1 Feb 2013

Tattoos – a secret history of female body art

A new book, Bodies of Subversion, explores the fascinating history of women and tattoos that dates back to the 19th century. Katie Razzall has been looking into the chequered history of body art.

Olive Oatman is believed to be the first white woman in America to have had a tattoo.

Her story is fascinating. Abducted with her sister by Yavapais American Indians in 1851, she became a sensation when she was ransomed back years later, her chin adorned with tribal tattoos.

They had been given to her by the Mohaves, who rescued her from the Yavapais and treated her like a member of their tribe. Olive Oatman quickly won celebrity status in nineteenth century America.

Such was her fame, that many of the female travelling circus attractions who started to appear in this period, earning a living showing off their own tattoos (and their naked flesh), pretended they too had been abducted and tattooed by Native Americans to add to their allure.

Stories in pictures

An updated edition of Margot Mifflin’s, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoos, describes their stories and many more.

It is a gallery of incredible images – from Olive Oatman to Bobbie Libarry, a circus attraction and tattooist whose 83-year old body is shown covered in ink, to more modern photographs like that of a cancer survivor who opted, post-mastectomy, to have a colourful bra tattooed where her breasts once were.

The history of women and tattoos in the UK is slightly different.

Here, in the last years of the nineteenth century, they became fashionable amongst the aristocracy including women.

The front cover of an 1879 edition of the Police Gazette shows an upper class woman being tattooed by a woman in her boudoir.

Tattoos ‘stigma’ in Europe

Perhaps it is down to our naval history and the number of sailors who returned from abroad sporting tattoos, but they never had the stigma attached to them in France and the rest of Europe where they were associated with criminals and prostitutes.

By the 1950s newspapers were reporting the growing fashion for tattooes amongst women. Britain’s first celebrated female tattooist was Jessie Knight who even made it in to Pathe newsreels, such was her popularity.

Now, of course, tattooes have never been more popular amongst women – even the prime minister’s wife has one. Margot Mifflin’s book has some answers as to why that is. But it’s also an unforgettable journey through some of the most beautiful and disturbing images of the last few centuries.