to start: i generally love being tattooed. i really enjoy the 30+ permanent modifications i’ve added to my body. if i had the chance, i would not remove them & start over with fresh skin. i have a sleeve on one arm, large pieces on my other arm and chest, large pieces on both legs and back, one large piece on each hip, and small pieces behind my ear and on a finger. add that to my 1/2″ stretched earlobes and septum piercing, and i definitely don’t look like most people out there.
so i don’t look like a total reject from society (yet) and i live in vancouver, which is a super liberal city where large tattoos are really common, and the vast amount of feedback i get on my modifications is positive. the past few days i’ve been thinking about how much a political action it is, perhaps unintentionally, to heavily tattoo oneself. i found a great paper on the subject (which you should save to read when you have a few minutes).
Thus when a person enacts a decision to become tattooed, he or she conducts an act of political agency–whether or not this was the intention. Such an act flies in the face of the Eurocentric discourse of beauty and the ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ construction of the body. The tattooed subject makes a bold statement. This is particularly so when women choose to become tattooed. Patriarchal conventions of women’s beauty and behaviour dictate that women must be silent and unassertive, conforming to an unnatural standard of beauty in order to be acceptable. Tattooed women thus make a conscious statement that they will not subject themselves to male-defined standards of how women can act or exercise agency over their bodies.
travelling in europe, i expected to have some negative experiences, and i understand that my tattoos make me a somewhat of rarity (especially in the former soviet states, where looking unusual was strongly discouraged) and to a certain extent i expect the stares and i generally tolerate mild rudeness (like when a man moves my shirt so he can see my arm tattoos!!). but my experience is that most people look for a moment or two, then look away, which is not intrusive in the same way (even though sometimes their looks are disapproving). that sort of thing is not as stressful. people are naturally curious/drawn to look at bodies that are different than the norm.
i stayed in ljubljana for three nights and had two very uncomfortable experiences. the first was at a shitty restaurant (the food was terrible) where the customers at the next table stared at us, talking and laughing, for the entire duration of our meal. granted, neither my travel partner or i can understand slovene, but it was very clear they were talking about us. every time one of us would make eye contact with one of them, they would look away quickly. this was not the kind thing that’s incidental, and you cross eyes with someone because you happen to be glancing over–these people were staring pointedly at us for the entire duration of our meal. i was trying to ignore it, but my travel buddy was really stressed out by it and reacting badly, and that just made it worse.
the next day, i had another terrible restaurant experience! this time, the two waiters just stood at their station, which was maybe ten feet away from my table) and stared at me openly! when i made eye contact, they’d look away quickly. sometimes they would turn away to talk in very low voices, and then turn back and stare at me. at one point they brought a third waiter into it, and then were all staring at me. later, they went into the restaurant (i was sitting on the patio) and stared at me from inside! i caught them staring at me several times through the window. although they were not being pointedly rude and laughing, i still felt grossly on display.
although being a femme-presenting woman can be frustrating in general (having men leer at/comment/attempt conversations with me) these two situations are things i have encountered very rarely. the last time i’ve felt so terrible and helpless was three or four years & 15 tattoos ago, on a city bus in san diego when bunch of young dudes were in the back yelling about how tattooed girls were sluts, among various other slurs against women. they made me feel so trapped, violated & angry, but it felt like there was no safe & appropriate reaction.
my tattoos empower me, but sometimes they also make me feel helpless. how the fuck does that work? it’s kind of like having a femme body in general. i can dress up in a way that makes me feel incredible, sexy & powerful, but then encounter oppressive comments from men around me that make my power feel drained away. such a double-bind.