Body Ink, Sex Kink, and Other Matters of National History

When America discovered that Sandra Bullock’s star-crossed romance with bad boy Jesse James had come to a crashing infelicitous end, every public and private detail (the categories tend to blur in tabloid news) about James’ mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee was quickly and widely scrutinized. A special focus was paid to the copious tattoos etched on McGee’s face, neck, and body.

Unlike the understated butterflys and floral garlands that adorn more than a few sorority girls’ ankles or the modest kanji script reading  “courage,” “love,” “strength,” or some such cherished individual characteristic found on various parts of undergrads’ backs and biceps (or so they think),  McGee’s ink inscribed a deviant sexual female body. This wrecking ball of ink, kink, and Nazism, as the story was told for weeks, had lay waste to the happy home of America’s sweetheart.

A chain of binary associations at once distanced and connected these two women in the popular imaginary. McGee represented the trashy (copious tattoos), slutty (stripper), immoral (swastika tattoo), low-class  (implied from all of the above) whore who contributed to the heartbreak of the monogamous Academy Award winning wife (and as we later learn, mother ) whose own tattoos are as modest as she is. (For the spectrum of female morality and ink size/placement, see Jezebel blogger Katy’s post on “Painted Ladies.”) Even Tina Fey rehearsed this dialectic in an SNL weekend update:

When your body looks like a dirtbag’s binder from 7th grade metal shop it doesn’t bode well for your character. . . For every Sandra Bullock there’s a woman who got a tattoo on her forehead because she ran out of room on her labia.

But McGee’s 15 seconds of fame has timed out (at least from my corner of the world) and yet, if yesterday’s New York Times opinion piece by economics professor and Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt and its 167 comments (at the time of this blog post) is any indication, concerns about tattoos and women’s sexuality remain strong. Upon news of a Pew Research study that found 40% of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo and 36% of those age 18-25 report having a tattoo, Levitt asks, “So what makes tattoos so popular?” Levitt surmises that people who get tattoos “are mostly trying to signal something about themselves to potential mates”:

Maybe a tattoo is a signal that a person is wild, impulsive, and likes risk.  I suppose those are traits I once would have sought in a woman, although they certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my list now!

This image of the “wild, impulsive, risk-taking woman” who Levitt’s apparently outgrown (for his modest and methodical wife?) associates tattoos with a young, unrefined, and attention-needy female sexuality. Katy argues, understandably, that “Not every tattoo is about sex.” I couldn’t agree more and yet I would qualify her point. Tattoos in the history of U.S. racial imperialism especially in relation to non-white women have always been about sex.

Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, non-white people from Africa, the Pacific Islands, South America, Asia, and Australia were displayed as live exhibits at World’s Fairs, museums, and circuses throughout the U.S. These displays operated to give (pseudo)scientific evidence of the diversity of the “family of man” while also reinforcing the existing racial hierarchy of white superiority which conveniently justified an array of imperialist projects in the name of bringing civilization to the “primitives.” While all such displays contained a racial-sexual dimension that titillated and shocked the virtues of White Western audiences, heavily tattooed women were a particularly popular attraction. Legal scholars Lucille Ponte and Jennifer Gillan describe these attractions in their article about workplace anti-discrimination jurisprudence in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy:

In these shows, heavily-tattooed females partially stripped before huge crowds to display their tattoos, concocting wild stories of ‘savage’ kidnappings and forced tattooing to explain their appearance. Embedded in these fanciful back-stories were the false assumptions that no woman would intentionally tattoo herself and that her own ‘natural’ frailty would make her unable to fend off the attacks of dangerous primitives.

These shows provided an opportunity for the audience to explore ‘culturally repressed desires and emotions,’ and ‘to experience subversive pleasures with and tortures of the flesh without sacrificing commonly held cultural understandings of corporeal responsibility’ while affirming ‘dominant cultural ideas about sanctity of the body.’ These carnival show settings also helped to embed negative stereotypes about women with tattoos as ‘loose’ or ‘tramps,’ labels that still persist in contemporary United States culture.

