On the Sexualization of the Transgressive Body

I know I have written about the sexualization of tattooed women before; my previous post on the subject focused upon tattoo magazines and the images they choose to adorn the cover pages with. Today’s post was inspired by a Facebook status by one of my local tattoo studios, a new studio opened by somebody I respect as an artist. The studio was advertising for “female tattoo models” for a calendar, and to find “Miss …..* Tattoo” (*insert name of studio).

 

As a tattoo fan, especially if you are a consumer of tattoo magazines, you won’t be a stranger to the Tattoo calendar. Usually given away with special new-year issues of the magazine, featuring scantily-clad women with varying levels of ink. I’m not denying the photography is usually pretty cool, the artistry is good and the calendar is generally aesthetically pleasing. But the models usually fit into societal norms of what is ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’, just with added body art. So is this formula not a bit old-hat now? Do we not deserve something a little different? A little more exciting? Or is there no market for anything other than “sexy-thin-model-with-tattoos-posing-in-provocative-stance”? I think there is a market for something different, we’re either not making ourselves heard or we’re not being pro-active enough in our power as consumers.

 

What about tattoo fans that yes, appreciate a woman with a good tattoo, but also appreciate a man with a good tattoo– because, shock horror! It’s the ink we’re looking at and not the body wearing it. Now I know this is a radical idea, but how about a calendar featuring both men and women with high quality ink? If it’s a calendar of ‘sexy women’ we’re after, surely we can rely on Nuts and Zoo magazine for that?

 

And as for a competition to find “Miss Tattoo” – I was obviously in the throws of a bourbon haze when we were all bundled into the time machine and transported back in a midst of flares and platforms to the 1970’s – the days of beauty contests pitching women against each other in an attempt to eek out the ‘beautiful’ one who strives for world peace. “Miss Tattoo” my foot.

 

My PhD is taking a positive stance and looking at heavily tattooed women creating new beauty norms, new aesthetics and transgressing the ideals we are fed constantly by society. I wanted to keep it positive, looking at what women are doing to subvert ideals and resist the pressures. But, after getting so angry over this, and contemplating where I sit with the whole issue, I would really like to include a chapter on the sexualization, or the fetishization of the transgressive body…

All I need to do now is work out how. 

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Tattoos: Public Skin & The Fear of Flesh

If like me, you are a fan of body art and are often distracted by various on-line media sources; you may have noticed the influx of tattoo-related articles in recent weeks. The Guardian in particular has been quite tattoo-laden, and it’s always good to see positive coverage of body art in the mainstream media. However, what isn’t so good is the public comments that these articles undoubtedly always attract.

It still astonishes me just how many people feel the need – time and time again- to put finger to keyboard and enlighten the rest of us with their judgments, opinions and anecdotes about various tattoo-related hilarities: usually involving how dirty tattoos look, how ‘awful’ tattoos look on ageing skin, and one recent comment that told us we certainly wouldn’t want a tattooed surgeon operating on us in our hour of need (?!).

As a tattooed person, these are all things I’ve heard before, and hear/read repeatedly – especially in the comments section of such articles, and as a tattooed person studying tattoos as a PhD subject, I have an added interest in these public reactions.  I began this blog to explore my academic thoughts in a more informal context, the ideas shared here aren’t extensive and may need some work – I may have even changed my mind in a week’s time, who knows?!

I’ve been doing some reading and thinking around the Grotesque, carnivalesque and ‘space’ (of which we fill, not the planet-type space!), and what with these infuriating comments coming thick and fast, it got me thinking….

 When does skin become open to public comment and opinion? When does our or my skin become public skin – something open to opinion and derogatory judgments? Why do people think it’s acceptable to openly talk about how awful they think somebody’s skin is? In any other context, expressing our disgust at somebody’s body/skin/identity would be considered socially unacceptable, so what is it about tattoos that transgress these social boundaries of etiquette and common decency?

