Tattooed Ladies! Even though we missed the circus sideshows that ran from the 1800′s well into the twentieth century, the name itself conjures up images of exotic lives, lived on the edge by fascinating women.Tattoos on women aren’t new to us, and they really weren’t new to the ladies of the circus sideshows either. Tattooing and women have a long history, which twists and turns with changing ideals about adornment, modesty, independence, and function.The earliest proven tattooed ladies were Egyptian: many female mummies have net-like patterns of dots over their abdomens, thighs and chests. Early explorers assumed that these women – ancient Egyptian men didn’t have tattoos – were prostitutes, echoing the biases of the time. But newer interpretations (and understanding of diverse tattooing practices) suggest that these tattoos were probably given as talismans to assist women in pregnancy and childbirth.The ancient Greeks learned tattooing from the Thracians in what is now Turkey, and they used the technique to tattoo the faces of criminals and slaves with such charming inscriptions as “stop me, I’m a runaway”. That you wouldn’t want one of these tattoos lives on in the word “stigma”-the ancient Greek word for tattoo was “stig”, meaning “prick” or “stitch”.In northern Europe, the pre-Celts tattooed themselves for decorative purposes, with moons, stars, and animals as favorite motifs for women. And despite periodic bans on tattoos from religious authorities, Medieval Christians were returning from crusades and religious pilgrimages with tattoos of religious and alchemical symbols – souvenirs from and proof of their adventures.When Captain James Cook returned from the Pacific Islands in 1769 with accounts of “tatau-ing”, the word “tattoo”, which was also used to describe military drumming, came into the lexicon. A new craze for tattoos arose in England, starting with sailors, working up to the officers, then to royalty. And women got tattoos as well – even Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother, got a tattoo of a snake around her wrist. But while women were flirting with raciness by getting tattoos, they were still subject to the demands of Victorian society, and made sure those tattoos were easily coverable – to be safe from overly judgmental eyes. The trend for ornamental tattoos spread to the United States as well: in 1876, The New York Times was reporting on it. But in 1882, something strange happened: several women decided that they would become tattooed ladies.We don’t know whether the first tattooed lady was Nora Hildebrandt or Irene Woodward, but both contenders for the honor decided to become tattooed ladies in 1882, allowing Martin Hildebrandt, the most prominent tattoo artist of the time, to help them recreate themselves and an industry. And their success was immediate – although there had been plenty of tattooed men in circuses for over 80 years, once tattooed ladies began working the circuit, the combination of exotic stories and showing of skin was too strong a force to be resisted. Nora was given a tragic story of capture by the Lakota Sioux and enforced tattooing by her poor father, who finally opted for an early death rather than continue torturing his daughter. Irene’s exotic story told of her father tattooing her to pass the time in their rural cabin before he was killed by Native Americans, who – frightened by her tattoos – released her unharmed.Others followed in Nora and Irene’s footsteps: a tattooed lady could make between $35-100 a week at a time when skilled clerical workers made about $22 a week, and domestic workers made a whole lot less. And even though we think of women as staying home then, lots of working-class women had to work for wages as well. One of these women, Anna Mae Burlingston, had been helping support her mother as a domestic servant when she met her husband, a tattooist named “Red” Gibbons. Soon after they were married, she decided to change her game: she let Red tattoo her (with religious imagery – she was a devout Christian), and by 1919 she was performing as Miss Artoria, traveling with her husband in sideshows that featured her on stage – and him working as well. And she worked a long time: even with the rise of television (and the reduction in need for “freaks” in live entertainment), Artoria worked in carnival sideshows until 1981.There’s no denying that part of the appeal of a tattooed lady is her sex appeal. The stories of danger and pain, along with the opportunity to look at more skin than ordinary society might allow, were irresistible. But female audiences were also drawn to the ladies – who were, after all, a lot like them. Most tales included obvious references to the ladylike behavior and good morals of these women. After all, tattoos were still regarded as racy – as late as 1955, an editor of a sociology anthology wrote that “most tattooed women are prostitutes.” Not that they were: most were like the rest of the working women, taking care of husbands and children as well.But tattooed ladies had obviously taken control over their bodies, and that came with some risk of isolation. Lady Viola (born Ethel Martin in 1898) got herself tattooed(with images of people she admired) when her first marriage ended. She worked – as “The Most Beautiful Tattooed Lady in the World” – until she retired in 1932 to raise nine children with her second husband. When he died in 1969, she went back out on the road, both to raise money and to not be lonely. But later, when she died, there was no mention in her obituary of her career as a famous tattooed lady – her fellow churchgoers never knew. Not only was tattooing still taboo, but working in a circus sideshow would have seemed seedy by then.Tattoos also carried connotations of class – they were seen as adornments of the working class. Even if society ladies had them (and they did), the stigma(!) of tattoos was that they were vulgar. While the tattooed ladies were given exotic stories that often included noble birth, they were really working-class girls who decided to take a chance – a big one – and get paid more than their conservative sisters. One tattooed lady – Betty Broadbent – was quoted as saying she regretted getting her first tattoo. Now I’m sure she didn’t regret everything – she was one of the more successful tattooed ladies – but once they went in, there was no going back.And it’s not entirely different today, even if lots more women are getting tattoos: there’s a definite class divide within the tattooed world between who has good work and who doesn’t. And while industry legend Lyle Tuttle credits women’s liberation with the latest renaissance in tattoo art, there’s still some divide between those women who have a discreet surprise (or more) and those who’ve gone full-force into decoration. The opportunity to be a professional tattooed lady may have ended because so many women are getting designs inked into their skin now, but today’s full-on tattooed ladies still work in creative jobs. So even if we can’t imagine their being abducted to the islands of the South Seas to get all that ink, we know they won’t be going straight anytime soon.
