Tattooed Women: Not Actually What You Think They Are

I’ve noticed an uptick lately when it comes to stereotyping tattooed women, and at first I couldn’t figure it out where it came from. Then I realised that the latest celebrity scandal revolves around, you guessed it, a tattooed woman. In addition to feeding our prurient need to pick celebrities apart for entertainment, this has of course provided numerous opportunities for making incredibly offensive comments about tattooed women.

A little history is in order, for those just tuning in: Women and tattooing go back a very long time. Just like early tattooed men, women were probably originally tattooed for religious reasons. Tattooing was also used cosmetically in numerous cultures. In Eurocentric cultures, where there is a very serious stigma against tattooing which started during the medieval era, tattooing among (and by) women experienced a significant decline for several centuries until it underwent a resurgence in the 20th century, at which point it become associated with ‘sluttiness.’

In white, Eurocentric communities like the one I inhabit, tattooing is associated with criminality among men and with promiscuity among women. Both assumptions are, I hope I do not have to tell you, stereotypes of the worst order. And yet I see them repeated even among people who identify as progressive.

Tattooed women are called sluts and whores. Their tattoos alone are deemed markers of whoredom.

People say things like:

A few tattoos on a woman are okay, A butterfly, a tiny star. After that, she’s telling me something I don’t want to know. (source)

Women with tattoos on their lower backs have ‘tramp stamps.’ Tattoos on women are very widely believed to be signals of sexual availability no matter where they are located, though; and if a woman has a concealed tattoo and allows it to show or mentions that she is tattooed, abruptly she is moved from the ‘virgin’ to the ‘whore’ category. The myth that tattooed women are promiscuous is so pervasive that it almost beggars belief. And people genuinely seem to believe that knowing that a woman has tattoos tells them something about her.

As a tattooed person who is often read as a woman, I cannot even begin to tell you about the bizarre behaviours I encounter. People cross to the other side of the street to avoid me. Touch my body without my consent because they ‘just wanted to know how it feels to touch tattooed skin[1. I’ll spare you the trouble, in case you’ve never touched a tattooed person before: It feels exactly like anyone else’s skin.].’ I once had a drink thrown in my face at a party because I rejected someone’s very much unwanted sexual advances and he informed me that all tattooed women are ‘whores’ who ‘like it’ and how dare I be out there in the world, tattooed, and not be readily available for sex. I had someone tell me that he thought I was ‘a nice girl’ until he realised I was tattooed.

Tattooed women are all over the world.

Peacock (morvi) tattoos on a tribal woman in the slum at Gulbai Tekra.

Creative Commons licensed photo by Meanest Indian.

They are diverse.

A woman with a partially completed floral piece stretching across her chest and arm who also sports a labret piercing and numerous gold bangles.

Creative Commons licensed photo by madaboutasia.

They are, in fact, like a lot of other women.

A woman in yellow with a full sleeve, playing the drums at Carnaval.

Creative Commons licensed photo by shapeshift.

They just have tattoos. That’s all.

Just like women all over the world, their sexual behaviours are incredibly varied. As, indeed, is everything else about them. The world’s population of tattooed women has one thing in common, tattoos, but they have many other things in disparity. For some indigenous tattooed women, the appropriation of their religious practices by people not of their cultures is deeply offensive, for example.

Another trope about tattooed women, as my friend OuyangDan points out, is that tattooed women are all biker chicks. And, by extension, sluts, again. And, yes, tattoos are indeed part of biker culture, and many women who ride, build, and repair motorcycles have tattoos. But not all of them do. And having tattoos does not necessarily mean that a woman is into motorcycles.

I also see people referencing the idea that tattooed women are damaged somehow, or trying to work out ‘inner pain.’ I could write a whole post on why this is so very problematic and so very offensive on many levels. The short version is this: Have you ever noticed that when a woman exercises control over her body and makes choices about her body on her own, people are quick to say that those decisions were the result of either external factors, mental illness, or some sort of inner hurt/pain, rather than being a reflection of bodily autonomy?