 Tattooed people are constantly left in a position where-by we are defending our choices, and ‘proving’ ourselves to be decent human beings. Yes, it’s our choice to become tattooed, and some people – a lot of people- don’t like tattoos, and that’s fine, of course. It is also ok for these people to express their views, obviously.  I’m not saying that it’s not, what I am wondering is why tattoos provoke such a reaction, and why people feel the need to express their dislike, distaste and disgust.

 On my reading around The Grotesque Body, I have been considering how as a society we actually don’t like bodies. We don’t like oozing, fleshy, functioning bodies. We are conditioned into liking ‘perfect’ bodies – the clean, the smooth and the compact. We don’t like talking about the stuff that bodies produce, (we are lead to believe by sanitary product advertisements for example, that menstrual blood is blue for goodness sake). Bodies scare us – hair, blood, guts and goo – YUK.

 I would take a guess at the majority of tattooed people being pretty much OK with the oozing, leaky, imperfect body. We have to be: sitting for hours at a time, bleeding and in some degree of discomfort, the healing and after-care– you get to know your body quite well. We are embodied subjects, at one with our bodies. And it’s my suggestion, possibly even hypothesis (for fear of sounding like an ACTUAL SCIENTIST) that this is what some (not all) non-tattooed people fear. I will point our here, that I know many non-tattooed people who are completely ‘at-one’ with their bodies, and they don’t judge tattooed people. Tattooed bodies (heavily tattooed bodies specifically) represent positive excess, and we as a society are not meant to engage with any kind of excess.

A tattooed body is a strong, powerful body – it says, “fuck you, I’m not adhering to your social norms and mainstream ideals of what it is to be beautiful”…. And some people don’t like being addressed like that: being stared back at by the bodies they were staring at in the first place.

 Tattooed bodies are a new kind of beautiful, a new aesthetic – a scary prospect perhaps. Tattooed bodies are not docile bodies, and that, to some people is just not acceptable.

If you would like to read about the grotesque, carnivalesque and some other stuff, you may like to read these if you haven’t already:

 

The Female Grotesque by Mary Russo

Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin

Extreme Beauty by J Swearingen and J Cutting-Gray

Space, Time and Perversion by Elizabeth Grosz

In the Flesh by Victoria Pitts

Women Artists Making Their Mark

 

Always happy to see some positive coverage of tattoos in the mainstream media, imagine my delight when I saw this blog post on the Guardian site, about women tattoo artists:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/fashion-blog/2012/oct/05/female-tattoo-artists-make-their-mark?commentpage=7#start-of-comments
I have used the term ‘women artists’ and not ‘female artists’ because any use of the word ‘female’ in relation to any discussion surrounding the human race and not the animal kingdom makes me cringe.

My first observation was that the blog appeared in the ‘fashion blog’ section, which made me think why not the society section, or art, or culture? I’m not sure if the placement of the blog depends upon the person who writes the post, or who makes the decision – the author or the editor. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting point that the placement happened to be in ‘fashion’. I think, especially as the post is about ARTISTS, I would have preferred it to be placed within the art section, or culture at least.

The sub-heading states that the increase in women artists is “changing the business” but doesn’t really go on to explain why or how within the post. I mean, I would like to know – how exactly are women changing the business? Yes there is a noticeable increase in women artists – and this is indeed, brilliant of course. But, how is this changing the tattoo business?

The article also asks why women artists are so popular. Why wouldn’t they be? This is a valid question, I suppose – the women mentioned in the article are well known within the industry and are the ‘hot names’ at the moment, which is why they have waiting lists years long, but this happens to male artists too. It does pose the question, do people go out to find a woman artist specifically? Or when looking for a tattoo artist, does one look at the art work first, and gender second? Would you choose a woman artist over a man *just* because you want a woman artist?

Do women really make ‘different’ art to men? Is there a feminine aesthetic? Surely we are past the idea that men create ‘masculine’ art and women create ‘feminine’ art….. aren’t we?

