 months as a school counsellor with young girls, I found that they did ask me some questions about the tattoos, and I found that I was unintentionally telling them that tattoos were okay. This felt like a good thing, but also a power issue. I tried to openly answer their questions, but also remind them that their body was their own and no one else’s.
Krystle: As an artist, it’s kind of just expected that I have tattoos or one of those “well, obviously” types of reactions. Working for the comics festival and within arts organizations for my entire career, it has never been an issue. Even when I was much younger, working in food service it only made me seem cooler to the financial district patrons of the restaurant that I worked at in Toronto’s downtown core.
Pippa: It’s strange, because being in a fairly liberally-minded department, I thought that the professors would appear more “liberal”. There is a definite “hierarchy of casualness” as I like to think of it: the tenured professors wear jeans with blazers, the tenure-track profs are in the full suits, and the brand-new profs err on the side of the most formal. This is a generalization, obviously, but I can definitely say that there aren’t any professors in my department with visible tattoos or facial piercings. When I starting TA-ing, I worried that the prof I was supposed to represent would feel embarrassed by my “deviant” appearance. I actually went to a professor and asked her if I should take out my face piercings when I teach. Her answer was perfect: “We’re not in the business of changing peoples’ appearances, here.” I’ve noticed that this holds true, at least for TAs: we’re not asked to cover tattoos or remove piercings. What I worry about is the cultural pressure to conform if/when I get a “real” academic job. If I walk into a department and notice that no one has piercings or visible tattoos, I’ll feel the pressure to cover up. I hope to resist and hold strong to my belief that liberal arts schools should practice what they preach. How hypocritical would it be for me to teach a Women’s Studies class, for example, and change my appearance to conform for that class?!
Erin: I’m an under-employed academic. As far as it goes I think I work in a field that is fairly accepting, though I did used to cover my tattoos with long sleeves when I was first in a contract position. Now, not so much. I tend to balance tattoos with “work clothes” – I’ll steer away from jeans when teaching more than I would stend to cover my tattoos.
Anna: I just started nursing school and I think one of my biggest anxieties about beginning clinical rotations is whether or not to show my tattoos. Nursing is still a job dominated by women and as such carries with it a deep history of near militaristic “serving” and “caring for” patients and being subordinate to doctors. We wear uniform to remove individuality from our work and to be seen as just another part of a larger institution and professionalism. So when my tattoos show in a clinical setting, I wonder is there too much of my individual on display? Can I still be seen as professional? If my tattoos make a patient uncomfortable and care is really about THEM and not ME am I doing my job as nurse well?
MA Student in English Literature (University of Calgary)
Me: Do you have to (or feel that you have to) cover up your tattoos?
Jessica: I don’t ever feel that I have to cover up my tattoos, not even now, being back in academics. My graduate program is pretty liberal and about a third of the English graduate program is made up of creative writers, so I haven’t felt out of place because of my tattoos. I have noticed that my fashion sense has changed to accommodate my tattoos, however. Between getting older and getting more tattoos, I notice my clothing choices becoming (slightly) more mature. Now that I’m in academics, I make fashion choices that take the fact that I have tattoos into account—not to cover them up, but to coordinate with them to create the overall look that I want to project. Your post on academic ladies who wear clothes was a huge help too! Ultimately, my tattoos make me feel confident about who I am, and that confidence projects. They’re my favourite accessories because they’re my ideas and passions made visible.
Laura: I think the only time I have considered covering them up was during that counselling gig, just so that I was presenting as neutral and equal for these young women. In the end I decided that part of my role was to create a safe enough space that the girls could feel they could be open with me, and that I would be honest and responsible if they did bring up my tattoos.
Krystle: I don’t ever feel like I need to cover up my tattoos, especially in the summer. It’s too hot for that! I do have mostly hidden tattoos and when my arms are down, you can’t see the ones on my arms, so I do like that they’re a bit of a surprise!
Pippa: I haven’t felt any pressure to cover my tattoos yet, beyond attending family functions. For the moment, I do cover my back tattoo when I see my extended family because I’m not ready to face their critiques yet. I feel incongruent as a feminist when I do this, but I feel incongruent, in general, when I see my extended family. I’m already one of the black sheep, for a number of reasons (staunch feminism included) so I tend to avoid drawing attention to myself in a negative way when I’m around them. Because of their generally negative perception toward tattoos, I feel like walking in with my back exposed would be like walking in with an actual target on my back!
