Today’s society is particularly focused on defining women’s beauty standards. From stores to television, and especially on the internet, there’s no shortage of ads and opinions bombarding women with what society defines as “beautiful.” It’s often stigmatized outside of the tattoo community that tattoos = bad, dangerous, sexy, etc. More often than not, women with tattoos are often subjected to the notion that they need to fit into a certain mould, i.e. the sexy, femme fatale figure, or are told that their tattoos do not fit into society’s rigid beauty standards.
In 2013, Christina Theisen and Eleni Stefanou decided enough was enough, and took it upon themselves to create a photo project that celebrated the diversity and beauty of tattooed women, without objectifying them. Aptly named Women with Tattoos, the website, which was founded by Stefanou shortly after the photo project began, evolved from the initial collaboration between Theisen and Stefanou and features tattooed women of all ages and their narratives (why they got their tattoos, the significance behind them, and their experiences being tattooed in a society that generally isn’t so accepting of deviation). The combination of their stories accompanied by their portraits paints a beautiful representation of the true nature of women with tattoos, and the underlying empowerment of them.
We recently spoke with Stefanou about what inspired her to create Women With Tattoos, the difference in the tattooed male vs. tattooed female experience, and what she hopes to accomplish with the project.
Tattoodo: What inspired you to create Women With Tattoos?
Eleni Stefanou: I came across a study that was carried out in the U.S. a few years ago, which revealed that, for the first time ever, more women were getting tattooed than men. I thought this was totally fascinating, but also unexplored territory. Why weren’t we hearing more about this shift and its cultural significance? When I was researching my first tattoo, I was so disappointed by the number of images I came across featuring tattooed women in suggestive poses. It was like trawling through a lad’s mag. I wanted to introduce a different type of image that women could identify with, while also exploring their individual stories. Almost like an anthropologist might do.
The name of the project itself suggests that there is a different experience in men vs. women when it comes to being tattooed. Why do you think that is, and what do you think is the main difference?
I haven’t spoken to many men about their tattoos — maybe I should! The reason the project is about women is more a reflection of my own interests, rather than a suggestion that the motivations behind getting a tattoo are gendered. Having said that — and if I can generalize — tattoos definitely seem to be a way of signaling "toughness" and "masculinity" for men. Whereas women tend to talk about their tattoos as a way of healing or building their self-confidence. Maybe women feel more able to reveal those motivations than men?
You've photographed a wide array of people, generationally speaking. Do you ever notice a difference when it comes to their experiences?
One thing I’ve definitely noticed is that younger women, often in their early-to-mid-20s, seem to be getting lots of tattoos within a short period of time. They often talk about tattoos helping them to shape their identity and create the body that they love. Maybe it’s because it’s easier than ever to find and communicate with tattoo artists that resonate with you. It’s hard to detect patterns though because everyone is genuinely different. For example, I met one woman in her 50s who said that, as she’s grown older, she finds the attention more difficult to deal with. Whereas another woman close to her age who said she felt invisible beforehand, now loved that her tattoos attracted the attention of strangers and provided a catalyst for conversation.
What do you hope to accomplish with the project?
I want to meet interesting women and take beautiful photos of them. One of the biggest kicks I get out of the project is when someone I’ve photographed tells me that they love their photos. I feel like I’m putting a tiny bit of goodness into the world. On a larger scale, I hope that Women with Tattoos becomes a visible project, and in doing so, helps to shift people’s perspectives and prejudices about tattooed women. I also hope that women will see the project and feel understood and valued.
To learn more about the project, visit Women With Tattoos.