One statement in the blog post really caught my attention: “with 20 million of the 62.6 million of us in the UK inking our bodies, the aesthetic of beauty is shifting”. CUE MY PhD! I love the idea of a shifting beauty aesthetic, and the fact that tattoos are a part of this. This, has it happens, is a major focus within my PhD.
So although I began by saying I was pleased when I saw this article, I seemed to have moaned about it a little, and questioned it somewhat, and perhaps I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. But questioning, and critiquing is a good thing, surely.

And, the post does point out that the tattoo industry is a “hugely progressive industry in terms of gender equality”.

Hoorah!

 

 

 

 

Tacky or Tasteful? – An ITV ‘Debate’

ITV’s This Morning decided it was time to bring the tattoo debate to the masses, with the anticipation of being made extremely angry; I began watching this with trepidation:

http://www.itv.com/thismorning/life/are-tattoos-tacky-or-tasteful/

To my genuine surprise, it didn’t annoy me quite as much as I had expected, but there were a few things (of course) that I found myself shouting at my MacBook as I watched:

·      The Psychotherapist said that everybody she knows who has been tattooed, regrets them and therefore she knew her daughter would regret hers too. Nobody I know regrets their tattoos – and I happen to know a lot of tattooed people. I’m glad Jodie Marsh was able to say she doesn’t regret hers; this is such a common misconception by non-tattooed people – it almost always goes hand-in-hand with the age-old “what will you do/think when you’re older”. Aaaargh! Of course some people regret their tattoos, but not everybody will, as this woman predicts.

·      I was really annoyed with the psychotherapists claim that “everybody with tattoos is impulsive”. Really annoyed. I am probably the least impulsive person I know. I have never rushed into getting tattooed; I have never rushed into anything, for that matter. So she wouldn’t employ anybody with a full sleeve because it shows they are impulsive? Does she know how long it takes to complete a sleeve?! It may not be as impulsive as she thinks. Of course some tattooed people are impulsive – just as some non-tattooed people are impulsive. News Flash! Not every tattooed person is the same. Crazy, I know! If she’s going to use tattoo as an indicator of impulsiveness, and something to avoid, how does she recognize impulsiveness in the non-tattooed? How does she avoid employing those people? (What’s wrong with being impulsive anyway?)

·      I thought it was a real shame that Jodie Marsh didn’t question the fact that tattoos may not mean you are an impulsive person – and Holly W went along with the presumption too. There was no question that this might not be true.

·      The other key issue to be ignored/not bought into question correctly was that of Legal Age. It was mentioned that the legal age to get tattooed is 18 – but the psychotherapist admitted that her daughter was younger than this when she was tattooed and Jodie Marsh said she was younger than this when getting her first tattoo. It was agreed that young girls are getting hold of fake ID and getting tattooed – which of course does happen, but this really grated with me. Why was it not clearly stated that any tattoo artist tattooing under-age kids are not the kind of tattoo ‘artist’ you want to be associating yourself, let alone your skin with? I know fake ID cards can be convincing, but please? This discussion made it sound as though poor young children are in danger of having their lives ruined by these irresponsible tattooists on an under-age tattooing rampage. Jodie Marsh really didn’t help this…

Phillip Schofield asked “What about when you have children?” (Another age-old and equally annoying question). He then went on to ask if Jodie would let her children get tattooed, Jodie replied, “If they were old enough”. To which Phillip asked, “What’s old enough?”

18! 18! That’s the correct answer! Not “well, 16, 17, 18, but I’d give them a talking to first”.

Nobody picked up on the fact that it is illegal to tattoo a person under the age of 18. And actually, a parent allowing their child to get tattooed knowingly under the age of 18 is putting the tattooist in a pretty awful position.

Over all, I think ITV missed an opportunity to have an intelligent, in-depth discussion around tattoos – to dispel some of the myths and preconceptions of tattoo and tattooed people. Jodie Marsh did manage to touch on the issue of personal narrative within tattoo, but far more could have been covered, how about the issues of tattoo as art? Aesthetics? And the reclaimation properties that so many tattooed women speak of?