When we look at Tattooed Ladies, we often think of them in the context of individuality, self-expression, and self-ownership. And in the United States, the history of women and tattoos is generally one of self-determination and independence. But in Asia, the relationship between women and ink is very different. Tattooing in Japan, especially, has many threads of cultural legacy that still inform the practice and its connotations today.In antiquity, the Japanese were known to favor tattooing and decoration. Visiting Chinese remarked on the practice as “barbaric”, since most “civilized” Chinese subscribed to the Confucian ideal that tattooing was polluting to the body.The Chinese did practice tattooing, however – but mostly in the form of marking criminals for life. Outside the sophisticated Confucian elite, soldiers were readying themselves for battle by getting talismanic tattoos of axes, and women living south of the Yangtze River were decorating their hands with tattoos of insects and snakes.By the middle ages, decorative tattooing had been replaced by penal tattooing in Japan. Serious crimes were punished by tattooing symbols of the crime on the arms and even faces of the criminals. Such a punishment often resulted in being shunned by family and friends, as well as strangers – a dreadful outcome in a culture where relationships are central.But in more remote areas of Japan, tattooing was alive and well. The Ainu people – who have lived continuously in Northernmost Japan for over 12,000 years – have a tradition of tattooing that is exclusively female. The Anchipiri (“Black Stone Mouth”) women were tattooed around the lips by a “Tattoo Aunt” or “Tattoo Woman” to repel evil spirits and show that they are ready for marriage. The pain of having a tattoo placed in such a sensitive area was also supposed to help the young woman endure the pain of childbirth. Though the pain may have been eased by the incantations given along with the soot: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.”Ainu women also tattooed their hands and arms with braided geometric patterns. These patterns, which were begun while a girl was as young as six, were also designed to protect women from evil spirits. They were also similar to braided “girdles” worn secretly by women, and their designs were handed down from mother to daughter.In the early 1800′s the Japanese shogunate outlawed the practice, banning tattoos in general. But the Ainu still tattooed their girls – who wouldn’t be able to marry or be welcomed into the afterlife without them. Still, the custom died out in the early twentieth century – the last remaining Ainu tattooed lady died in 1998.And tattooed ladies didn’t just flourish in the north of Japan, either. On the southernmost Ryukyu islands, women had the backs of their hands and fingers tattooed during the winter months, after the field work had been done. While some of the tattoos were family crests and husbands’ ancestral signs, many of them were designed to show that the woman wearing them had mastered complex weaving patterns:Tattoos on women were not always markers of beauty and great skill. During the Edo period, tattoos in Japanese society were worn by courtesans to mark the names of their lovers – or favorite clients. While new clients might be jealous of the names that preceded them, tattooing was less damaging to the “merchandise” than the alternative – sometimes women would chop off a segment of one of their fingers and present it as a gift to their beloved.But tattoos were also becoming more widespread among men during the 17th and 18 centuries. Penal tattoos were given until 1870, and criminals would seek larger designs to cover their markings. Firemen were also getting tattoos, and were the first of the era to seek full-body designs. Since firemen often fought fires wearing only loincloths, these were considered show-off tattoos, but they were also markers of strength and camaraderie. And with the rise of the organized Yakuza criminal networks and their elaborate full bodysuit tattoos, tattoos became a thing for men – very tough men. That these tattooing traditions often criss-crossed with more traditional art forms didn’t prevent their stigmatization from association with these “tough guys”.This legacy of tattooing from “the floating world” for women and from organized crime for men has left its mark on the attitudes towards tattooing in modern Japan. While tattoo artists from the US travel to Japan for inspiration and training, and lots of people get Japanese-inspired tattoos, Japanese people in general are not comfortable with inked skin. Moreover, for women, the impetus to get inked – with the exception of tribal peoples – has historically come from one’s involvement with a man, and usually one from the criminal underworld.This hasn’t stopped more forward-thinking Japanese women from jumping into the tattoo world. But modern Tattooed Ladies tread a fine line between Good and Bad Girl. Many people still see tattoos as a criminal-only endeavor: most public baths don’t allow tattooed patrons, as they don’t want people involved in organized crime to scare away their other patrons. Banks routinely deny tattooed people loans, and people will stare in horror at tattoos on the subway. So most Japanese women – especially outside the big cities – won’t be getting inked any time soon.But as tattoos as decoration become more widespread outside of Japan, it’s pretty much inevitable that Japanese women will want them more often. Already pop stars and hairstylists are flaunting feminine designs that say “Hey, I’m fabulous” more than they say “Hey, I’m devoted to my criminal lover”. And more female tattoo artists have arisen, for women who not only want more feminine designs, but may be uncomfortable showing skin to a male tattoo artist. But it’ll take some time for tattoos as ornamentation to be seen as just another choice: until there are some tattooed grandmothers around (or a new trend of tattooing our skills on our hands), Tattooed Ladies in Japan won’t get the respect they deserve.