I want to recall this history as a reminder that class and gender hierarchies cannot be divorced from racial imperialism. The construction of middle class white female respectability has always depended on a racially and classed primitive other. While this history goes unspoken in the public discourse about (white) women and tattoos, as Ponte and Gillan make clear, it structures contemporary perceptions of “natural” beauty and White women’s bodies and sexuality.


I’m going to guess that nearly everyone reading this blog either has at least one tattoo or knows someone who does well enough that they are familiar with the process. But for the ink novices among you, here’s a general rundown:

  • Decide what you want and where
  • Make the appointment and if necessary, the consultation visit – good tattoo artists like mine will be booked up for weeks, sometimes months
  • Ensure one’s bank account can stand the hit (all together, mine cost about $500 – a modest sum for the size and quality of tattoos. I wouldn’t presume to say I got the homie-discount but I didn’t pay full price after the first one having forged a solid acquaintanceship with this particular artist)
  • Arrive on time at appointment (unlike medical appointments I’ve had, tattoo appointments are implausibly on-time)
  • Tattoos can take 30 minutes or they can take weeks (healing time also varies depending on where you get it, how big, how well you look after the fresh scar, and who you are). As luck would have it, I’m not a bleeder so this part of the process is relatively easy for me.

And yes, getting tattoos hurt (a lot, if the needle is making contact with bones like rib cages and spines) and no, the pain doesn’t subside as the process goes on. It gets worse. But pain has long been part of the point of tattoos. A friend in grad school who had numerous tattoos including one covering almost the entirety of her back as well as her ear lobes stretched to about 0- or 00-gauge told me that she undertakes body modification to see how much pain her body can tolerate. I know exactly what she means. This isn’t an abuse of your body but an acute awareness of it.

Each of the four tattoos I have mark moments of my life when I was particularly aware, for better and worse, of my own solitude. (Attracting a sexual partner played no part in the mental, logistical, and corporeal experience of getting the tattoos.) The pain of the hot needle scraping raw flesh and bone helped me to viscerally mark these moments. This is why I rarely talk about my tattoos and find questions about them to be a violation of privacy. Visible tattoos or, for that matter, any mark of visible racial, gender, and class difference are not invitations to surveillance.

I want to note, too, that tattooing as a ritual of pain and a rite of passage is a significant part of many cultures. The Maori people of New Zealand and the Dayaks of Borneo, for example, use tattooing as a means of signifying social rank for women and men. Yemeni women tattoo their faces and hands to promote fertility as well as to protect against diseases. Such histories, unfortunately, are not a part of the mainstream American view of tattoos.

Edited to add: Mimi just sent me this link to a new movie called Covered: Women and Tattoos. If the movie lives up to director Beverly Yuen Thompson’s vision, I’ll be very excited to see it. Below is the Director’s Statement and a short video of the making of the movie.

I got my first tattoo at seventeen; it was nothing special, regrettable even, immortalizing an unfortunate relationship. But it was my first introduction to the world of tattooing; and more specifically, the world of women’s tattooing. I had accidentally ended up in one of the top all-female tattoo artists’ shops in the nation—Madame Vyvyn Lazonga in Seattle, Washington. My second tattoo was much more appropriately thought about and unique to my personality. From then on, I was hooked. At nineteen, my good friend was a tattoo artist, Charissa Vaunderbroad, and I spent my days studying in the tattoo studio, observing the customers. As I became more heavily tattooed, social reactions to my visible tattoos began to impact my life. I was interested in finding out about the experience of other heavily tattooed women and the ways in which they managed these social sanctions. Thus, the idea for Covered was born.

