Three crows wrap around her left arm. By chance, her mom’s maiden name is Crow. In Native American lore, the crow is the carrier of souls and a guardian of things that were lost and the number three symbolizes the trinity or completion of a phase.
“I love the idea of wearing a piece of someone else’s art. My body is literally a canvas to tell a story and show how beautiful the world of tattooing can really be.” This is one of the many reasons Alana Wooldridge told me she loves to get tattooed.
Wooldridge is a 23 year old woman who grew up in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. She currently resides in Milwaukee where she runs a local coffee shop. Though she loves taking her dog out for runs, spending time with her best friend, and watching as many horror films as possible, she would always rather be in the seat of a tattoo shop adding to her growing work of art.
But Wooldridge isn’t the only person who craves tattoos. In fact, tattooing dates far back in time over 5000 years ago. Cate Lineberry of the Smithsonian website writes about the many mummies who archeologists have discovered with tattoos. She says it was a common occurrence for Egyptian women to get tattoos as a way to alleviate pain and as a protection during childbirth.
So if it had such grand purposes so many years ago, why does it now have a bad stigma? Lineberry suggests that the emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire had an effect on people. “Tattoos were felt to ‘disfigure that made in God’s image’ and so were banned by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373).” From that point it was seen as a form of rebellion to get a tattoo, until the 19th century.
Matt Loder of The Guardian wrote an article on the many myths of tattoos. He referenced an anthropological report by Albert Parry which stated that European royals were often tattooed. Some said it was a way for the women to show they couldn’t be controlled.
Matt also quoted an article from 1926 in Vanity Fair. “Tattooing has passed from the savage to the sailor, from the sailor to the landsmen. It has since percolated through the entire social stratum; tattooing has received its credentials, and may now be found beneath many a tailored shirt.” This shows that even 90 years ago the public was noticing a mainstream trend.
A local tattoo artist, John Williams*, told me about a change he’s noticed over the years. “I’ve been working as a tattoo artist for over 30 years, and times have really changed.” He went on to say “I usually saw the same type of people every day, bikers. Always the rough types who didn’t care what they put on their body as long as they looked meaner.”
Williams said he then started to see “beautiful people” come in on a regular basis. “Men and women of all different backgrounds came in with ideas that I wasn’t used to. They wanted pretty works of art all over their bodies. It made me nervous, but I was excited to live up to the challenge.” Williams said he has grown to appreciate every client’s vision because he is now a part of their life, no matter how small it may seem.
Another common myth Loder mentioned was heavily tattooed people will never get a real job. This myth was an easy one to discredit.
Maria Mora wrote an article for She Knows that features a woman named Bri Norcross. Norcross is a 30 year old mother with some serious ink. She has a large back tattoo with outlines of Koi fish and flowers that’s still in progress and an arm full of cupcakes, gumballs, candies, and other junk food. Norcross also has three jobs; she home schools her oldest child, is a project manager for a development agency, and runs her own accounting firm. She’s had no trouble with finding a job in her skin, but she has found a few downsides to her body art.
Norcross has found that discrimination is an unwanted factor in her tattoos. Though she gets mostly positive reactions, she has found that parents at her children’s daycare aren’t too fond of her visible tattoos. “It was worse when I lived in a small, conservative town, but I still get the occasional unwanted opinion. There was a fellow parent at my kids’ day care who commented that I should stop letting the kids scribble on me.” But she says it isn’t enough to stop her from doing what she loves to do to her body.
Wooldridge has felt some of this discrimination as well. “My own father sincerely thinks that tattoos on men are acceptable, while on women it usually looks vile.” This has been an uphill battle for many women who want to cover themselves in tattoos. While many people are accepting tattoos on men as a masculine rite of passage, many women are still looked at as being dirty or promiscuous for having many tattoos.
One woman who has felt this stereotyping is Kelly MacKenzie. MacKenzie is a dog groomer in Arizona. I spoke with her to find out how she has been discriminated when people see her tattoos. “I’ve never really felt it in the way you might think. It’s usually from strangers who haven’t spoken a single word to me yet. They stand there judging me and waiting for me to say something aggressive or nasty, but then I greet them with a smile and ask them how their day has been going. I can sometimes see the shock in their faces when they realize they judged me too quickly.”