Anna: I cover up my tattoos only when my role as individual isn’t as important as my ability to provide good (and comfortable) care to a patient. Generally speaking, most younger and healthier patients (for example my current rotation in labor and delivery) are super comfortable seeing tattoos. Many of the women giving birth on the unit have lots of tattoos and our similarities can then be used as a means of closer connection and empathetic care. But when I work with geriatrics patients (especially those with dementia), if I feel that my tattoos cause discomfort (or make patients question the quality of the care I provide) I cover them for sure. Outside of work I never cover my tattoos. Outside of work my role as individual trumps ensuring other’s comfort.
Me: What’s your favourite tattoo and why?
Jessica: My favourite tattoo is my shoulder piece—it’s based on my Grandma’s nursing school graduation portrait and is surrounded with the geraniums and petunias that she grew in her garden when I was young. I had the idea for years before I finally found an artist whose aesthetic fit and whose work I trusted—the incredibly talented Jennifer Lawes at Pearl Harbour Tattoo Shop. My Grandma was like a second mother to me and the tattoo is very special in that it honours our relationship, reminding me that she is with me every day in everything that I do. I hope that I can grow to become as fierce, loving, and compassionate a woman as she was.
Laura: It’s my tree tattoo. I like the way it looks and where it is because it means I feel like I have the very, very beginnings of a sleeve tattoo! I love the look of women with sleeve tattoos, and in another life I would get one. In this life however, the tree is enough for me.
Krystle: I would probably say that maybe my favourite tattoos are the ones that are very closely related to friends eg: Ultimate Warrior Mask and quote and the “Danger Kitten.” I say this because, I have been friends with these people for a very long time. They’re so close that they’re my chosen family. I see my future going two ways. I could completely lose touch or have a falling out with these people, so it will be a hilarious reminder of our soured friendship OR I will remain friends with them for the rest of my life and the tattoos only grow in meaning. Either way, I can’t lose!
Pippa: My favourite tattoo is my back tattoo because it holds a lot of personal significance (see question 2) and it symbolizes moving through a particularly difficult part of my life.
Erin: I have a sparrow on my forearm that Nomi Chi did in 2008 when I finished my PhD. She has a distinctive style—she’s an illustrator as well as a tattoist—and it has significance for me personally.
Anna: My favorite tattoo is the word “OUCH!” above a surgical scar on my right knee. It is my favorite because it’s funny and because it plays with the very issue at the heart of why I think I got all of my tattoos: rejecting the idea that my body (especially as a woman’s body) is some extra precious and pure piece, too important for humor, or scarring, or choice. I also love this tattoo because it is a marker of a scar that I chose in palpable and proximal contrast with a scar I did not get to choose (the scar from my emergency knee surgery).
Me: Another question I used to hate: “What do your tattoos mean?” The majority of my tattoos don’t hold a whole lot of meaning. I just really love traditional tattoos. But after my break, I started to get tattoos with “meaning.” This hasn’t been a conscious thing; a friend actually pointed it out to me. Do any of your tattoos hold a special significance/meaning for you? If so, can you tell me about one or two? If not, what has guided your tattoo choices?
Jessica: All of my tattoos hold a lot of meaning and are usually thought out well in advance—the exception being the lightening bolt on my left knee and the band aid on my right knee. I thought of these tattoos 2 days before I got them. I’d just seen my favourite musician, Kimya Dawson, perform for the first time and as she sat on stage strumming her guitar, the tattoo of a band aid on her knee (just one of the many that cover her body) jumped out at me. I knew I’d get it—it just felt right. I’d also read Just Kids by Patti Smith a year previously and was still feeling inspired by her strength and voice, so I got Smith’s simple lightening bolt tattoo (her only tattoo) at the same time. I think of these tattoos as a pair because they honour the strong, artistic women who inspire me, and I definitely plan to get more like them.
One of my most important tattoos is the mouse on the outside of my wrist. It was an encounter with a mouse in my apartment that convinced me to become vegan four years ago (long story.) This little guy rides around with me at my right hand, reminding me of that first encounter and epiphany in everything I do. Like all of my tattoos, he’s a commitment to some of my strongest beliefs—animal rights, environmentalism, and the necessity for humans to live compassionately.
Laura: Again, my tree tattoo is the one that has a meaning, and really it’s just that I grew up with a mother who loved trees, plants, animals and being outdoors. She taught me about trees and how important and beautiful they are from a young age, and I feel lucky for that. The sketch itself is just something I got from Googling ‘tree sketch’! But I like it. I also like that I got it when I first met my now partner, Adnan , and that it signified the start of the best part of my life, though I didn’t know it yet!
