BOOK REVIEW: 'Bodies of Subversion': women's tattoos, from sacred to inane

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 7, 2013 

  • 'BODIES OF SUBVERSION: A SECRET HISTORY OF WOMEN AND TATTOO'

    by Margot Mifflin powerHouse Books ($23.95)

Among the first mainstream American celebrities to openly wear tattoos was Janis Joplin. On her left wrist, she had a Florentine bracelet. On her chest, she wore a small heart - the size of a candy heart. "Just a little treat for the boys," she told Rolling Stone, "like icing on the cake."

It seems like only yesterday that tattoos were rarities, like certain crows. They were worth commenting upon, either for their beauty or their banality. Now tattoos creep like vines along the arms, legs and torsos of nearly everyone you meet. If print is dead, ink is undead - and on the move.

For most of history, tattooing has been a male preoccupation, either a one-fingered salute or an exercise in swagger. Think of Popeye and his twin anchors. In "Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo," Margot Mifflin had the good idea to examine tattooing in the Western world from a female perspective. Her relatively slim book doesn't provide a truly wide-angle view, but the insights she brings are insinuating and complex.

This new edition of "Bodies of Subversion," first published in 1997, arrives at the crest of a wave. 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, Mifflin notes. They're a mainstream fashion choice.

She is mostly an admirer of women's tattoo culture. Tattoos have been "emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains," she declares. But Mifflin is a flinty observer. She notes that tattoos have the "ability to degrade as well as to enhance, to invoke the sacred and the inane." She assesses the work of social critics who posit that tattooing can be a political cop-out, a cover for disengagement.

These critics argue, she writes, that "tattooing shifts the focus of women's issues from society to the self; that tattooed women are empowered only in their minds; and that women who find solace in tattoos are no different from women for whom shopping and exercise are substitutes for problem-solving." Ouch, as the client said to the tattooist.

"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, Mifflin writes, The New York World estimated that 75 percent of American society women were tattooed, usually in places easily covered by clothing.

Mifflin deals, too, with the matter of tattoo regret. There's plenty of that going around. She cites a survey by the Archives of Dermatology stating that 69 percent of tattoo removal requests come from women. Most got stamped at the age of 20 or so. Quoting the same survey, she says about tattoos, "Their marks of uniqueness 'turned into stigmata.'" But the Harris Poll cited above also noted that 86 percent of tattooed people were content with their ink.

Those who would shame women with tattoos often utter things like: How are those things going to look when you're old and wrinkled? On the basis of the photographs of older women with tattoos in this book, I'd say they hold up pretty well.

In fact, I'd say they look sort of awesome.

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