Seeing that a woman has tattoos certainly doesn’t provide any information about her sexual availability or sexual interests and, honestly, it doesn’t tell you a whole lot else about her either. All it does is tell you that she has tattoos (and hopefully she likes them). If you know tattoos and tattoo artists you might be able to identify the artists she has worked with by looking at her tattoos. And that’s…really about it, honestly. Anything else people ‘think’ they know about tattooed women is wrong.

Tattooed women certainly do have work which tells observers something about them, if those observers know them personally and know how to interpret their tattoos. All tattoos have meaning to their owners. That meaning is not necessarily the one assigned by society. I can assure you categorically that none of my tattoos are comments on my sexual availability. And no, it’s not necessarily appropriate to ask a tattooed person what ou tattoos mean, as a general rule, unless that person explicitly invites you to ask or offers information.

We live and die by implicit associations. When we make blanket judgments about people on the basis of whether or not they are tattooed, whether or not they wear heels, whether or not they wear short skirts, whether or not they wear their hair naturally, whether or not they are ‘normal,’ we harm those people. And we harm ourselves. I am quite tired of seeing supposed progressives and social justice advocates making shockingly ignorant and offensive statements about tattooed women; it’s yet another reminder that people like me don’t ‘belong.’ It makes me sad when people respond to me with fear, when people think that I am a scary person because of these marks in my skin. It makes me even sadder when children respond with curiosity and interest and their parents pull them away and teach them to be afraid of freaks like me.

The takeaway here is that tattooed women are people, just like everyone else. And their bodies are their own and their business.

4 Replies to “Tattooed Women: Not Actually What You Think They Are”

  1. I would like to go on record as having loathed the ‘tramp stamp’ appellation for those particular tattoos even before I had one myself. I mean fucking seriously. It’s popular for very good reasons: It’s an area easily covered with casual clothes when needful. It’s an area fairly easily uncovered when desired. It’s one of the few parts of a person’s body that isn’t going to change much over time; fat deposits there are small, it doesn’t sag or wrinkle much. If you’re getting your first* tattoo why wouldn’t you think of the small of your back as a good place? Also y’all can keep your slut shaming no one needs it.

    * Mine was actually my second (of five) but still.

  2. The first women I knew with tattoos were moms in my practice in Riverside County a couple decades ago. They lived in what my husband calls border communities, that is, groups that are on the edge of what straight society considers normal. I was curious about the tats and asked. All the moms told me that the tattoos meant they were not available to anyone except their man. It was a way for the other men in the group to know they were taken. How that morphed into “easy” – well, I suppose it is because straight society considers women on the back of hogs to be less than women who drive Porsches.

  3. Well, K0 beat me to it, but back before I had made opinions one way or the other about having children but had opinions about wanting tattoos, and before I had ever heard the term “tramp stamp”, the small of my back made perfect sense because in the event that I decided that I did want children I reasoned that this was an area that was not likely to stretch or alter greatly, unlike the belly button area that was wildly popular when I got my first tattoo. To be fair, I thought those tattoos were wildly beautiful, and still do, but they were not for me if I was going to be someday swelled with child.

    I also hope that it was clear that I meant the stereotypical “biker chick”, as opposed to the woman who enjoys bikes as you mentioned in your post here, who may or may not have tatts, and who may enjoy bikes, may enjoy working on them, or just riding on them, or who may belong to any of a range of sexuality or level of promiscuity, which is not for me to judge. Her having or not having tatts is not indicative of that…which was all I meant.

    Thank you for writing this…from someone who was once told by her boyfriend that he wasn’t going to have his woman all tattooed up like some biker chick. Now I am with someone who loves ink, and who knows that everything I just said about bikers may or may not be true, and that it isn’t anyone’s business either way.

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