Krystle: I’m mostly interested in the artist themselves that are tattooing me, so I’ve given them a lot of artistic license to come up with something beautiful from my vague idea of what I want. Tattooing, to me, is an art practice, so I don’t see why I should be so militant on an idea when the artist themselves probably has a beautiful vision. My more aesthetically specific tattoos don’t hold a lot of meaning but are inspired by specific art styles like art deco and art nouveau with a dash of victorian anatomy illustration.
Pippa: My back tattoo is the image of a broken bell jar, with starlings escaping it and flying across my back. I got the idea from one of my favorite novels, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. In it, Plath describes her depression like being hermetically sealed off from the world by a bell jar. This metaphor has always struck a chord with me, particularly when I went through a period of depression last year. As I started to work my way through, however, I started to feel like I was “breaking free from the bell jar” of my depression. The timing of this moment coincided with my birthday, which is why my friends wanted me to have the tattoo so badly. I get strength from the image, reminding myself that I can pick myself up from the shitty patches in life.
Erin: They all do have meaning. The most recent one is a fairly heavy-handed allegory: there is an owl sitting atop a bell jar that is over a red tree. The red tree references Shaun Tan’s brilliant children’s book of the same name, which is about self-doubt, depression, and loneliness. The child in the story realizes that she is the red tree—the magic—that she’s been searching for.
Anna: I can’t say a whole lot about singular meaning for each tattoo but I will say this: I started to play with the idea of getting tattoos as a means to CHOOSE bodily scars. In puberty I grew really really fast and got lots of stretch marks as a result. I hated this part of my body and especially so because it felt like it had happened to me out of my control. Tattoos are permanent body marks too but they can be chosen. The idea of choosing my scars was really appealing to me. I think now that I am older and further removed from some of the pains of puberty I’ve lost touch with this. There are other stories and reasons involved with each tattoo too.
I have a tattoo with my partner that we got together very early in our relationship and for me it symbolized our deep and passionate and spontaneous and fast growing love for each other. And a commitment to being together. And to being a little crazy. And to the blindness with which we were jumping forward into a life together. The symbol itself though didn’t really matter. I have an x on my wrist with my sister: we chose it only because “x marks the spot.” The spot being our relationship, our time in Berlin together, our love for each other, or desire to always be a part of each other even if we physically can’t be together. These two tattoos are my smallest but definitely my most “meaningful”.
Me: There are definitely some gendered narratives around being tattooed. For men, it’s seen as a sign of strength, of being a bad ass (in a way that people respect). For women, it’s still kind of seen as a sign of deviance. After sharing some of my stories of being harassed by strangers for being tattooed, some men in my life have noted how they’ve never had a stranger say anything negative about being tattooed. It shocked me that I’d never thought about that before. I’d love to hear your general thoughts on the stigmas that surround being a tattooed woman, how you might have experienced some of those stigmas, and any other general thoughts around being a tattooed lady.
Jessica: I think your question draws attention to a larger problem with our society—one that feels that it is acceptable to openly criticize, touch, or otherwise police women’s bodies. Tattoos are unfortunately just one of the many ways in which women are made vulnerable through public objectification. In regards to stigmas around tattooed ladies, I think the assumption is usually that of thoughtlessness, as if the women being criticized hadn’t considered the effects of being tattooed—including, unfortunately, public criticism. I mean, it’s not as though a woman falls onto an inked needle and her life is forever ruined. I’m proud of the strong, independent, self-assured women who are able to overcome these public criticisms and stigmas; who are able to be exactly who they want to be, or are working towards it, and present themselves and their bodies unashamedly. Not without fear of criticism, but with the ability to be confident in themselves and their decisions.
When I try to account for all of the tattooed bodies in my life, I think most of them belong to women, and I definitely see these bodies and their tattoos as symbols of strength. If my tattoos are a mark of deviance, it’s only deviance from a construct of “acceptable” bodies that I have no desire to be a part of anyway. Most of the time, I forget that people might see me or treat me differently because I have tattoos. I don’t feel intentionally radical or deviant or alternative. I just feel like me.
Laura: Above I said that strangers have rarely commented on my tattoos negatively. While this is true, I have had a lot of acquaintances and friends say that they ‘don’t like tattoos on women’ and are unable to really tell me why when I ask. It’s infuriating, because I feel like it’s still okay for people to say something like that without having to be accountable or thoughtful for such sexism. I’ve also been told that my tattoos are ‘nice’ but that I shouldn’t get a sleeve, or anything on my chest/neck/stomach as it’s unattractive on a woman! This is obviously ridiculous, and saddens me. I also wonder sometimes whether these comments have insidiously affected my decision to stop at three tattoos and not get the sleeve I quietly admire on others…
Krystle: I identify as genderqueer but my gender performance in my day to day is very high cis femme. For the most part, it’s only the few, very old school relatives that think their opinion matters, that will say things that vaguely translate to keeping the body pure and attractive to land a husband and make babies.