I also asked MacKenzie how difficult it’s been to find a job. “I’ve actually never been turned down for any job I’ve applied for. I’ve worked at a coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, a high-class speaker store, and been a veterinarian’s assistant. They’ve never minded my tattoos because they don’t stand for anything offensive and just show my artistic side. Sometimes I’ve had to change the color of my hair to a natural color, but that’s it.”
When I asked Wooldridge the same question she had the same response. “I actually have had no trouble finding any form of job that I’ve sought after because of my tattoos. All the occupations I’ve worked towards are very open to the alternative lifestyle, and embrace body art.”
I wanted to see if the stereotyping was only occurring outside of the tattoo community, so I spoke with a piercer at a local tattoo shop, Jane Johnson*.
Johnson grew up knowing she wanted to work in a tattoo shop. She drew all the time and started piercing herself when she was twelve. When she was old enough she walked into a tattoo shop to find out how she could start her dream career. “I was laughed out of the shop and told that women are too dainty to do a job like this.”
To prove them wrong she chose a path that she thought was even harder to do, piercing. After many years of training and working, she went back to that shop and proved those men wrong. She showed not only that she could pierce people, which even those men were too squeamish to do, but that she could also do great tattoo work. She was offered a job on the spot, and she proudly turned it down.
Johnson says she hasn’t felt discrimination from the men she works with now, but occasionally gets asked if a man is around to make sure her work is correct.
So with all this negative feedback on tattoo enthusiasts, why do they still continue to add more tattoos?
Many have their own beliefs, but it seems to boil down to self expression. Wooldridge tells me about her background with practicing witch studies. “I follow a lot of traditions and my tattoos reflect my appreciation of my practice.” She knows there are many misconceptions about her lifestyle but wants to make sure people know nothing on her body stands for any kind of discrimination or hate. It’s a peaceful practice that involves mostly getting tuned in with nature. She enjoys delving into the mysteries of the culture and wants people to see how much she cares about that part of her life.
MacKenzie is also sharing her life, but she does it in a variety of ways. She’s from Upper Michigan, but has spent most of her life in Wisconsin, so she got a tattoo of the Upper Peninsula on her thigh with the words “Yooper, You Betcha” across the peninsula to show how much she cares for her family. She has an extreme love for anything creepy or scary, so she has a tattoo of zombie on her upper arm chewing on a man’s leg. Recently, to go with the zombie, just above it she got a zombie bite. She eventually wants to have her whole left arm covered in what is called a “horror sleeve”, filled with tattoos of notably scary characters.
Bri Norcross, the 30 year old mother previously mentioned, got her tattoos on her arm to express her sweet tooth. She also has two pink bows on the back of her thighs to show she can be dainty even though she usually gives off a “tomboyish vibe”.
Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones wrote in the University of California Press also looking for reasons why people get so many tattoos. They set out to find why the recent trend has gravitated towards youth and women.
For young adults, it was usually a way to assert their independence. Their lives were suddenly changing, either going off to college or starting a full time job, and they wanted “a way to ground a sense of self in a seemingly changing and insecure world”.
Kang and Jones also found what Michael Atkinson calls the “supermarket era” of tattooing. We’re now in a time where tattoo shops are found in almost every city. Atkinson says it’s a time “marked by easy availability and consumer choice”.
For women, its a whole other ball game. Kang and Jones believe women find the art of tattooing as a way to control their bodies. They want to “challenge the limited roles of wife and mother” and to express themselves in a way that no one else has a say.
Kang and Jones also say some women even use it as a way to reclaim their bodies. When women experience traumatic experiences, they are more likely to get tattoos to show that they are strong and they have overcome these hard times. While some may think this is just self-mutilation, in most cases its quite the opposite. “Whereas most people who engage in cutting are ashamed of and attempt to hide their scars, most tattooees regard their tattoos as sources of pride and works of art, even those who hesitate to display them in public.”
Wooldridge is part of this group of women. She said she went through some very trying times and the crows showed themselves to her in real life as a beacon of hope. All of those hard times inspired her arm tattoo and a way to express how she got through them all.
“Its like any other lifestyle! Much like weight lifters live their lives through the gym, I like to live mine enveloped in art.” Wooldridge says she believes there will always be people who don’t understand why she gets tattoos, but that’s okay because she doesn’t do it for other people, she does it for herself.
*Name was changed by request