2013-01-18 16:10:16

Not Oprah’s Book Club: Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

From Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin, published by powerHouse Books.
Maud Wagner, the first known female tattooist in the U.S., 1911. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Years before Adrienne Rich would write in Of Woman Born that ” [women] need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genuis of her own body,” 19th century Western women began exploring skin modification through the art of tattoo.

Margot Mifflin’s recently reissued Bodies of Subversion is more than just a photographic history of this deep subculture. It is a close study of women during a period of historic limitations and social mobility, beginning to break barriers by exploring alternative ideas of beauty and self expression. Originally released in 1997, Bodies of Subversion was the only account of the origins of female tattoo art in Western culture, providing a fascinating journey into a subculture from 19th century with many never-before-seen photos of tattooed women.

Mifflin recounts the lives of early women tattooists, as well as presents extensive research exploring tattoo over the 20th century, drawing parallels between the increase in tattoo and social and cultural trends in the women’s movement.

Tattooing in the late 19th/early 20th century could be considered a nascent feminist act. Mifflin writes:

As an extrovert’s art from, however, tattooing appeals to the iconoclast in many women. It’s no coincidence that women’s initial interest in it came in the wake of feminisms first wave in the late 19th century, that a second raze crested in the suffragist 20s, and that women tattooist broke the gender barrie in the feminists 70s–all periods when women’s public profile in any number of professions was surging.

As of 2012, tattooed women outnumber men for the first time in American history, according Mifflin in this newly revised and expanded edition. Mifflin notes in the introduction:

No form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women. Tattooed women of the 19th and early 20th centuries flouted victorian ideals of feminine purity and decorum , gradually peeling them away like so many starched garments.Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.

I think of Mifflin’s assertion about tattoos as “badges of self determination” as I consider the photograph above of Maude Wagner, the first woman tattooist and a photograph I captured below in early 2011 in Coney Island. Both images communicate self possession and defiance. Both images function as totems as we mark the 40th Anniversary of Roe–marking how far we have come and still have to go.

Coney Island. January 1, 2011. photo by Syreeta McFadden.

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