Friday, July 5, 2013

The rise, fall, and rise of tattoos on women

For the first time, according to a 2012 Harris Poll, American women are more likely to be tattooed than men. Some 23 percent of women have tattoos; 19 percent of men do. They’re no longer rebel emblems, [author Margot] Mifflin notes. They’re a mainstream fashion choice. ...

“Bodies of Subversion” is delicious social history. Tattooing was an upper-class social fad in Europe in the late 19th century. Winston Churchill’s mother had a tattoo of a snake eating its tail (the symbol of eternity) on her wrist. The fad spread to America. In 1897, Ms. Mifflin writes, The New York World estimated that 75 percent of American society women were tattooed, usually in places easily covered by clothing.

By the 1920s, tattooed women were mostly to be seen in freak shows and in circus acts, where they could make more money than tattooed men. They offered, the author avers, “a peep show within a freak show.”

Tattoos lost their appeal for nearly everyone shortly after World War II. One reason was because “tattoos perpetrated in concentration camps had added a ghastly new chapter to tattoo history.”

Ms. Mifflin’s story spins forward through the tattoo revival of the 1970s, when women with a tattoo or two began to shake the stigma that they were sexually available. She moves attentively through the 1980s and ’90s, the era that gave us Dennis Rodman, the lower-back tattoos now known as tramp stamps and a kudzu forest of copycat tribal tats.
--Dwight Garner, NYT, on mainstream rebellion