How tattooed women went from circus act to mainstream

Women in the World talks to tattoo scholar, and tattooed woman, Anni Irish

In 2012, the number of tattooed women surpassed the number of tattooed men in the U.S. for the first time. We’ve come a long way: barely a hundred years ago, American women with body art were considered freaks. Circus freaks: in the late nineteenth century, Nora Hildebrandt made her living showing off her tattoos to crowds at the Barnum and Bailey circus. In the 1920s, Mae Vandermarck, a typist in New York, realized she could make more money as a tattoo performer, and made a name for herself with the Ringling show.

Tattoos remained associated with marginal groups and even criminals through much of the twentieth century, but began to catch on among mainstream Americans in the 1970s; their renaissance coincided with a new interest in tribal or “neo-primitive” aesthetics. The feminist movement also imbued tattoos with new meaning for some women, who felt body art could offer a means of expressing themselves and reclaiming their bodies. More recently, reality TV shows like Miami Ink and its spinoffs LA Ink and NY Ink, which take place in tattoo shops, have further demystified tattoo culture. It’s estimated that nearly 40 percent of American millennials have at least one tattoo; of those with tattoos, nearly 70 percent have more than one.

Yet old-fashioned stereotypes about women who get tattoos have persisted. “The tattooed female body has this charged history around it,” New York-based academic Anni Irish told Women in the World in a phone interview. Irish got her first tattoo more than a decade ago at the age of 18 and has since covered herself in images based on works by her favorite artists. She found it especially satisfying to take representations of the female body by male artists like Gustav Klimt, and reappropriate them for her own body; it’s “a feminist gesture,” she said.

After she started getting visible tattoos, though, she noticed a disturbing change in how people–particularly men–responded to her in public spaces. People would “just touch me inappropriately and ask me questions”–even total strangers seemed to feel entitled to “some kind of explanation, a story,” she said. “There’s this assumption: You must be a dirty girl.”

Irish doesn’t just have personal experience of being a tattooed woman in the U.S.: She’s also devoted her career to studying representation of the body and its modification. Irish holds an M.A. in Gender and Culture Studies from Simmons College and another M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University. On Tuesday night, Irish delivered a lecture on tattooed women in American history to a sold-out crowd at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. She shared some of the images she’s collected with Women in the World.

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