Whose Stories Do Tattoos Tell?
Inking the invisible and the unsaid on the body
I fell down a tattoo rabbit hole last week. It started when I listened to this podcast about 5,000 years of tattooing history in which the historian Dr Matt Lodder discusses the many meanings and functions of tattoos across time, from ancient civilisations to the present day, via Victorian aristocratic circles, interwar fashion designers and 20th century wars.
Tattoos have been used and understood throughout history in various ways: as medico-magical therapy, markers of subcultural identity, tourist souvenirs, fashion statements, punishment or humiliation, accentuations of masculinity, art. What’s really interesting about the history of tattooing is the sheer vastness of subjects it opens up. The stories are fascinating and the podcast is definitely worth a listen.
It made me think about what historians might observe about our culture in the future when they look back via the lens of tattoos. They certainly give a flavour of the popular images and patterns that circulate in our visual culture today. Just as Victorian aristocratic tattoos were inspired by the craze for lotus flowers, butterflies, dragons and all things Japanese in the late nineteenth century. And just as the 1940s tattoos of Mickey Mouse and Gary Cooper were inspired by early Hollywood movies. Those types of images are still popular as tattoos today. But the range of images has also massively expanded, and you now see pretty much anything and everything from our visual and material culture tattooed on the body.
But what else do tattoos say? Whose stories are being told - and more interestingly, whose aren’t? I’m intrigued by tattoos that speak, often quite subtly, of the politics of our time. The American sculptor and tattoo artist Doreen Garner has talked about the absence of Black cultural heritage in tattoo imagery today because tattooing as a profession has traditionally been dominated by white men. She says, with ‘traditional American tattoos, there’s always a void; there’s no Black presence.’ In Garner’s tattoo practice she deliberately redresses this, inking iconic Black American heroes and imagery of the history of Black resilience and resistance in the USA on her clients’ bodies.
Even though tattooing is often considered a violent act on the body, Garner describes her practice as an act of self-care. She says, ‘These tattoos are so celebratory of Black excellence and Black history, it’s kind of initiating a healing for Black people.’ In this video Garner talks more about it, and it’s a thought-provoking 7-minute watch:
The Glasgow-based artist Fidjit is another interesting practitioner who makes work that responds to our current political moment. In 2015 she developed a tattoo image depicting a woman’s head half-submerged under water, which she called The Drowning Girl. Fidjit intended it to function as a permanent visual connection between women who have experienced traumas like sexual and domestic abuse, rape, mental health issues etc. Thousands of women now have that tattoo on their bodies.
Like Garner, Fidjit’s work comes from a place of personal experience - in her case, of sexual assault. The Drowning Girl eventually became part of a campaign in 2019 to change the legislation in Scotland around the ‘not proven’ verdict in cases of rape, after a woman known as ‘Miss M’ became the first person to successfully sue her rapist in the civil courts following his initial acquittal. Fidjit talks about the artwork in this 4 minute video:
Some people can be quite dismissive about the status of tattoo artists. It’s true that there are jobbing tattooists who will knock out anything you want in a technically competent way, without much more to it. But there’s another group of tattooists who operate at a higher level in the quality of their craftsmanship and in the meaningful expression of ideas. Skin is the medium they use to convey these ideas, just as other artists would use canvas, or film, or photography. What I find compelling in these two artists’ work is the additional meaning that comes precisely from using the intimate site of the body to communicate stories about marginalisation and invisibility.
As always I’d love to know what you think about these artists and any of these ideas. And please share any tattoo artists whose work you love in the comments.
Ah wow .. wonderful mail .. and thank you for the Fidjit Drowning Girl video Vic .. how empowering!!
What a fascinating post - I love how you look at an often overlooked expression of art. Thank you for highlighting this.