Tattoos have empowered women for centuries. Often a sign of resilience, strength, power, and creativity, tattoos have a way of getting people talking. Of course, we love to use our voices as mediums of resistance, but sometimes the art on our bodies can make a statement without using words and serve as a jumping-off point for conversations about the inequalities that women face every day. From breast cancer survivors to activists, women around the world are getting tattoos that commemorate and celebrate their badass-ness.
There’s a common myth that traces the rise of tattoos in the U.S. to the 1770s when Captain James Cook brought back tattooing from Polynesia and inspired young sailors to tattoo their bodies. Back then, and even today in some aspects, tattoos were seen as a sign of blue-collar masculinity for the “tough guy.”
However, historians cite tattoos appearing in Europe long before Cook’s voyage. Ancient tribes around the world, including the Polynesians, have practiced tattooing for thousands of years. In fact, the Princess of Ukok, a 2,500-year-old mummy found in southern Siberia around 1993, has many tattoos that are reminiscent of contemporary tattoos. This just means that tattoos as we know them today have a variety of origins, many that include women.
When people think of tattooed ladies, many think of freak show performers from the late 19th Century like Irene Woodward. Many stories say that Woodward aka ‘La Belle Irene’ was tattooed by her sailor father from the age of six, but it is more likely that she was tattooed by a few famous artists of the time Sam O’Reilly and Charles Wagner. She was a badass performer who inspired many other women like her.
However, there was a small moment in the Victorian Age where tattoos were fashionable in high society. Elite women were getting tattooed to be seen as more beautiful and cultured. Tattooed women also elevated their agency by having the freedom to travel, work, and dress the way they wanted to, which is why many tattooed women like Irene joined circus shows.
Unfortunately, women who traveled in circus freak shows were seen as just that—freaks, pariahs, and even promiscuous by general society. This stigma bled into the 20th Century where tattoos, especially the butterfly tattoo, were associated with prostitution, and women were often shamed and persecuted for having tattoos that expressed their sexuality.
Finally, in the 1970s, feminists started reclaiming tattoos like the butterfly image as symbols of having power over their bodies and shifted the long-running, negative perception of women with tattoos.
Tattoos continue to empower women today, allowing them to control and have agency over their bodies and the power to tell their stories. With the rise of tattoo artists who specialize in pigmentation, breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who have lost their nipples are often able to have them tattooed back on.
Others opt to cover their scars with vines, flowers, and more beautiful artwork as if to say, “I’m here. I survived. My scars don’t define me. I’m celebrating the life I’ve been given.”
In 2017, photographer Sophy Holland created a series that celebrated women with breast cancer survivor tattoos, and the photos were both powerful and beautiful.
Karen Malkin-Lazarovitz, who was one of the women from the shoot, had a preventative mastectomy after learning that she had a specific gene mutation that gave her an 87% chance of developing breast cancer during her lifetime.
“I became more confident in myself after my mastectomy. I would never go topless before,” Malkin-Lazarovitz told Inked. “And now here I am—no nipples, scars—and I’m able to show everyone what I look like and feel beautiful.”
Other people are covering up their scars with tattoos, too. Women with C-section scars, scars on their wrists from emotional trauma, scars from accidents, injuries, or surgeries, are turning their pain into art.
Remember that you don’t have to cover your scars to empower yourself. Your scars can be a reminder of your strength and resilience, and they’re just as beautiful as tattoos.
Fighting the Patriarchy
Women are also following the lead of the OG feminist movement in the ‘70s and getting tattoos that embody the #resistance. This is especially important in today’s social and political climates. With threats to women’s rights moving us closer to a Margaret-Atwood-novel world every day, the importance of art is crucial, and that extends across all mediums—including tattoo art.
Many women are politically inspired by Hilary Clinton’s reclamation of the word ‘nasty’ and others by the Women’s Marches. Others, like the woman in the tattoo below, are inspired by our foremothers who fought for the right to vote during the turn of the 19th century.
Not only is it important to fight against injustice in today’s social and political climates, but it is also important to love ourselves. As the world gets heavier and as we take to Twitter and the streets, we need to remember to take time for self-care and self-love. For some women, that’s through getting tattoos that remind them to take care.
Lots of women are queer, okay? Maybe general society doesn’t want to accept it, but women are born brilliant and beautiful, whether they are physically female or not. Women are shamed for a plethora of “accusations” every day, and not being heterosexual is one of them. But ladies are fighting back by celebrating their identities through tattoos. From rainbows to Disney callouts, queer tattoos decorate women everywhere.
Gone are the days of women having to adhere to any societally-set gender roles, but many women feel most empowered when they can express their femininity. Feminism doesn’t mean going against every societal expectation and adopting masculinity—it means that every woman can be the woman she wants to be for herself—not for society. Women who feel empowered by feminine energy are getting tattoos that reflect their inner selves.
Stomping Gender Roles
The reality is women are empowered by tattoos that have nothing to do with femininity or masculinity or any inequalities that women face every day. The important thing is that you love your tattoos and that they make you feel good.
Women have the freedom to tattoo or not tattoo themselves and to tattoo whatever they want on their bodies. Maybe you celebrate your scars by showing them off. Maybe you skip the traditional feminist mantras and get a tattoo that’s uniquely you. Whatever you choose, choose whatever makes you feel loved and celebrated.