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Book review: 'Bodies of Subversion', by Margot Mifflin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 3:57pm

Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, 3rd edition

by Margot Mifflin

powerHouse Books

Among the first mainstream American celebrities to openly wear tattoos was Janis Joplin. On her chest, she wore a small heart - the size of a candy heart. "Just a little treat for the boys," she told Rolling Stone, "like icing on the cake."

For most of history, tattooing has been a male preoccupation, either a one-fingered salute or an exercise in swagger. Mifflin had the good idea to examine tattooing in the Western world from a female perspective. Her relatively slim book doesn't provide a truly wide-angle view, but the insights she brings are insinuating and complex.

For the first time, a 2012 Harris Poll says, US women are more likely to be tattooed than men. They're no longer rebel emblems, Mifflin notes, but a mainstream fashion choice. Tattoos have been "emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains", she declares. They're also "badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape and sexual harassment" have made women "think hard about who controls their bodies".

Her book includes striking colour photographs of the tattoos some women have had embroidered on their chests after mastectomies. Thanks to recent legislation, tattoo artists can sometimes directly bill insurance companies for this work.

Bodies of Subversion is delicious social history. Tattooing was an upper-class social fad in Europe in the late 19th century. Winston Churchill's mother had a tattoo of a snake eating its tail (the symbol of eternity) on her wrist. The fad spread to America. In 1897, Mifflin writes, The New York World estimated that 75 per cent of American society women were tattooed, usually in places easily covered by clothing.

By the 1920s, tattooed women were mostly to be seen in freak shows and in circus acts, where they could make more money than tattooed men. They offered, the author avers, "a peep show within a freak show".

Briefly after the second world war, tattoo appeal fell off, as "tattoos perpetrated in concentration camps had added a ghastly new chapter to tattoo history".

Mifflin's story spins forward through a revival in the 1970s, when women with a tattoo or two began to shake the stigma that they were sexually available.

Her final chapter takes us up to the present day, with assessments of the tattoo artist Kat Von D's fame and cultural moments such as the popularity of Stieg Larsson's 2005 novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Mifflin is at her best dealing with class and tattoos. She quotes an inked-up female doctor who says it's easier for professional women to wear them at work: "If you're working some crummy desk job with a dress code, it's a lot harder."

Mifflin deals, too, with the matter of tattoo regret. A survey by the Archives of Dermatology indicates that 69 per cent of tattoo removal requests come from women.

The New York Times

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