Tattoo culture has now entered the mainstream with its exponential growth in popularity, reality television shows, and nationwide tattoo conventions. While Kat Von D might have made it to television stardom as a female tattooist, other women’s voices from the tattoo community have been notably absent. When women are present, such as in tattoo magazines, they are often sexually objectified. Covered sets out to remedy these oversights by shedding light on the history of women in the tattoo industry and to share the voices and perspectives of heavily tattooed women in the United States.



10 responses to “Body Ink, Sex Kink, and Other Matters of National History

  1. This is an excellent post – thank you! The attitude a lot of people have towards tattoos is a huge pet peeve of mine.

    • I have a rose behind my ear. Of all of my tottoas it surprisingly hurt the least. In fact it did not hurt at all. More then anything it was just annoying because the tattoo gun was buzzing away into my ear. If your other ones didn’t hurt, I doubt you’ll have any trouble with this one. I didn’t have any problems with it when I showered or washed my hair, but try not to wash your hair for a day ot two afterwards just in case. Just wash the tattoo with antibacterial soap and let it air dry or pat it dry with a paper towel and follow your artist’s directions. good luck!

  2. The Wichita of the central United States were well known for having black tattoos on their faces and necks, also. I wish I could tell you what that signified but I can’t imagine it was much different than a lot of other cultures’ reasons.

    My own tattoos are, as I like to tell people, a sign that I have always seen my body as a canvas. I was notorious for drawing on myself throughout school, so having permanent colors on my skin just seems natural to me.

    It was only with my latest tattoo, which I sat for 4 hours for, that I really realized the connection between that pain and my state of mind. It made me horrifyingly depressed for a couple of days afterwards and yet reconnected me to my body to the point that I finally decided to get a health issue that I’ve had for years dealt with. It really is amazing how much pain can clarify things.

  3. This is great, and so interesting! I too feel that being asked about my tattoos and piercings is a violation of privacy even though they are, of course, visible to everyone. The inverse relationship between body modification and perceptions of morality is one I’ve always had trouble understanding.

    I actually don’t get tattooed or pierced for the pain but very simply because I love how the end result looks, though I do feel a great sense of pride about being able to “hack it” once the procedure is over with. Anyway, great post!

  4. lilia

    excellent post. I started getting seriously tattooed (big ones) after I was about 20. As a teenager, sleazy men would try to chat me up by asking if I was a ‘dancer’ or if I wanted to model for them. I usually answered that no, dancers have to start training at 3 or 4, and I had skiied and skated instead, before it dawned on me that they didn’t mean ballerina or breakdancer. I was smart enough to know that real fashion photographers didn’t approach teenage waitresses at the mall. This was in the mid-90s when adult entertainment workers generally didn’t have prominent tattoos. Mine dramatically marked out my body as not available for sex work, not available to those kind of men and their standard of beauty. Of course I got the tattoos because I like them, but having nothing to lose but the wrong kind of attention made it easier to decide to go for it. Fashioning my body in a way that showed that I was more interested in my own aesthetics than in anyone else’s idea of beauty (either ‘good girl’ or ‘bad girl’ or any girl at all) was a political act.

    As for the pain, I don’t think tattoos hurt that much, but then again, I’ve learned to not mind leg waxing, laser scar revision, or vaccination either. At a historical moment when bodies are in flux, where new incursions and exclusions are more frequent and common, and working on the body is part of appropriate subjectivity, maybe the equation of tattoos and ‘bad’ women is defining an other against which teeth lasering, mom jobs, deathface botox, and all manner of implants are normalised?

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  6. jen

    “Visible tattoos or, for that matter, any mark of visible racial, gender, and class difference are not invitations to surveillance”
    Great post,
    I think the symbolic/semiotics work that goes in to rationalizing/justifying tattoos is also extremely interesting. What is so wrong with getting an anchor on your lower back because you want it there and like to look at it in the mirror? What is wrong with just simply enjoying the way images look on your body? I find it interesting how much of a push there is that tattoos are things that have to ‘mean something’, that they constantly have to represent something tangible you can quickly explain to other people.

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  9. If I had a nickel for every time I came here.. Superb article.