The psychotherapist didn’t upset me as much as I thought she would, she did say that just because a person is tattooed wouldn’t necessarily mean she disliked them, she just doesn’t like tattoos – which is fair enough. She did say that she would be put-off employing a heavily tattooed person – she has her reasons, and although this is annoying for any tattooed person, I’m not sure I would want to be employed by somebody who I knew had these opinions anyway.

Oh, and by-the way, good news everyone! This Morning conducted their very own all-encompassing piece of research (a telephone vote, no less)…. The results?

Tattoos are Tasteful – 61%

Tattoos are Tacky – 39%

Phew! I for one am relieved 😉

Reflections on an Upgrade

 

 

So the time came, I had handed in my 5000-word upgrade document, and the date had been set for my ‘interview’. The day I had been dreading…

 

I’d heard positive stories – mainly about the enjoyment one might get from being able to talk about one’s research ideas. I’d also heard horror stories – mainly about crying.

So I didn’t really know what to expect; the only thing I had managed to decipher was that one’s individual interview experience might, just might, depend upon the academics allocated for the interview. Oh.

 

Imagine my delight then, when my meeting began something like this, “this is not a test, we’re not here to ask you trick questions, it’s a constructive process and we are here to help as much as possible”. PHEW! I had been allocated ‘helpful’ academics, and not the other type….

 

The meeting was certainly less daunting than I had imagined, and far more informal too – which helped me to relax, and enabled me to answer questions honestly or even say when I wasn’t really sure about the answer. I also felt comfortable and able to ask opinions on my research methods – on reflection, I don’t know if this was an appropriate thing to have done, but I’m trying not to dwell on that bit.

 

I’m starting to reflect on the meeting as a whole now – I felt slightly flat immediately after, and quite unable to think about it. I think this is probably a reaction to the build-up, the anticipation and the worry of the unknown, and then the knowing that it’s over.

 

I don’t think I explained myself as well as I could have done, and I don’t think I came across as particularly confident. I tripped up on some of the literature questions; my mind went blank, which I am annoyed about. However, I was able to explain the parts of my upgrade doc that I wasn’t happy with, and how I’d improve it. I was also able to talk about my thoughts on improving my chapter structures and even re-thinking part of my methods plan. I think the ability to talk about this was very much enabled by the general feeling of the meeting, and me being made to feel comfortable and not at all intimidated by the situation.

 

I just wish I didn’t sound so ‘bumbly’, didn’t repeat myself so much, and had remembered more key points of the literature to mention. I don’t think I presented myself or my idea very well, this annoys me on a personal level because I don’t like feeling I’ve come across as a bumbling idiot in front of people I respect. I almost (and don’t quote me on this) feel like I want the opportunity to re-do the interview once my amendments have been made…

However, I’m sure this feeling will pass!

 

 

(In)Appropriate Artwork.

This week The Daily Mail ran a story on how Sainsbury’s have had to apologize to parents after they sent out promotional posters for their new kids and fitness campaign, featuring their project ambassador David Beckham and his TATTOO of a SCANTILY CLAD VICTORIA BECKHAM.

Shock Horror!

I was directed to the article by Skin Deep Magazine’s Facebook page – I’m glad somebody is filtering Daily Mail articles as it means I don’t have to 😉

The article is worth a read, but I would strongly suggest you don’t read the comments underneath, especially if you are tattooed, or are a fan of an inked body or two. To be fair, there are some sensible, inoffensive opinions but I only managed a couple of comments before the risk of me throwing my MacBook through the window became too high, and I was forced to leave the page. It can be viewed here. You have been warned:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2122801/Wont-somebody-think-children–Sainsburys-apologise-sending-promotional-posters-Beckham-featuring-revealing-Posh-tattoo-47-000-schools.html?ITO=1490

The promotional posters were sent to 47000 parents, schools and people who work with children. One nursery complained. That’s pretty good going, and means that either not that many people were offended, or people just can’t be bothered to complain anymore. But still, Sainsbury’s apologized.

