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Interview: Marisa Kakoulas and Margot Mifflin on Tattooing in the New Millennium

We speak with the two experts on women in the industry on the eve of their Powerhouse Arena panel discussion

by Graham Hiemstra
on 03 March 2014

All things counter culture reach a point of popularity where they cease to exist exclusively in the periphery—some just take longer than others to reach the tipping point. Tattooing, for example, has existed for thousands of years, yet only in the past few decades has its popularity increased seemingly to a point of no return. However abundant tattoos may have become, many will argue a stigma still exists—especially when society's eye is turned towards women who've chosen to adorn themselves. While we like to think all is well and equal, it's a simple truth that it isn't—although views will, and do, continue to evolve.

To discuss the history of women and tattoos, and the current state of contemporary tattooing, Brooklyn's Powerhouse Arena will host a panel discussion this Thursday, 6 March 2014. Led by "Black Tattoo Art 2" author Marisa Kakoulas and Margot Mifflin, author of the recently revised "Bodies of Subversion" book, the panel will also host respected women in the industry such as Roxx, Virginia Elwood, Stephanie Tamez and Amanda Wachob. To touch on some relevant topics and get some insight regarding what will be discussed at the event, we recently spoke with Kakoulas and Mifflin.

In 2014, I know far more people with tattoos than without—do you feel there is still a stigma? Specifically against women with visible tattoos?

Marisa Kakoulas: While there is a lesser stigma in this era about tattoos due to their popularity, negative stereotypes about tattooed people still exist. I believe that there is a misinformed premise that people only get tattooed as some form of rebellion, which completely ignores the fact that men and women have gotten tattooed for millennia as a form of personal expression, beautification and for a wealth of other reasons. There is also the dichotomy that tattooed women are both fetishized and ostracized due to their choices of body modification. Breast implants are acceptable—but they shouldn't be tattooed. We'll delve into this at our panel discussion, and I'm really looking forward to it.

How do you feel about the current interest in traditional, Sailor Jerry-style tattoos? Do you feel the pirate ship or gypsy will become the tribal arm band of this generation?

Margot Mifflin: This is a classic style that’s integral to our nation’s tattoo history, so in a sense it’s timeless. But personally, I’m pretty tired of it. I’m also stumped by why the gypsy—of all the historical female options—is such a female fixation. It’s just a pretty face with no association with power or historical consequence. Maybe she represents freedom, but even that’s kind of an ethnic cliché that doesn’t carry well into the 21st century. Still, of all the representational tattoo styles, the classic imagery is less likely to become clichéd than other trends because it’s endured for so long.

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Do you feel there is a measurable difference in the styles of male and female tattoo artists? Or is it like any art; where the style depends on the individual, not the gender.

MK: I used to hear, "She tattoos like a girl," many years ago, but no longer. "Tattooing like a girl" usually referenced the actual subject matter that was being tattooed rather than technique, and I think a lot of it had to do with more women clients feeling comfortable with female artists and wanting more feminine motifs. Today, those lines are blurred, and yes; the style does depend on the individual. There are renowned women tattooers who follow the "bold will hold" old school tattoo mantra, often seen in classic sailor tattoos and there are men creating decorative watercolor-inspired compositions with a softer edge. These artistic boundaries no longer seem relevant today.

"Bodies of Subversion" touches on Victorian society women who wore tattoos as couture. Do you feel we're again at a similar moment in time where tattoos are more often acquired for fashion than for any spiritual or personal meaning?

MM: I don’t know that anyone’s quantified it, but from the people I’ve talked to it goes both ways: some people just wanted something that looks nice; others want to invest the tattoo with personal associations. It used to be that women were more likely than men to get them for symbolic reasons—maybe because they were discovering their symbolic potential, or maybe because getting one was such a big step and it had to be justified. But that seems a little less common now.

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The original version of "Bodies of Subversion" was released in 1997, what do you feel is the most significant addition to the new edition?

MM: In terms of the art, the biggest change is in the range and quality of tattoos. Thus, the addition of the chapter on the new millennium—which shows abstract tattoos, text tattoos, craft and trade tattoos in a wide array of styles that embrace a broader spectrum of art historical references. As far as the business of tattooing goes, the big change is that women are no longer struggling as newcomers to this profession. Even though you see a clear gender imbalance on the roster of artists at tattoo conventions, the speed at which women have set up shops and established themselves in the industry is really remarkable, especially compared to many other arts where they still struggle for equal opportunity, not to mention equal pay. The fact that the tattoo industry isn’t rigidly institutionalized the way the fine arts world is allows women more independence, power and mobility within it.

But there’s also an important addition to the first chapter: Jesse Knight, the first British female tattooist, who started in 1921. She learned from her dad, who tattooed the family crest on her back. She was the only female artist in the UK for decades; she ran her own shop and built her own machines. A client Knight tattooed when she was in her 60s remembers her lighting a match and holding it out to prove she still had a steady hand, and she still tattooed into the ‘80s. Happily, a lot of her flash and photos of her work survive—you can see it in the book. She was a true pioneer.

Visit Powerhouse Arena for more information on the 6 March 2014 panel discussion. "Bodies of Subversion" is now available in its third edition from Powerhouse books for $24. And visit Needles and Sins to keep up with Kakoulas. Lead image and final two of Jess Knight, middle three images include work by Roxx, Virginia Elwood and Stephanie Tamez.

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