Tramp stamps, Pin-up and
Negotiating Femininity through
Contemporary Australian Tattoo
School of Social Science
The University of Queensland
• Tattoo and other body decorations part of ethnographic literature
since before the birth of anthropology.
• Inscribed skin highlights issues central to anthropology:
• the boundary between individual and society, between societies, and
between representations and experiences (Schildkrout 2004:322).
• little attention has been paid to Western practices.
• Tattoo prevalence in Australia today:
• women beginning to outnumber men
• now highest among women aged 20-29 years (29.4%)(Heywood et al 2012).
• Are tattoos ‘simply the latest forms of modification that have
constrained, minimized and contorted women’s bodies in the interests of
men’s approval in previous periods” (Jeffreys 2000:425)?
• Do tattoos only punctuate meanings already attached to women’s bodies
(Braunberger 2000:1-2), or do tattoos change the meaning of that body?
• multi-sited ethnography of women’s tattoo practices in SE Queensland:
• participant observation at two tattoo events and online
• 6 in-depth interviews with tattooed women (5 tattoo models, and a female
• non-academic publications e.g. 27 issues of Australian tattoo magazines.
• approximately 20 years of experience in the Brisbane tattoo scene.
Western women and tattooing
• Beginning in 1882, “tattooed ladies” as part of
circuses and carnival sideshows (Braunberger
• Level of nudity required to display tattoos was an
• Thus upstaged tattooed men
• at the point of entry into the world of tattoo Western
women were sexualised
• 1960s: ‘the last tattooed lady trod the boards in
Australia’ (Cohen 1994:49).
• women continually dissuaded from involvement
• not until 1970s that Western women became
tattooed in significant numbers (Atkinson
Bev Robinson: last “tattooed
lady” in Australia (Cohen
A gender divide in placement
• 1970s, 80s and early 90s:
• Western women’s tattoos were generally private, men’s more public
• Women: breasts, hips, shoulder blades and abdomen (Sanders
• Men: arms by far the most common site (Sanders 1988:413).
• Prior to mid 1990s most tattoos on women could be easily hidden
and were only selectively revealed.
Lower back tattoos:
An increase in
• From mid 1990s increased in popularity
• Often consisted of butterflies, flowers, tribal
patterns or a combination of these.
• Low pants, short tops = visible when the
woman bent over, and sometimes even
visible when standing.
• about 2005 the term “tramp stamp” was
coined (precise origins unknown).
• Through use of the term “tramp” a symbolic
connection between lower back tattoos and
sexual promiscuity was made
Image circulated on the internet
The increasing visibility of women’s tattoos
• Since the “tramp stamp” the size and visibility of women’s tattoos has
• 21st C:
• arms, upper chest, neck, hands and legs increasingly popular
• popularity of hidden, private tattoos on the decrease amongst some women
• primarily hidden and emphasising
secondary sex characteristics (e.g.
breast, hips, abdomen) → occasionally visible
(e.g. lower back) → readily apparent (arms and
upper chests) and visible despite clothing
(e.g. hands and necks).
• Appropriation of masculine placements
Tattooed women increasingly visible as
the “face” of tattoo
• Images of women:
• used to advertise tattoo conventions
• frequently featured on the covers of tattoo
• only 2 out of the 28 (7%) issues of Custom Tattooz (since
2007) have featured men on the cover (and one of these
was pictured with a woman).
• 71% of covers of Tattoos Down Under featured “covergirls”
• no men appearing on covers of these magazines for the
last 2 years.
Changes in the gendered subject matter
• Previously a fairly distinct
flowers, butterflies, fairies, cute
cartoon characters, celestial
motifs and the like.
• Men: stronger and more violent
images such as
skulls, dragons, monsters, scant
ily clad or nude women, and
Contemporary subject matter: diminishing
• Due to rise in popularity of:
• oriental designs
• “old school”, traditional
When I first started
getting tattooed, it seemed that men’s
and women’s tattoo were quite distinct.
Has that changed?
