When I was 20, I got my first ink. All my life, the only exposure to tattoos I experienced was through social media. The idea of them was always alluring, but the pain that could accompany them scared me out of my wits. In fact, right before that first appointment, I almost walked away. Thankfully, I didn’t.

Before choosing the shop, I did a lot of research. I wanted a shop that was welcoming, and where a woman would be doing my piece. Unfortunately, that ended up being very difficult to find. Most shops I found were varying levels of intimidating. Furthermore, most shops only employed one woman, and she was almost always booked. Finding the right place to go became a part time job. And though today, 2 years down the line, I find myself with more ink littering my arms and back, finding welcoming tattoo shops in which women and gender non-conforming artists are available continues to be a struggle.

Some history

Historically, tattoos have rich tribal traditions from all around the world and have been a symbol of self and group expression. In the 19th century, tattoos actually became a popular accessory for wealthy socialites, though that fad ended quickly in the 20th century. At that point, the upper echelons of society frowned on tattoos. The ties between masculinity and tattoos got stronger during this time period. Due to this cultural shift, women had a very hard time getting access to tattoo shops. Unless their husband accompanied women, shops would often turn them away. Talk about policing female bodies.

In the 1970s, women rebelled against this sexist tattooing culture. With the rise of counterculture, women began getting tattoos to reclaim their bodies. In fact, one of the most popular tattoos for women at the time was for breast cancer survivors, to help hide and transform their mastectomy scars. However, gender norms still demanded that women get their tattoos in areas that could be covered. Not only that – the art had to be relatively small, so as to not attract too much attention to it either. 

Tattoos today

Since the 70s, tattoos have made their way back to the mainstream, and women continue to engage with that culture, oftentimes in efforts to reclaim their body. However, society has marked women with tattoos are more inherently promiscuous, whereas (usually white) men with tattoos are ‘cool’. Just think about it this way – when one thinks of male tattoos, the mind jumps to a sleeve or an arm band. When one thinks of female tattoos, the mind might jump to a tramp stamp, whose nickname is inherently derogatory.

A study done at the University of Portsmouth and Casino.org found that women were more likely to feel that they needed to cover up their tattoos. Women were also more likely to feel judged about their ink. 

Female tattoo artists are also impacted by the sexist culture. Female artists at tattoo conventions say they are treated like a joke. The disparity in treatment remains large even as more women become involved in the tattoo industry.

Inked sexism in daily interactions

While I read the study at Portsmouth, the experience of ReeRee Rockette stood out, 

“I get a lot of positive feedback on my tattoos, although they seem to make people forget their manners. I get stroked, poked and touched by strangers – usually women – and it’s very unsettling. The negative reactions are quieter; stares and pointing, or questions tinged with passive aggression.”

The shock didn’t come out of surprise – it came out of familiarity. I have about five visible tattoos. Strangers and friends have also poked and prodded me because they wanted to see the designs better. Most of those pokes and prods were not accompanied by consent. In professional settings, in casual settings – regardless of where, people have surpassed boundaries that they didn’t see because some black ink stained my arms. I have also had the experience of walking into a room and feeling people’s eyes on me, judging the phrases on my arms or questioning, “But why did you get that?”

Although in today’s society we’ve come to largely accept tattoos as self expression and pop culture, we still have a ways to go in fully integrating women into tattoo culture. We must applaud and attend female shops, rather than sneer at them as just another feminist dream. 

Tattoos do not define a woman, but they also do not exist apart from her. They are not permission to prod and stroke, they are not a sign of promiscuity. They simply are, just as they simply are for men.

Read more:
On Body Modifications
How Therapy Made Me A Feminist
An Open Letter To The College Mom