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Bodies of Subversion – A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

Posted Feb 19 2013 5:41am

BODIESofSUBVERSION_HIRES-1 March’s Book of the Month: Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin

As of 2012, tattooed women outnumber men for the first time in US history making Mifflin’s revised book more relevant than ever. Her work is the first history of women’s tattoo art and a documentation of changing roles and emancipation. The third edition has over 100 new pictures and explores current trends in body art. As Mifflin explains, it may be trendy to be tattooed but it’s something women have been doing for decades. Learn about: 

  • Nineteenth-century sideshow attractions who created fantastic abduction tales in which they claimed to have been forcibly tattooed. 
  • Victorian society women who wore tattoos as custom couture, including Winston Churchill’s mother, who wore a serpent on her wrist. 
  • Olive Oatman, the first white woman in America to be tattooed who earned a living from her body art by joining the circus and displaying her wares. The art of inking was a way for women to make a stand and control their bodies at a time when they had little economic and social power. 
  • The first female British tattoo artist, Jessie Knight, who opened her doors in 1921 when she was 17. Born in Bristol she ran seaport shops and traded tattoos for things she needed – such as a gun to shoot her abusive husband Marco. 
  • The parallel rising of tattooing and cosmetic surgery during the 80s when women tattooists became soul doctors to a nation afflicted with body anxieties. 
  • Breast cancer survivors of the 90s who tattoo their mastectomy scars as an alternative to reconstructive surgery or prosthetics. 

BODIESofSUBVERSION_HIRES-2 BOS “chronicles the saga of skin as signage”: circus ladies and suffragettes, 70s revival, 80s and 90s totem and tattoo tribes, and the new millennium – therapeutic uses of tattooing for women leaving gangs, prisons, or situations of domestic abuse. There’s also a section on celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D, the most famous tattooist in the world with her own TV show and cosmetics line.

“I wanted a mark on my body that my husband has never seen,” says one woman post-divorce. 

And for slightly dodgier reasons, like the labia tattoo one woman had done in her boyfriend’s name – because he asked her to.

“We’ve always loved body art but the main change is our willingness to display it” says Mifflin. Your grandmother may have had naughty tattoos that you never saw! 

Click here for a preview and to buy the book on Amazon.  

Walking Book Club discussion – Saturday 30th March, 12-2pm, outside Hastings Pier.

BODIESofSUBVERSION_HIRES-4 Images from Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin, published by powerHouse Books. 


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