This year marked the Fifth Annual Visionary Tattoo Arts festival held in New Jersey, America. The annual event, which took place at the end of July, celebrates the tattoo as an art form, with some of the world’s greatest tattoo artists in attendance for those eager to have a tattoo themselves. Statistics in a recent poll indicate that between 29% of men and women in the UK aged between 16-44 currently have a tattoo, with the number of women tattoo wearers in particular increasing. Tracy D, a highly respected London based tattoo artist said “It’s more of an art and people love the way that it looks, which is all the justification a woman needs…the new generation is so enamoured with tattoos that they think nothing of having them”.
Jon Jon Lane, the director of the festival in New Jersey said “ It is more respectable for women to get tattooed, before it was seen as a more masculine type of thing”, and further commented how he has noticed a greater number of younger females getting tattoos now than in the past.
The debate surrounding women and tattoos is certainly not new. Traditional perceptions of women tattoo wearers are often linked back to the so called ‘ladette’ culture, with tattoos on women considered a form of masculinity entrenched on to the female form. With 21st century tattooed females often feeling the brunt of negative and often ‘old-fashioned’ views about their identity as a tattooed woman, recent studies have sought to further unravel these perceptions.
Swami and Furnham (2007) purposefully examined the social and physical perceptions of blonde and brunette women with tattoos. Both male and female undergraduates rated a series of 16 line drawings of females which varied in level of tattoo covering and hair colour; blonde or brunette. The results of this particular study revealed overall that those women with tattoos were deemed less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers than their non-tattooed female counter parts. Additionally, blonde haired females were generally rated more negatively than brunette females who have tattoos.
I decided to delve into this slightly further, and find out first-hand how a small group of young people today feel about tattoos on women. All of those questioned were aged between 18-25 and predominantly university students, with one male non-student currently working abroad. Rachel, 20 who has in total six tattoos with a full sleeve on one arm commented how “ridiculous” it is that women with tattoos are considered to be more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers. “Men have tattoos but aren’t seen to be like that, you can get a load of women who are promiscuous and don’t have tattoos at-all!” Jamie, 20 contrastingly commented how “I think you have to be a certain type of person to get a tattoo, and normally that type of person is associated with drinking”. Despite this seemingly stereotypical approach to identifying those with tattoos, this latter student overall shared minimal negative feeling towards them, highlighting how they can appear attractive on females in certain contexts.
In terms of attractiveness, the male participants questioned did not overwhelmingly consider tattoos as “unattractive”, with perceptions of the overall attractiveness of a woman ill affected by the presence of a tattoo. Joseph, 21 interestingly commented: “I find women with tattoos more attractive… seeing a girl with tattoos does make me think they are a little more free spirited and likes to do what they do and not follow the rules”. However, overall it was commented that bigger tattoos on a woman can sometimes be ‘overwhelming’, with smaller and more delicate tattoos comparatively seen as more attractive on some females. This latter point is particularly interesting and explained in an article within Stylist magazine. Gemma Angel, from UCL History of Art Department commented: “A dainty little rose is an acceptably discreet decoration, but an entire back piece is much more confronting… western standards of tattoos do not accommodate heavily tattooed women because… it disrupts the idea of what is feminine”.
With such an increase in the numbers of women deciding to have a tattoo, it would seem that perceptions of the phenomenon are gradually altering. Rachel, 20 commented: “I do think perceptions are changing but not dramatically, most people have old fashioned views about women with tattoos even though more and more women are getting them”. This student herself commented how she has personally felt ‘snubbed’ by certain members of the public for showcasing her visible arm tattoo during her part time retail work, although did comment that overall “ there are more people who are accepting of tattoos than not, so this overrides the negativity”.
It seems clear that perceptions of women with tattoos have changed significantly over time, opening up the acceptance for women to be seen in public with tattoos. However, despite the apparent progression made in changing negative perceptions of females with tattoos, there is still a long way to go before tattoos on women become fully acceptable; in all shapes and sizes and on all forms of the female body.
Swami V, Furnham A. Unattractive, promiscuous and heavy drinkers: Perceptions of women with tattoos. Body Image, Dec 2007; 4 (4): 343-352.