a friend of mine tweeted a link to a fine slideshow of tattooed women over at the new yorker's photo department blog this morning. "Anyone riding the Brooklyn L train these days," maria lokke writes, "can see that tattoo culture is thriving, especially among women. In fact, 2012 was the first year in which more women than men were tattooed in the U.S (twenty-three per cent of women, compared with nineteen per cent of men)." lokke then quotes margot mifflin in the introduction to her bodies of subversion: a secret history of women and tattoo: “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.”
when i was a senior in high school, a friend and i drove up to los angeles to be tattooed. the little parlor she knew, a hole in the wall at the end of sunset boulevard, didn't ask either of us for ID—which was excellent, since we were both underage. i handed over the eight-pointed star i'd drawn at home after hours on the floor of my bedroom with the liner notes from mellon collie and the infinite sadness, and twenty minutes later its twin and three tiny attendants were weeping black ink into a patch of gauze on the back of my neck. i didn't have a pixie cut in those days, so my star was my secret until i decided to break cover by sweeping my hair up in a bun for a trip to the mall the next week. "hey," my little sister said as she trailed behind me with our mom. "is that real?"
i am more today than a grease spot on the parquet in front of what was robinsons-may's cosmetics department because my mother knew then what self-determination meant to me (i couldn't be pretty or popular, but by god, i could alter myself as i chose: i pierced my ears in front of my mirrored closet door for the first time when i was in fifth grade). she and my father asked me to have the tattoo removed, and they paid for its removal; they even agreed to begin the sessions after winter formal. i got a taste of the life of a tattooed lady in the months between that day at the mall and the afternoon of my last appointment at uc irvine's laser clinic. "so," a sweet-faced classmate asked, "are you a witch?" the dermatologist was more secular: "so, which gang are you in? how drunk were you when this happened?" he hated that i insisted on keeping one of the tiny stars and spoiled the before-and-after photographs in his office album.
i didn't have a car at college, so i got my second tattoo at the shitty redwood city storefront parlor a bus ride away from campus. after paging through illuminated manuscripts in every undergrad library i could access (freshman research papers, if i had shown such love to you!), i chose a cross from a ratty san francisco goth club flyer in my boyfriend's RA's dorm room, and i think i love it more now than i did when i was still recovering from christianity. the artist stopped after forty-five minutes, saying that i was swelling too much and he'd have to finish another time, and when i came back he said his needles had been stolen. i came back again and he himself was gone; they said he'd disappeared with his sketches and receipts. i got a guy at laguna tattoo, the shop on PCH a block from taco loco and just below the vintage shop that sold me my first crushed velvet coat, to finish up the detail work. soon i'll have had it for half my life.
you know the story of my third tattoo, and the story of my fourth is tangled up with the story of our trip to the isle of man, and for another time. why do i tell you these things at all? i surprised myself this morning as i responded to a friend who didn't feel the appeal of tattoos as emblems of female empowerment: "tattooing does feel a bit like the opposite of the powerlessness a gal feels when, say, an ob/gyn refuses to sterilize her," i wrote. i haven't spoken much of my adventures as a woman who knows she doesn't want to have children and it's possible i'll never do so here, but in my case that statement is true: these permanent changes to my body are visceral self-actualization.
funny what a tramp stamp can mean to a girl, innit? it's a passport stamp, as i once told another friend. i can lose faith to experience and firmness to time and stumble out bandaged onto a sidewalk in california or reykjavik or douglas and think my god, what have i done?, but each bit of that ink recalls a birthplace.