I am a woman with tattoos.
I am also a keen writer, a great chef, an enthusiastic photographer, I’m a thinker, and perhaps one day I will even be an academic. But, first and foremost, visually, I am a woman with tattoos.
And because of these tattoos; I will be judged with the impaired vision of others, likely for the rest of my life.
I grew up, the daughter of a history teacher and a linguist, relatively middle class; in that education was always a priority, and that my parents put tremendous effort into making sure that my brother and I had broader views of the world. As children we visited castles and historical sites, our holidays always involved taking in the cultural heritage of a place, and if we developed an interest- science for my brother, and reading and writing for myself- then it was heavily encouraged.
When I went to university, I studied, and I graduated with a first. I was shy and quiet and over the three years I spent there, I began to explore my own happiness, and how to find it.
Eventually, I decided to pursue patisserie and I became a pastry chef. Writing and food; my two loves.
Fast forward three years later, and here I am, writing this; less shy, happier, and tattooed.
Now, it’s a matter of opinion. Some people loathe ink. I’ve had an elderly woman tell me outright that it’s “a ghastly shame”- not even in a bid to be nasty, not even registering the rudeness. I get looks and stares, and on occasion, even scoffs; again, largely by the older generation. And also, largely by women.
My current tattooist, who has done four of my pieces, is an illustrator. It’s what she studied before she began tattooing, and it’s what she does with ink on a body now. Illustration. It’s a far cry from the heavy black ink and garish colours used thirty years ago when the world of tattooing was small, lacked variety, and was dominated by men.
The quality of ink and variation of tattoo styles has vastly improved over the last decade; tattoos are no longer a mark of torrid criminality. Although, they are still viewed that way by some, particularly in South East Asia. In South Korea and Japan, tattooed individuals are still not allowed in public spas and bathhouses. It’s ironic because some of the most beautiful tattoos are being done, technically illegally, in underground South Korean tattoo studios, where their own style of tattooing is utterly unique and incredibly dainty.
So why is it a question of sex? Why is gender being involved?
Because sexism is still rife in our inherent perception of others.
If you see a man with tattoos- heavier, say a sleeve, then is it likely to impair or ipact your judgement of him as an individual? Perhaps, but unlikely. You might not like it personally, but you will not condone him. You will not judge him. And you certainly would never try to shame him.
But if you saw a women with an arm or leg covered in ink- no matter how tasteful that ink may be; you will instantly look at the rest of her. How is she dressed? How is she groomed? What was she thinking? Why would she do that to herself? Tarnished. Ruined.
It is part of my everyday life.
I have my calf tattooed. My thigh. My back. My shoulder. This is my body which I love and yet society forces me to feel shamed. I have to dress for this intolerant society.
Job interviews mean high neck dresses and opaque tights and long sleeved jackets which I can’t remove. If it’s sweltering and I want to wear shorts, I can, but it comes with the high chance that at some point during the day, I will be met with aggression. Sometimes it’s the look of derision from the groomed, middle class woman opposite me on the tube, sometimes it’s the outright disgust from an elderly couple who look as though I have personally affronted them. Whatever form it comes in, it comes in as a daily occurrence.
Are things changing?
Yes. But slowly.
Educated individuals, such as myself, are flooding the tattoo market because we like them and we are not afraid of challenging the stigma that tattoos=bad things. If more doctors and educators have tattoos; who can accuse them of being anything but hard working and educated?
Because of the progress in tattoo genres also changing, tattoos are becoming more acceptable as trends and even as style statements. I’ve focused here on the negative because this is an essay on gender injustice; but as an individual, if we look over the negative attention, I regularly get compliments on my tattoos. It’s from tourists who want to photograph them, and from younger women who think they’re pretty.
The biggest sign that shifts are coming, however?
I was in Sloane square with my large back tattoo on show, and a very middle class woman tapped me on the shoulder and nodded towards it.
“Is that a real lighthouse, from somewhere?”
I was very surprised at how direct she was, and I loathe confrontation. So expecting the worst, I simply answered.
“No, my tattoo artist designed it for me.”
She nodded, looking wistful.
“Ah. That’s a shame. I don’t usually like tattoos, but it’s rather pretty isn’t it?”
Perception is changing, slowly, but still changing.
Hope for the next generation of female ink enthusiasts then, maybe.