For the record, the tattoo on Kristen Powell’s stomach is a hamburger, not a cheeseburger.

In some bored Internet surfing not long ago I stumbled upon a picture of Maud Wagner, the first female tattoo artist in the U.S.

There’s no mincing words about this: girl is fine. From her Gibson Girl hair to her completely covered décolletage, aesthetically she’s a woman I look up to. And I can’t help thinking she helped pave the way for me, as well.*

I got my first tattoo when I was 18. It was on this list that I had of things to do before I died. And since it didn’t seem like I’d be headed to Paris anytime soon, I decided that getting tattooed would be one of the easier things to cross off the list. Now, I’m finishing up a full sleeve and have a good handful of others. It’s hard to say why I can’t stop getting tattooed.

In reading up on Maud Wagner, I discovered an article by Christine Braunberger that was published in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal (now called Feminist Formations) in 2000. Entitled “Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women,” the article was like a warm inky hug to this monster beauty.

The piece delves into the cultural history of tattooed women in the U.S. and the different reasons women got and continue to get tattooed, what getting tattooed means to them and how society then reads them. Ultimately, tattooed women are troubling because tattoos highlight and hypersexualize women’s bodies, but they also are a masculine text.

The first heavily tattooed women in America were sideshow tattooed ladies and they’re an excellent example of this confusing dichotomy. Braunberger refers to them as “self-made freaks.”

Tattooed women had to work to be freaks; tattoos are not formed by an errant allele.** Sideshow ladies were allowed to show more skin than other women of the period which literally and figuratively exposed them to male gaze. But they also had significantly more financial and geographic independence than the vast majority of Victorian women.

Stories of “tattoo rape” usually accompanied these women. More often than not, they had supposedly been forcibly tattooed by Indians, their abusive father or both. In reality, these women chose a tattooed life consciously and were supporting themselves. What’s more, thanks to Victorian fashion, when they weren’t performing, their tattoos were usually covered.

Perhaps though, their hidden tattoos were more terrifying. After all, what’s more dangerous than a women with a secret?

Basically, Braunberger’s look at tattooed women calls to mind an anthropological mixed bag of terms like “agency,” “talkback” and “Introjection.”

As a modern-day tattooed lady, this piece meant a lot to me. I don’t know why getting tattooed is so appealing to me. I will say that the first tattoo I got below my wrist came in conjunction with the decision that I would never work a desk job. And that crashing the veritable dick-fest that is the back of most tattoo shops often feels like a subversive experience in and of itself.

My tattoo experience is probably best summarized with a conundrum I recently presented a tattoo artist. “How am I supposed to make an anchor girly?” he asked, responding to my request.

I don’t know; I’m figuring it out.

*In some moderately bizarre facet of “noble savage” ideology, tattooing was actually relatively popular among upper class women and men in the second half of the 19th century in Europe. Winston Churchill’s mother had a snake tattooed around her wrist, guys. But you probably wouldn’t know that, because it seems “wrong.”

**Though prominent tattooed lady Artoria Gibbons once told a reporter that she was born covered in tattoos because her mother saw too many movies while she was in the womb

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