Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and the Tattoo

BODIESOFSUB_COVER.inddStory originally appears at The Dish:

In 2012, tattooed women outnumbered tattooed men for the first time in US history. Steven Heller reviews the recently re-released Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and the Tattoo by Margot Mifflin… 

In the early 20th century, tattoos were stigmatized (even illegal in some jurisdictions) because of their association with raunchy male imagery. Middle-class women who were tattooed knew they would be considered “loose” or seedy if they showed their marks. By the ’60s and ’70s, tattooing became more directly linked to the counterculture, and remained so until the 2000s. Now tattoos are not as subversive or associated with “bad” women—instead, they have become fashion accessories of the most indelible kind.


Although “not all tattooed women were considered freaks—tattooed society women wore discreet decorative tattoos, which were trendy in the late 19th century, first in London, then in New York,” heavily inked women were considered “a violation of nature.” Something similar could be said for men, but women were decidedly less accepted because “they were more explicitly associated with nature through motherhood and female intuition and other feminine intangibles that disqualified them from having much influence in culture.” The circus and carnival freak-show ladies were also guilty of transgression because they showed bare skin in public.

Regarding the woman seen above:

Mifflin refers in her book to Olive Oatman, “a tragically bicultural American” who was orphaned after her family was killed by Southwest Indians in the 1850s, then adopted and raised by Mohave Indians who gave her a chin tattoo as a mark of tribal acceptance. After she was ransomed back to the whites at age 19, she was stranded between the two cultures and the tattoo marked her as a Mohave and functioned as a kind of ethnic barrier. “It’s somehow fitting,” Mifflin said, “In light of our colonial past and our multicultural present, that the first American tattooed woman was a white Indian. She literally embodied the two cultures on which the country was founded.”

Check out more images from the new edition here.

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