The complaint was not about Beckham’s tattoos per se, but about the specifics of one tattoo – his pin-up style Victoria.

I don’t think the debate was over whether or not Sainsbury’s should have used a heavily-tattooed man to promote their campaign – although, as you would expect, some commenters on the Mail site have taken it upon themselves to question the parenting and role-model abilities of a heavily tattooed individual: SNORE, like we haven’t heard that before.

I haven’t seen the posters in person, only the picture in the article – but it seems like people would have to be looking pretty hard to be able to make out a semi-naked woman on Beckham’s arm. Maybe that’s not the point, the point is that it’s there; somebody noticed it and felt strongly enough to complain about it.

So what’s there to complain about?

A Drawing, A Painting, A Piece of art: depicting a woman in her underwear.

I have to say at this point, that of course this issue is completely subjective; different things offend different people. But I also have to say, that in my opinion, our children are subjected to images far more offensive than this.

I would be interested to know if these nursery workers have complained about anything else. Underwear adverts in the weekend papers? Readily available to any child who’s parents are careless enough to leave the newspaper lying around (please insert a slight sarcastic tone here); or Men’s body spray adverts on TV, usually showing images of scantily clad women in a subordinate position to the ‘stud’ male character?

The tattoo is a drawing – any tattoo is a drawing, naked woman or not. Yes I’m pointing out the bleeding-obvious here, but I’m wondering if the medium of the visual image makes a difference. To me, a drawing of a naked woman is a piece of art, and therefore not offensive – but perhaps a photograph, dependent upon pose, intent/agenda and context, can indeed be offensive or at least provocative at times. (This calls for a whole other blog post, by somebody better qualified than me in talking about art and medium!).

I have a three-year-old son, only the other day he picked up my book of pin-ups. I have to admit, I had a fleeting thought  “oh there are pictures of naked pin ups in there should I take it off him and give him the Gruffalo instead”, but that thought soon turned to “they are paintings and drawings of women, would I cover his eyes in an art gallery or museum?”

In my opinion, it’s very different to leaving copies of Nuts and Loaded magazine around the house (not that I have these magazines in the house, but you know what I’m getting at).

It’s an interesting thought – how can photographs sometimes feel inappropriate and offensive, but paintings, drawings and ‘pieces of art’ don’t? But I’m getting off the point here, because the women at the nursery did find this drawing offensive and certainly not suitable for children.

I wonder if the complaining nursery workers cover the eyes of children when visiting an exhibition, gallery or museum? Maybe I should be protecting my son from pieces of art now? Are galleries inappropriate places for small children? I don’t think so. But I could be wrong.

I think if my son saw the posters of Beckham, he is far more likely to point to the tattoos and liken them to “Mummy’s and Daddy’s tattoos” rather than pointing to the semi-naked woman and wondering what it was or what message it was conveying. Other children of non-tattooed parents would, I’m sure, be more interested in Beckham himself than the fact he’s got a hardly-noticeable pin-up on his only-just-noticeable arm.

I think my point is thus:

Tattoos are an art form.

I do not feel the need to ‘protect’ my son from pieces of art.

I do however feel the need to protect my son from sexually-inappropriate or degrading images of women and men. The image Beckham has on his arm does not, in my opinion, fall into this category.

And just for the record, anyone who thinks being heavily tattooed affects one’s ability to parent or be a role model in any way is a Wally (in my opinion, obviously).

It’s Skin Deep

This began as a post merely recommending an article in a magazine, and as if by magic, has developed into a post of two halves…

I was delighted to find a great article on Women and Tattoos in Issue 202 of Skin Deep magazine, How timely! How convenient! Given my rant in my last post, this find was quite pleasant. It’s always pleasing to discover an interesting article amongst the pretty pictures, especially one that reaches out to you on a personal level.

