Women shrug off the tattoo taboo

Kendra Herring’s personal journal is on her skin, for all to see.

The tattoo ink that marks her arms and legs is a narrative of the important moments in her life.

She has body art that represent her grandmother, her 25th birthday, the five-year anniversary with her boyfriend – she got a spoon on her forearm, and he got a fork.

There are seven tattoos in all, mostly on her arms.

“It’s a way to kind of chart the important relationships and periods of my life, I guess,” says Herring, 34. “And I’m a visual artist, so it’s just another way to surround myself with visual art, really.”

Once considered taboo or, at best, risque among women, women now make up at least half the clientele at tattoo parlors.

“It is acceptable,” says Marta Vicente, a Kansas University assistant professor of women’s studies who researches women’s body image. “But I think it’s still risque. If tattoos were piercing your ears as a woman, it would not be the same. But it’s like piercing your ears as a man – it’s accepted, but it’s still shocking or being different.”

Gender split

One poll by the Harris Poll service, conducted nearly three years ago, showed 15 percent of all women had tattoos, trailing men by only a percentage point.

Kendra Herring, of Lawrence, displays one of several tattoos she has on her body. Studies show that an increasing number of women are getting tattoos despite former taboos about the body art.

A more recent poll, published in this month’s edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, examined some details of women who are getting tattoos. They’re most likely to get them on the ankle, upper back or chest, and 52 percent reported having only covered tattoos. Also, they favor smaller tattoos, with 80 percent of women reporting having tattoos palm-sized or smaller.

Those are trends that make sense to Joe McGill, owner of Joe’s Body Art, 714 Vt.

“Women seem to prefer smaller tattoos,” he says. “But occasionally you’ll get some one who wants a bigger one, too. … Women seem to go for stuff they can cover up. More often than not, they don’t want tattoos on their arms. It’s usually their backs or shoulder blades. And ankles are pretty common.”

McGill, who says his clientele is split in half between genders, says some women make a spontaneous decision for body art, while others plan.

“A lot of times it’s been a real spontaneous type of thing,” he says. “They’ll come by and see a cool design and say, ‘Man I want to get one.’ Or they’ll get it in memory of a brother who was killed, or a sister they lost or their dad that has died. Some will think about it for a long time and then finally get the bug somehow.”

‘Freedom of choice’

Jan Bishop, owner of Skin Illustrations, 1530 W. Sixth St., has seen similar trends recently. She says about 60 percent of her clientele is female.

“It’s been headed that direction all along,” Bishop says. “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen older women come in, too. One woman who came in was 85 years old.”

The client had requested the tattoo for her birthday, Bishop says.

Herring displays tattoos on her wrists.

“She asked her kids for a hot-air balloon ride for a present, and then she came in for a hot-air balloon tattoo after that,” she says. “She brought all of her children and grandchildren along.”

But other reasons for women to get tattoos vary.

“I think sometimes the attraction is freedom of choice,” Bishop says. “There are a lot of women who, if you ask why they wanted a tattoo, they say their boyfriend or husband told them they couldn’t have a tattoo or piercing. They’ll say, ‘I just got my divorce, and I can do what I want.’ It’s an act of freedom or independence.”

Sexual feeling

Vicente, the women’s studies professor, says tattoos are the latest trend in women having control over their bodies.

“Women have always had a much closer relationship with their own bodies, as well as a problematic relationship,” she says. “Men do not have that same relationship with their own bodies.”

In modern culture, with pressures about body image everywhere, Vicente says women need to feel like they’re in control of their own bodies.

“In this world of media bombardment, the need to have control over one’s body, for women, is very important,” she says. “Tattoos are something that are maybe seen as something that women choose to have, a form of empowerment.”

She recalls a 12-student graduate studies seminar last semester, when a student presented a paper on female empowerment as it related to tattoos. After the presentation, 11 of the 12 women revealed they had tattoos.

Somehow – and Vicente isn’t sure exactly how – tattoos went from being something sailors got when they were at war, to something women find as sexy. In fact, 42 percent of women in the Harris poll said having the tattoo made them feel sexy, compared with 25 percent of men.

“In the wars in the beginning of the (20th) century, it was seen as a very masculine thing, very physical and macho,” she says. “So I’m sure the women who had tattoos in the ’70s and before were seen as lesbians. But now it’s something that can be sexy and feminine.”

Vanishing ink

That’s not to say some women don’t regret the choice later.

Andrea Albright, a mother of two who is expecting her third child, is thinking about having the 1-inch-tall shark on her left ankle removed.

The tattoo, which she got in 1990 at age 22, came when she “was just tipsy enough to think that this was a good idea, and we were all riding the new wave of grunge music and the style that accompanied it.”

These days, when she’s asked to attend a convention or meet with a client for her job with a local architectural firm, she makes a point to wear pants instead of a skirt.

“I don’t remember a professional situation where anyone has asked me about the tattoo, but I have worried that – whether right or wrong – the tattoo’s mere existence would cloud someone’s opinion of me,” says Albright, now 38.

She also worries what her children will say or ask about down the road.

But even as she’s changed her personal feelings on her tattoo, she realizes society has become more accepting of body art.

“Today, every college girl and mom at the swimming pool has a tattoo or two,” Albright says. “In addition, tattoo artists and ‘tattooees’ have come up with a much wider repertoire of artwork. If you’re a young woman getting a tattoo, there are lots of ‘safe’ designs to copy from.

“And maybe most importantly, these days everybody knows you can have a tattoo removed. It’s not the lifetime commitment it once was.”

Typical trend

Herring has felt a few of those uncomfortable moments. Sometimes, she wears long sleeves to avoid questions about her tattoos.

“My parents aren’t into them,” she says, “but my nieces think they’re very cool. My grandma is, like, horrified of them. She didn’t even want to hear the story.”

But, generally, Herring feels people are accepting, or at least tolerant.

“I think they’re completely mainstream now,” she says. “I don’t think it’s this renegade … punk-rock thing to do. I think I’ve seen that change as I’ve gone through this.”

She wonders if, someday down the road, women’s tattoos will be looked at as the “Afro” hair style was 20 years ago – completely cliche.

“It’s almost like now, it’s something that was once regarded as something shocking, but now it’s almost like middle-of-the-road – almost an obvious thing to do,” Herring says.

“That’s really why I’m so glad I haven’t gotten half the tattoos I thought that I wanted. I look at people with full sleeves, and that’s fine. But I wouldn’t want that. It’s mainstream now.”