Beauty Marks: A Brief History of Women and Tattoos

Maud Stevens Wagner 800

By The Plaza Gallery, Los Angeles ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most people think of women with tattoos as a fairly modern phenomenon, but there is actually a rich and fascinating history of women and tattoos. From the ritualistic tattoos of the Tahitian islands and ancient Egypt to the tattoo “tea parties” of Victorian high society, tattoos have been a colorful part of female history around the world for many years.

An Exotic Beginning

Polynesian and Egyptian cultures embraced tattoos on women for centuries. In Egypt, they have been linked to medical protection against painful labor and deadly childbirth issues, while the tattoos of Polynesian women were considered a sacred rite and played a very important role in social status, as the process of receiving a tattoo was a long and painful one, beginning with a spiritual cleansing through fasting and ending with applying the tattoos with sharpened bone.

Tattoos first become popular in the Western world in the 19th century, when explorers returned home to Europe from the Tahitian islands with tattoos and stories of their adventurous travels. The sailors on those journeys had observed native men and women with tattoos covering most of their bodies, and were so intrigued by the primitive tradition, they brought one of their guides back with them to England and introduced him to the King. That visit caused a stir that moved from the royal court into the social circles of the upper class, and a new trend was born.

Tattoos and Tea Time

With famous women like Lady Jennie Churchill, mother of then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, getting tattoos of their own, others in high society chose to jump on the tattoo bandwagon, and tattoos soon became a source of status among the social elite, with even Queen Victoria rumored to have a tattoo of her own.

The popularity of tattoos amongst the ladies of society exploded, and soon women were gathering in parlors across Victorian England to have tattoos done by master artists with their newly invented electric tattoo machines. These stylish women added tattooing to their regular tea parties, and only the most fashion forward were invited to attend.

Femininity and Feminism

Many of those upper-class women saw tattoos as a feminist gesture and felt that it indicated to the world that they were taking their bodies back. While most of the women covered their tattoos with clothing, they felt that it added a secret sense of power to their struggle for equal rights, such as the ability to vote.

While there was a booming feminist tattoo trend in Victorian tea parlors, there was also a very different perception of women with tattoos going on amongst the working class. In the seedier parts of London, women with tattoos were seen as “loose,” and highly sexualized. There are even stories of women being abducted and forcibly tattooed and made to take part in peep shows or even as acts in carnivals and circuses.

Tattoos and the Modern Woman

Although tattoos were highly popular amongst the upper class during the Victorian era, they suffered a time of being out of favor after the Great Depression, due to the stigma that they were related to the criminal element, and were even outlawed in many states (US?) well into the 20th century, but beginning in the 1970s, tattoos amongst women once again celebrated a boom in popularity due to the feminist movement.

This time, the popularity of tattoos was in response to the fight for reproductive rights. Women wanted their bodies to be their own, and tattoos seemed to once again lend them a secret source of power, although most women no longer chose to cover their tattoos with their clothing.

Another way women have used tattoos to take back their bodies can be seen in the survivors of breast cancer. Many of these women have chosen to cover their mastectomy scars with feminine works of art in the form of elaborate tattoos, instead of having breast implants. These women also state that their tattoos lend them a sense of power and control that would otherwise have been stolen from them by the devastating effects of their disease.

In fact, tattoos have come to express a type of rebellious beauty and have even been linked to a stronger sense of self-esteem. The advent of “alternative modeling” with the infamous Suicide Girls and reality TV shows featuring beautiful and strong tattooed women such as Kat von D has lent tattoos amongst women a glamorous air, with many celebrities and even royalty choosing to get their own tattoos.

From spiritual rituals to keeping up with the status quo, and even as a way to exert control over a world where they feel trapped, women everywhere have chosen to embrace tattoos for centuries. Although the art form, process, and presentation have changed, it seems as if the love affair between women and tattoos is one that is meant to last.