Friday, January 18, 2013


Yesterday both my sister in law and a friend posted a link to an article about the history of Caucasian women and tattoos on my Facebook wall. I was pleased that they thought of me when they read the article, but it was also somewhat bittersweet, because here in Bangalore, for the first time, I find myself making a conscious effort to cover up my tattoos.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting about the brief article (basically a review of a longer book that I've wanted to read for some time), was the fact that in American culture tattooed women have historically been viewed in a very voyeuristic, passive-object-of-the-active (read: male)-gaze way. The first known American woman with tattoos, Olive Oatman, became a celebrity simply on account of having them. Many subsequent tattooed women became circus attractions (or were tattooed in order to become circus attractions), some, such as Betty Broadbent, entered beauty contests, while others showed their tattoos "recreationally" (which I assume means that they were not paid to do so). Yet in each case the women were essentially objects to be viewed, whether with admiration or disgust, by others.

In my experience, things haven't changed much, though it surprised the hell out of me when I found that out. My first tattoo is on my back, so not generally visible when I'm out in public. My second tattoo, on my arm, is very visible, and I was shocked to discover that having a visible tattoo made me, in some ways, public property. Strangers approached me everywhere-- at the post office, the grocery store, on hiking trails and in parking lots. They followed me in department stores, and shouted at me across the street. The fact that my tattoo was writing in another language contributed hugely to this, as nearly everyone wanted to know what it said. They were virtually all friendly, but I was unnerved by the attention. My tattoo was for me, and I simply had not anticipated that so many people would want to talk to me about it. It felt invasive, and eventually I had that tattoo, which I loved dearly, partially covered over in order to obscure the letters and, I hoped, stop the constant attention and questions that came up whenever I bared my arms.

And it did help. Now you have to be close to me to realized that I have writing on my arm, and that has cut the number of stranger inquiries I receive by about 80%. My tattoo was no longer stressful for me.

Over the past two years I've had both my arms tattooed to the elbows, and one leg tattooed part way up my calf. I still don't receive anywhere near the number of comments and inquiries I did when I had the just the one tattoo on my arm. I don't know if that's because none of my newer tattoos are words, because tattoos have become even more common in the US in the ensuing decade, because New Yorkers are less likely to talk to strangers on the streets than Californians, because I'm older and grumpier looking, or a combination of all of them, but I'm glad of it. I don't mind my tattoos generating some attention (and at this point it would be naive of me to expect that they wouldn't), but I disliked feeling like I was always on display.

Here in Bangalore, things are a bit different. Even with my tattoos covered I stand out. I'm as tall or taller than most men, I'm very light skinned, and I have my two light skinned children with me everywhere I go. And I've noticed that when my arms are uncovered, people, especially men, stare at me even more. And by stare, I don't mean a passing glance...I mean that they stare at me until they pass me, and then they stare until they can't crane their necks any further.  And even though I understand why, I don't much like it. So I've found myself wearing 3/4 and elbow length sleeves, or a shawl, whenever I go out. I'm not totally comfortable with this, either. It reduces the staring, yes, but at what cost? My choices, and the choices of other tattooed people, won't ever become normalized if we cover our tattoos in situations where they might be perceived as unusual or unprofessional. On the other hand, even without my tattoos I am not normal here, and maybe I have enough to be getting on with without the added weirdness of my half blue arms. I'm not sure.

Right now elbow length sleeves are perfectly comfortable, but in a month or two it will become very hot, and I really dislike having my shoulders covered in very hot weather. So I suppose I'll see where I am on the issue when it becomes too hot to be comfortable with my tattoos covered. Maybe I'll decide that the extra staring is worth it for me to be a bit more comfortable. Or maybe not. If I do uncover my arms at least I'll be in good company: I'll have the whole history of the tattooed-woman-as-circus-freak behind me. Because while tattoos have become increasingly common, we as a culture (and cultures) still believe that if individuals make choices about their bodies that might draw more attention to them they must want that attention, and therefore they have no right to complain when they receive it. I disagree. But I also know that it goes with the territory, and I hope that when the hot weather comes I feel ready to face the additional stares.


Knitika said...

I quite enjoyed reading your experiences with tattoos. Not having any myself, I don't know what it's like to have them. However, from my point of view, I always thought that tattoos were a work of art to be viewed. If I see some one with tattoos, I'm curious about their artwork and want to look at it. And I'm sorry if this is an unwelcome analogy, but to me it's like a printed t-shirt or a bumper sticker. There's something on there, so I'm looking to see what it is. I don't want to be guilty of staring, but on the other hand, I assumed that the art was put there to be seen, and so I am seeing it. To an outsider, it never occurred to me that the tattoo is solely for the person's enjoyment, because if it's in a public place, it looks public. So there's a bit of the other point of view, from some one who enjoys seeing tattoos and appreciating the artwork.

Kristofer Young said...

Complicated arena for us viewers too.