Wearing Your Identity on Your Sleeve: Embodying Individuality with Tattoos

By Rachael Nuckles

I’ve been fascinated with tattoos since middle school. Part of me has always felt inspired by tattooing, a process that allows a person to express themselves in a highly visible way. Depending on the placement, a tattoo can quite literally serve as a statement of one’s identity. The permanent artwork, phrase, or symbol placed on one’s body always has meaning, even if that meaning is just “I liked the way it looked.” For me, a tattoo was a way for someone to take control of their appearance; like a walking canvas, I thought tattooed bodies were beautiful. I loved seeing the different styles and attempting to recreate them in the margins of my class notes, even landing myself a warning once for doodling them a bit too much in Algebra.

Now that I’m an “adult,” I have two tattoos. My first was a small shark on my left wrist, a reminder of sorts from an impactful theater production I worked on. The more recent is a simple outline of two hands interlocked in a pinky-promise, a symbol I find solace in as I continue navigating graduate school and my personal relationship with feminism. While I’d love to be covered in art, I’m not because, quite frankly, getting a tattoo is expensive.

(Photos courtesy of the Author)

Just as tattoos can represent moments in our lives or pieces of our identities, they can also represent status. Tattoos used to be symbolic of a lower class status, popular among sailors and considered “barbaric” in some religions, namely Christianity. [1] Today, a single tattoo can cost hundreds of dollars depending on the size, coloration, placement, and detail of the design. This means a tattooed body could actually be perceived as a wealthy body.

A higher cost is often associated with a higher quality of work; while many artists can work from flash, (predesigned tattoos created by the artist, usually for a standard fee) many will work with the client to create a brand new, one-of-a-kind piece. This requires significant time and energy to draw and redraw, making the artwork just right for its future body. The unseen labor, coupled with the time a client spends in-chair, can explain these costs. As a firm believer that artists should be paid fairly for their labor, the cost to place something permanently on my body feels justified.

Identity plays another role in tattooing, beyond the body of the wearer. In the United States, cis, white, heterosexual men still dominate as tattooers and tattoo parlor owners. Approximately one-third of tattoo artists are women (most of whom are white), while little to no data is available regarding queer artists or People of Color in the industry. [2] This does not mean these groups are not tattooing; as one Chicago Reader article suggests, “you just have to know where to look.” [3] Communities of queer artists can be found across the country from New York to Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. 

Often, queer tattooing does not adhere to the same standards that an “old school” tattoo parlor might. Many queer tattooers have private studios, allowing an intimate connection between the artist and client. Some rely on networking on social media to gain clientele, focusing on sites like Instagram to showcase their portfolios. Queer tattooers can be more sensitive to the needs of a client, putting emphasis on consent during the process of tattooing. Receiving a tattoo is an intimate experience, so making sure a client is comfortable at all times should always be a priority. One artist, Mars Hobrecker, sums this idea up quite nicely:

“I think that the number one thing, regardless of your clientele, is to acknowledge that you’re working with a body. Not a “canvas,” but an actual human body with the potential to carry trauma and memory…Our bodies carry things we don’t even realize a lot of the time, and often when we are in a position of feeling physically vulnerable, we become emotionally and psychically vulnerable as well. As someone who works with bodies all day, those are the things you need to be paying attention to.” [4]

Identity is also particularly important when working with the bodies of other people of color. There are several myths about tattooing on darker skin, specifically about the use of color. Many white tattoo artists showcase Instagram portfolios of beautifully inked, vibrant pieces, yet only on bodies with light skin. In an article for Bustle, tattoo artist Sophie C’est La Vie argues:

“It’s very easy for people to say that you can’t tattoo colors on darker skin tones but it depends on the circumstance. Just as shades of skin vary amongst people of color, so do the results. Blanket statements like that can make people feel nervous and that it’s completely not an option for them when that isn’t necessarily the case. It takes an understanding of what colors work best and of how that particular skin tone usually responds to colors-and the professional experience behind that. The exploration of colors on darker skin tones shouldn’t be suppressed.” [5]

(Image courtesy of Sophie C’est la Vie @sophiecestlavie on Instagram)

When tattooers only show work on light skin in their portfolios, they are telling people of color (unintentionally or otherwise) that the art does not belong on their bodies. This can even be communicated when flash sheets are created on white paper; the white background suggests white skin, when darker toned paper could be utilized to give darker skinned folks a clearer idea of the work on their own bodies. Just as a tattoo artist should be well versed in different parts of the body, they should be comfortable with different shades of skin. Color doesn’t only magically work on fair skinned bodies. This argument honestly feels like an excuse for the tattooer to ignore a significant population and forgo learning a skill necessary for being a well-versed artist.

As the practice of tattooing continues to grow more inclusive, the art arguably becomes more creative and more individualized. Individualization is happening all over the place in our lives as we curate niche social media pages, watch content on streaming services specially selected on our interests, and even scroll through eerily specific advertisements which seem hand-picked based on our previous clicking habits. It only makes sense that we would want to wear our identities literally on our sleeves, showing the world visually what makes us unique. Each and everybodyevery body, of every identity, deserves to feel comfortable in their skin. Whether tattooed or not, we need to learn how to celebrate our differences, similarities, and the vast ways of identifying in the age of individuality.

Endnotes:

[1] History of Tattoos. “History of Tattooing – View of Tattooing History.” History of Tattooing – When were Tattoos Invented? Accessed September 29, 2020. http://www.historyoftattoos.net/tattoo-history/history-of-tattooing/. 

[2] Gates, Meggie. “Blood, Ink, and Tears.” Chicago Reader. Chicago Reader, January 14, 2020. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/emily-kempf-julia-campione-sema-graham-women-nonbinary-tattoo-artists/Content?oid=77062156. 

[3] Allen, Taryn. “#QTTRs Make Their Mark.” Chicago Reader. Chicago Reader, June 24, 2020. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/queer-tattoo-artists/Content?oid=80872926. 

[4] Sanders, Wren. “Inside the Tight-Knit, International Chosen Family of Queer Tattooers.” them., November 27, 2019. https://www.them.us/story/smallshop-queer-tattooers. 

[5] Santibanez, Tamara. “4 Myths About Tattooing On Dark Skin That Are Completely Untrue.” Bustle. Bustle, November 5, 2019. https://www.bustle.com/p/4-myths-about-tattooing-on-dark-skin-that-are-completely-untrue-19188832. 

Rachael is a Midwesterner at heart beginning her second year as a Women’s History MA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Her thesis work will complicate the notion of the feminist wave and the construction of feminist icons while exploring the influence of the Riot Grrrl network of the 1990s in more contemporary forms of feminist activism. Some of her side interests include women’s rage, performance studies, and “cancel culture.”

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