Yeah, it's totally
different now. With the full sleeve, it
could generally be on a boy or a girl. It
wouldn't really make too much of a
difference, I don't think (Interview 4).
The persistent sexualisation of tattooed
• tattooed women are viewed as promiscuous (Swami and Furnham 2007).
• Gueguen 2013:
• more men approached the tattooed women and the mean latency of their approach
• Men also thought they would have more chance of obtaining a date, and having sex
on the first date, with tattooed women.
• I get a lot of guys come up and start a conversation with me now [that I am
tattooed]. Even when I go out and I don't have any visible tattoos there's a
massive difference between guys that approach you when they can see
tattoos, to guys that approach you when they can't see tattoos (interview
• I think a lot of men look at me like “Oh, she'll be easy to pick up or let's go
talk to her”, because a lot of people hit on me in that sort of sleazy way
Can’t meet mum
• senior member of the clergy:
• They’re loose *laughs+ not the sort of people that my mum would
have invited home for afternoon tea dear [laughs].
• I've dated a guy who said I could never take you home to my mum.
You know, this is never going to go anywhere because you have a lot
of tattoos (Interview 6).
• at the symbolic link is made between tattoos and sexual availability
regardless of their conscious personal motivations.
• Last 5 years in
• change in how
perceived. As a
woman in her 30s
women went from
“tough, one of the
lads, to sexy
Observation at modelling events
• “Tattooed Beauties”
• Quite a standardised look:
• very revealing clothes, often more than is necessary to reveal the tattoos (e.g. with
• Slender (and some very thin), large breasted (many obviously fake breasts).
• Many of them have hair extensions, fake tans and false eyelashes.
• Focus not on tattoos:
• There is no time to see their tattoos in any detail, they keep moving.
• a separate prize for “best ink on a beauty”.
• “Miss Tattoo”
• Less revealing clothes (e.g. larger swimsuits).
• range of bodies on display: some are thin, some are very curvy and some even have
• Pose in front of judges so tattoos can be examined.
• “Pin-up” originally referred to a
photo or picture of a person
intended for display on a wall
• is said to have originated with
the trend of military
• increasing number of women
are also getting tattoos of pinups.
• now used to refer to a certain
style of dress and body work.
Why so popular with tattooed
• classy (Interview 2).
• gorgeous without being trashy
(female competitor in “best pin-up
• not like sexy is the least amount of
clothes you can possibly wear, or
the skinniest that you can be.
• balances out the masculinity of the
Balancing masculinity and femininity
• It's [pin-up is] very elegant and I think having tattoos, having
something about you that's elegant and feminine was one of the big
drawcards for me … it just makes me feel like a lady (Interview 2).
• When I don't have my hair done and makeup done and nails done, I
reckon they [the tattoos] make me feel kind of manly, like a bit butch
• As a woman I feel, I suppose, empowered that I've got them
I think it's the empowerment as well, of being able
to say I'm a girl, I can get a tattoo if I want … it's my choice and my
body (Interview 2).
• But increased power is not just an individual perception. Tattooed
women have been found to be viewed as more powerful and less
passive than non-tattooed women (Hawkes, Senn and Thorn
• practice of tattoo has become in some ways de-gendered
• However one important difference between tattooed men’s bodies and tattooed
women’s bodies has remained: the extent to which they are sexualised
• Braunberger (2000:1-2) states, “When a woman’s body is a sex object, a tattooed woman’s
body is a lascivious sex object”.
• sex as a source of strength and independence
• subvert the ever-present “male gaze” by forcing men (and women) to look at
their bodies in a manner that exerts their control (DeMello 2000:173).
• The gaze denotes at the same time power (it enables us to exert control over the
situation, to occupy the position of master) and impotence (as bearers of a
gaze, we are reduced to the role of passive witnesses to the adversary’s action).
• complex interaction of power relationships in which dominant norms, values and
meanings both limit and provide sites for resistance.
• women actively negotiate gender boundaries and the power relations attached to
• Tattoos invest women’s bodies with qualities such as power and activity,