Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Under the Needle: Tattooing Taboos

Hilary_Brashear's picture

Under the Needle: Tattooing Taboos

By: Hilary Brashear writing for the class Gender and Technology

If I ask you “imagine a person with a lot of tattoos” who do you see? What adjectives would you use to describe that person?

Who I see: Biggish muscular man, wearing leather, rough, aggressive, slightly scary.

Diana Dull and Candance West, in their article, “Accounting for Cosmetic Surgery: The Accomplishment of Gender” look into the ways surgeons and patients interactively accomplish gender through plastic surgery. They argue that, “cosmetic surgery emerges as an institutional support for ‘doing gender.’”  The compartmentalization and isolation of specific body parts as necessitated by plastic surgery starkly contrasts Donna Haraway’s vision of a category and boundary less society in 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Tattoos, body piercing, and body modification are forms of cosmetic body alternations (and sometimes surgery) that can, in the spirit of Haraway, turn the idea of cosmetic surgery as an institutional support for reinforcing gender binaries into a tool for breaking boundaries. Tattoos and body modifications have been used to as tools of empowerment for women and as a way to physically integrate bodies with technology.  This paper will focus specifically on tattoos and explore the ways in which they have been used to both challenge and perpetuate the gender binary of men/women.

The first known practice of tattooing can be dated as early as 3300 B.C. At first used in ritual rites of passage and as status markers across cultures the word “tattoo” came to us from explorer James Cook. In 1768 Cook voyaged to Polynesia where he interpreted the term “tattoo” from a Polynesian word that described their body modification. It was from this trip that the westernized use of tattoos, symbols of personal self expression, came into being as sailors would get tattoos as mementos of their travels. This early relationship of tattoos with male sailors led to the characterization of tattoos as symbols of danger, adventure, ruggedness and masculinity that still exist today. 1891 marked the year of the first electric tattoo machine, claimed by the inventor Samuel O’Reilly to “embroider” the skin rather than cloth.[1] O’Reilly opened the first tattoo parlor in the United States and began an industry that would develop into the art form it is today. Historically in the United States tattooing has been associated with deviance, a symbol of subcultures opposed to the mainstream such as bikers and punks. Tattoos today still inspire these connotations of deviance but are much more mainstream and acceptable, considered a type of folk art rather than a symbol of otherness.

  Women have had a more clandestine history with tattoos. In the US the first documentation of tattooed women were circus ladies of the mid 19th century who tattooed their body for “freak show” performances. These performances usually took the forms of strip shows connecting women with tattoos to subversive acts from the outset. In this period women who sported tattoos were considered, strange spectacles and outsiders to society. Because tattoos were so heavily stigmatized as something for men most women who got tattoos or began to give tattoos were the wives of male tattoo artists. As more women began to tattoo their bodies they   appropriated the tattoo as a source of rebellion and empowerment. Tattoos, like clothing, come in and out of fashion. When we look at the cycles of tattoo popularity among women we see that they spike during the early 1900s and the 1970s: the first and second wave of feminism. Women were using tattoos as controversial personal statements to challenge the feminine standard of beauty and reject its male legacy. While in the first wave woman used getting tattoos as way to rebel against norms of femininity, the 1970s saw a rise in both women getting tattoos and a rise in women tattoo artists. Margot Mifflin’s book “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” provides a fascinating and insightful account of various prominent tattooed women and tattoo artists, documenting the development of the relationship between women and tattoos and a cultural commentary on their use. She expresses eloquently the conflicts between cosmetic surgery and tattooing that arose in the 1980s, “The parallel rise of cosmetic surgery and tattooing drew a line between disparate camps during the backlash ‘80s: there were the conformists, who wanted to blend in, for whom surgery was an admission of inadequacy, and the resisters, who wanted to stand out, whose tattoos were emblems of self validation.” [2] Mifflin demonstrates an important distinction between cosmic surgery and tattooing, one form of body modification is used to reinforce gender norms while the other is used to challenge them.

Dona Haraway calls for the dissolution of the boundaries between human/machine, human/animal and physical and non physical. Tattoos are a way for humans to break these boundaries. Incorporating ink into our skin is a way of literally absorbing technology into our bodies. Animals and non physical ideas can be represented on the physical body, changing how we see the human form. This integration of ink and skin can also be used as a tool to challenge other binaries like gender. For example winner of the Best Overall Tattooed Female award at the 1995 San Diego tattoo tour convention, Stephanie Farinelli, had a total of 88 penises tattooed all over her body. Inspiring much controversy and conversation, Farinelli’s sexuality and sanity were questioned by members of the convention. What did it mean for a woman to cover herself, to take something normally associated with men and to apply it to her body? Farinelli’s tattoos challenge both the concept of femininity and the role of genitalia in creating gender symbols and roles. While Farinelli’s tattoos are a more shocking and vivid challenge many women challenge gender norms by merely covering their skin with shapes and images that confront ideals of femininity.  