Pippa: The stigma against tattooed women that bothers me the most is the assumption that they will regret it on their wedding day. It angers me to no end that people assume that anyone who identifies as female must consider their wedding day the most important day of their life! Moreover, this stigma conveys the message that it is somehow non-normative to have visible tattoos on one’s wedding day (or on days where one might be photographed). Isn’t that suggesting that a visibly tattooed person will somehow ruin the aesthetic of the “perfect photo” with their flagrant disregard for normative body standards?!
Erin: I’ve not had much harassment, really, though I did have an older colleague say to me that I had “serious ink.”
Anna: My partner has lots of tattoos and I recently mentioned to him that I was worried about showing my tattoos at my hospital rotation. He didn’t understand why and I was surprised to discover that he never really “thought about his tattoos” (his words not mine). I was shocked because as much as I try to forget I have tattoos, when my arms are on display I can feel people looking and forming opinions of me quickly. Sometimes this is great; sometimes I like people to think I look edgy or a bit rebellious before they get to know me (because really I am neither of those things). For example working as a bartender with tattoos was really useful at times, to be taken more seriously by rowdy clientele. But, as I explained before, in any space where my femininity is perceived as something rather precious and when I don’t want the attention on me, being a tattooed woman can be really tough.
Nursing Student (University of Toronto)
Me: All but 4 of my tattoos were done by men. Since starting back up again I’ve decided that I feel super good (and really empowered) getting tattooed by women. Something about getting tattooed by another tattooed lady, one who has committed her life (and her body) to the craft really resonates with me. It feels like a feminist gesture for some reason that I can’t fully articulate. Is there any relationship between your own thoughts/feelings around feminism, body positivity, embodiment and your decision to get tattooed? How has getting tattooed changed your relationship to your body (if at all)?
Jessica: It wasn’t my intention when I began, but my tattoos have made me feel really positive about aspects of my body that had previously made me self-conscious. At first I was embarrassed that people wanted to look closely at my ‘flabby’ arms or ‘ugly’ knees, but I slowly began to be able to see through their eyes. They weren’t seeing the imperfections that I saw, but the beautiful art that I’d put there. Tattoos became a way to make me feel proud of my body, to reclaim a space that I’d been taught to feel perpetually ashamed of. I’ve had a lot of anxiety throughout my life around feeling ‘out of control’ in my body, leading to some pretty nasty behaviors in the attempt to regain that control. Among other things, I see tattoos as a way to create a body that I can love and inhabit it. Not through self-destruction, but acceptance—as a work of art that is constantly changing, a place where I can proudly manifest my passions and selfhood.
Laura: I think I wanted to get tattooed to make a statement about my body. I wanted to show people that it was mine. I think that it’s a choice that we can make to make a statement about who we are, and that that statement should be ours to mould, but that often it’s not. Having said this, I feel lucky that my skin is white, and that it was my choice to paint it darker in this way.
Krystle: My adornments on my body have made me feel more confident in it. I think that my tattoos are beautiful and I love showing them off. When I was diagnosed with depression, my self-esteem took a huge hit and I was never satisfied with my appearance. I’m normally voluptuous and the stress ate away at my body making me feel far too thin. Now that I’m healthier, I feel like I’m a little rounder than I would like to be, so it’s a constant struggle to remain positive with what my mama gave me. But, if there is one consistent thing that has always remained, it was that my tattoos made me feel like a badass and I thought they were at least the most beautiful part of my body
Pippa: I’m in recovery from an eating disorder, and still have a fraught relationship with my body image. I actually started with getting facial piercings so that I would have something to focus on when I looked in the mirror, and feel good about. My back tattoo has altered my body image dramatically: I have a whole part of my body that I want to show off now! I also have a part of my body that I can always be content with: my tattoo won’t change, unlike the rest of my body. On the days when I have a really hard time liking myself, I try to at least look at and admire my tattoo, and remember that it was made possible by people who love me.
Erin: Yes, absolutely. Using art to mark time on my body has been a significant part of my own reorienting of my own relationship with myself—away from unrealistic externally-motivated expectations to a groundedness in my own skin on my own terms.
Anna: As I said before, for me having tattoos is all about getting to choose what’s on my body and about rebelling against notions of female body “preciousness.”
Thanks everyone for reading this lengthier blog post. I feel so honoured by all of the brave things that these women/womyn have shared about the relationship between their tattoos and the stories that are a part of their past and present lives and the stories that they want to create.feminism, feminist, mental health, professionalism, reclaiming, stigma, tattoos
This post was written by Margeaux