“Only Women Bleed” provides an over-view of the history of Women’s relationships with tattoos, and a commentary on Women and tattoos today.

The article discusses a wide-range of women & tattoo-related subjects; from body projects (such as lip and eyebrow enhancement) using similar technology to tattoo but refusing to use the term ‘tattoo’, to tattooed circus side-show attractions and Egyptian Mummies.

The article even tackles the Tattooed Woman = cute or sexy dichotomy, stating that “Popular Culture persists in giving tattooed women very narrow margins to exist within”. It also discusses tattooed women as commodities and uses Suicide Girls as an example of this trend.

It all makes for a very interesting, and thought-provoking read. If you haven’t seen it, and would like to, back issues are available to buy here:

http://www.skindeep.co.uk/back-issues

Anyway, I promised this post was one of two halves. So what’s the other half?

After reading “Only Women Bleed”, I decided to write to Sion Smith, the editor at Skin Deep and tell him that I thought the article was good, refreshing, etc. I of-course didn’t let the opportunity of a little self-promotion pass me by, and I included a link to my previous post – The (tattooed) Beauty Myth. I was really hoping Sion would read it, it’s always good to get differing opinions – especially as so many of the reader-comments were aimed at Tattoo Magazines, and let’s face it, the ‘issue’ so many women have with them.

Well, Sion did read the post and the comments and he took time in replying to my email. He said he’d be happy for me to use his comments in a follow-up post, so I’ve jumped at this chance.

Drum Roll

Sion Smith, editor of Skin Deep said:

Basically, I can’t address the sins of the tattoo mag industry in a single issue. It is a long process that requires me never to explain it. More to take it for granted I think. The Only Women Bleed article is the tip of an iceberg that needs addressing. Fact of the matter is though, I get at least 12 emails a day from heavily tattooed models looking to be in the magazine. 99.95% of these women are what most would call ‘attractive’ and they are more than ready to be feature with fun outlooks and a wealth of stories. These are things I can work with in a magazine but combine it with the fact that they also spend a lot of money on photo shoots to approach us, shows just how serious they are. They know the business. Conversely, I also get some people who want to be in the mag who have taken pics of themselves in the back garden with a phone camera. Not good for a magazine that has the production values that we have.

That’s the business end of the stick.

When I took over the magazine, I was aware of all the critics and agreed with some of them. I cannot change the covers of the magazine (not yet) although we are working on it! (See issue 200) because what people on the outside don’t see is how we have to work with distributors and stores across the country and how they take us into their stores based on whether they THINK they can sell it. It’s complicated. So leaving the covers aside for a second, inside the mag, things are changing as you have noticed, but it has to be a stealth change. There is thought and there is art. There are also people. Male and female. All that remains now is to try and de-sexualise it and make it all about the art – which after all is what we are. But I reckon it will take years to do this. It’s a long process of educated readers as to what I actually want and then getting them to provide it – but the magazine still needs to cater to the majority. I’m still feeling my way with it, but we’re getting there. It’s just one little issue in a sea of a lot of little issues!

What I find ironic is that those who don’t buy the mag because of the cover even though they might enjoy what is on the inside are entering into the very behaviour they so abhor by judging the content based on the art presented on the skin. I think it’s ironic… it may be sad, funny or something way above mental process also! I can’t decide”

I was really happy to get a response from Sion. We have continued the conversation via email since this initial reply and it has given me a real insight into the business end of the world of Tattoo Magazines, and has allowed me to think more broadly on the subject I suppose. I know that this response will trigger some more comments and I’m sure Sion will be glad (or at least interested) to read them – as will I.

I was glad to hear that Sion is not in anyway saying that he doesn’t see a problem in some of the content of magazines. He is fully aware of the criticisms, and is actually working on addressing these. Which is good to know, right?

This has been an interesting little side step for my PhD subject and me. I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t my sole focus, although to be honest it’s a huge topic and probably could be….Watch this space 😉