While tattoos have offered many ways for women to resist ideals of gendered beauty they have not been completely successful in breaking down gender binaries. In the tattoo world some types of tattoos are considered more appropriate for women and some for men.  In sub cultural groups, like the biker community, tattoos on women are also used and can be interpreted as “the man’s stamp of approval.” Some women may get tattoos saying “I belong to so and so.” Tattoos of pin up girls on men’s biceps are a clichés example of the ways in which tattoos reinforce gender stereotypes.[3]At many tattoo conventions and in tattooing magazines women with many tattoos are often sexualized. At tattoo design contests men often wear jeans and t shirts while women are judged not only on their tattoos but on their sexualized appearance; strutting the stage in underwear and heels, reminiscent of the first tattooed women who performed as strippers in circus shows. For women to appear in a tattooing magazine it is almost a pre requisite that she appears topless or partially clothed. Reducing tattooed women to the mere sexualized flesh of their bodies through the spectacle of the tattoo is a legacy from the first tattooed women that we still must try to overcome.

This paper has hoped to demonstrate the ways in which tattoos have been used to both challenge and perpetuate the gender binary of male/female. In this exploration I found that stigmas associated with tattoos and gender that began at the turn of the century remain in part today. Tattoos are still a symbol of deviant masculinity for males and in tattooing communities a way to fetishize the female body. However these are not the only ideas associated with tattoos and what a tattoo means and how it functions is not limited to its stigmas. It can be used as a tool for boundary bashing. A more modern development and extension of tattooing is the increasing popularity of body scaring, branding, and implants. Instead of permanently marking oneself with ink people now use cuts and burns to impress images, words and designs onto their bodies. People can now surgically insert metal implants in their bodies such as metal mow hawks or steel rings inserted under the skin. A famous example of this more extreme body modification is the lizard man, or Eric Sprague. Sprague tattooed his entire body with a lizard scale pattern and underwent an operation to split his tongue to resemble the split tongue of a lizard as well as cosmetic dentistry to make his teeth pointy. These new types of body alternations make a blurring of boundaries even more feasible and will be an interesting area to follow.  



Dull, Diana, and Candace West. "Accounting for Cosmetic Surgery: The Accomplishment of Gender." Social Problems 38.1 (1991): 54-70. Print.


Haraway, Donna "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature: New York; Routledge, 1991. pp.149-181.


Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo. New York: Juno, 2001. Print.


Miller, Jean-Chris. The Body Art Book: a Complete, Illustrated Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Other Body Modifications. New York: Berkley, 2004.



[1] How do tattoo machines work? Electric tattoo machines, also called tattoo guns because of their shared aesthetic (right word?) qualities operates similarly to a sewing machine in that the operator presses a foot petal causing the needle to go in and out of the skin. The needle punctures the skin about 3,000 times per minute ejecting ink into the layer of skin between the first two layers of skin (epidermis and dermis).


[2] Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo. New York: Juno, 2001. Print. (p.103)

[3] Some women have appropriated these symbols and turned them into representations of feminine power rather than merely sexuality.



Anne Dalke's picture

Written on the Body


what a fascinating extension of our discussion of cosmetic surgery (and certainly one that requires some illustration)!

What interests me, of course, is the way you show the practice of tatooing being used both to reinforce and to challenge gender binaries. I'm quite struck, too, by your notion that "incorporating ink into our skin is a way of literally absorbing technology into our bodies."

I actually have a colleague, Jane Caplan, a long-time member of the History Department here @ Bryn Mawr, who was fascinated by tatoos, as an extension of her interest in various practices of documenting individual identity. Her collection, Written on the Body: The Tatoo in European and American History, looks hard @ that "space between the cosmetic and the punitive" which tatoos occupy, but focuses more on the uses of the tatoo as "an involuntary stigma" than what seems to interests you here: how it can operate both as a "self-imposed marker of identity" and "a beautiful corporal decoration." If you want to keep on learning more about this practice--and understand more about its long historical trajectory-- do check out Jane's collection.

My two other nudges are stylistic ones. First: your paper is curiously absent your own placement (you say, in fact, that not you, but "this paper has hoped to demonstrate...") in the phenomenon you describe. So one question I have is where and how you locate yourself and your experiences, in the phenomenon you describe: Have your "written on the body"? Why or why not? You call your topic "an interesting area to follow"--might you explore it further in practice, or only in theory? Why or why not?

My other nudge is for you to try, on the next assignment, to make your paper more internet friendly: look over the various projects your classmates have done, and try for a format that looks less like a paper, more like a web "event." Form signals content, and this project, which challenges the  concept of "normal" appearance, might itself begin to play with what we think of as the "norm" for student intellectual work.