Sharing tattoo stories - revisited
I love the research that I do (and finally someone got a shot of me presenting without looking like a complete potato, as above). I could bore you to death all day long talking about the politics of tattooed bodies, making sense of the 'professional' being a tattoo free entity, and dissecting the institution that is the western, heteronormative, hyper-feminized tattoo-free wedding.
When I present my research, I can guarantee that it will always be followed up with an audience member sharing their own tattoo story. At least one story, every time. I do not write this as a negative thing - I find it fascinating that talking about such a topic seems to draw people to want to share their stories with me, and it seems a shame to not be able to share these stories anywhere, because as a collective, they really do say quite a lot. On reflection, they map out the trends of the time, the trends that have now passed, and they add to the narrative of what the current debates are around tattooed bodies. I thought this blog would provide a perfect platform for dissemination of some of the tattoo stories I've heard so far, without the need to identify the wearer.
One of my favourites came fairly early on in my PhD, really only when I was starting out, and only presenting early thoughts about what I was going to be researching. A woman, a barrister, proceeded to tell me in hushed tones that she had a tattoo of a scorpion on her bum cheek. It really was quite out of the blue too – mentioned in passing whilst talking with a fellow PhD student. She started this story with her professional identity – being a barrister – I think because that sets up the difference, the ‘not expected’ part. Given her professional identity, she said how she knew she didn't look 'the type' to be tattooed, but knowing that she had this hidden scorpion from a young age was constructed as a real act of rebellion for her. This story has stayed with me, and I still remember the mischievous look in her eye from when she told me. She produced it as a real sense of ‘up yours’ to those who view professional jobs as requiring a very particular look (and non-rebelliousness, perhaps). It spoke to me because I get it – the need to look a certain way, and be professional.
At a postgraduate research event, I had a woman open up to me about a scar she had on her abdomen following from a life-saving surgery, and her want to decorate this with tattoos. Once I had said what my research was about, I could see that it was as though I’d positioned myself as the ‘expert’, the knower of tattoos, which gave her space to talk about ideas. She was middle-aged, and hadn’t got a tattoo before (and wasn’t the done thing for people she knew either). She talked about herself as being a survivor, and she looked on the scar in its current state as a reminder of something bad that had happened to her, but she wanted to be proud of what she had come through. This is for me, why tattoos are so powerful. For someone ‘unexpected’ to think about getting a tattoo, shows that it about more than the type of person who gets a tattoo, or the imagery. The permanence, the meaning, and the process are all key here for her to be able to reconstruct her body, herself, in a more powerful and positive way. The scar represents something that happened to her, whereas the tattoo is her choice. It represents agency over the body.
As is pretty common for extended family gatherings, I become the tattoo person, around which some conversations are centred (I’m okay with that). I had a woman tell me about her love for her two current tattoos (fairly small, fairly hidden, fairly feminine), and her want for more. The problem was, as she articulated it, that her partner thought she'll look 'slutty' and 'butch' (her own words). The way she talked about tattoos came across as though that was a valid reason for her not getting any more (ignoring the fact that this is her body, something I had pointed out, but ultimately not my decision). Big tattoos don't look good on women she concluded, she wanted something small and pretty that represents her children, but also wanted to respect her partners wishes. This really does feed into common tropes not just for how to be a good woman, but also how to be a good mother, and a good partner. It shows the complexities that women need to take into account when making these choices. In addition to this, the discussion itself was imbued with identity politics – heteronormative ones (because how you look clearly determines your sexual preference) and gendered ones (because it’s not okay for women to appear sexual – especially if they’re a mother). This was a hard one for me, because I remember being in that space, being told what I can and cannot do with my body, and I didn’t like it. In fact, once I had the courage to, I moved on and actively did what I want with my body. But I appreciate not even can, or wants to do that.
In addition to the stories I am told about tattoos already attained, I have people telling me about their intentions to get tattooed - the time spent designing it, the location, the occasion - all constructed through a lens of meaning – whether this be in memory of family members, of commemorating special events, or as articulating a journey. When I now teach my sessions on tattooed bodies, the student conversation inevitably segues into discussions about upcoming tattoos, designs, planning, fails, and advice. Regardless of people’s opinion (which I still see as being quite polarised), people have something to say about tattoos.
You may or may not have recognised the theme in this post - all of the people who spoke to me are women - I have not once, to this day, been approached by men about their tattoo stories. I like that my research allows people (specifically women) to talk about their tattoos and future tattoos so openly, and the picture that it gives me of people's choices to get tattoos and how they make sense of them. I mention the women specifically here, as I think it’s important to showcase narratives, tattoo stories, that are agentic and knowing, rather than the common stories perpetuated in the media that focus on regret and shame. The stories are full of contradictions and multiple positions, things that make me want to explore these positions more, and continue to share them.