the future of tattooing is female

How fourth-wave feminism and social media are changing the culture’s gender balance.

by Zio Baritaux
05 May 2017, 3:50pm

tattoo artist grace neutral on set for i-D in Brazil

2012 was the first year that more women in the U.S. had tattoos than men (23% of women compared to 19% of men, according to a Harris Poll). The statistic is less empowering for women working in tattoo shops — according to a 2010 study by Columbia University, just one in six tattooers is female — but it is still a progressive increase. As Sarah Carter, a tattoo artist who creates black-and-gray masterpieces inspired by religious iconography, puts it, "It's not such a goddamn sausage party now."

It started to become less of a sausage fest in the 1960s, when birth control first became available and more women than ever entered the paid workforce. That included the tattoo industry, which captured and amplified the non-conformist and anti-establishment attitudes of the decade.

Two of the women I talked to for this article were inspired by Cindy Ray, who started tattooing in Australia in that era: "When I was looking for a job, I carried her picture around with me," says Sera Helen of Auckland's Two Hands Tattoo. Ukraine-born artist Stanislava Pinchuk, who is also known as Miso and is (sometimes) based in Melbourne, even forged a friendship with Ray. "Cindy is 72 now, and more beautiful than she's ever been," Miso says. "She cooks me these giant waffles with a cigarette hanging out the side of her mouth, and walks a German Shepherd that's twice her size on a metal chain like it's no thing. Her attitude is incredible — she's funny as hell and has no ego [considering] what a huge part of the industry she has been."

But in the 60s, women in tattoo shops were still rare. When 19-year-old Sheila May started working in a Wisconsin shop in 1966, she only knew of one other woman who did tattoos; it would be a decade before she learned of another. "Guys would come up to the shop," May recalls in the book Bodies of Subversion, "and you'd hear one say to the other, 'Oh my god — look! There's a broad in there doing that!'"

In the decades that followed, tattoo culture evolved and became more inclusionary. It's still male-heavy, to be sure, but in the past 10 years, the number of women has increased dramatically. Miso attributes this growth to fourth-wave and intersectional feminism: "It's running in tandem with young women stepping up our ownership and representation in so many other creative industries," explains Miso, who just released a new book. "We are making fashion labels, changing photography, modeling, publishing, and film to be more inclusive, owning exactly how we want to be seen in our bodies and subcultures."

Being in control of their own images means, for many of the women I talked to, that they want their gender to be disconnected from their work. Mina Aoki, who creates fine-line portraits of ladies in bandanas and barbed wire, explains, "I am a woman and also, separately, a tattooer. I am proud to be both, but I need to think of them separately."

Sarah Carter used to decline interviews related to being a woman. "My desire was to be treated the same as the guy tattooing next to me and not raise it as an issue," she says. Sarah once responded to an invitation to participate in an all-woman art show with the sentence, "My pussy has no bearing on my work." So why did she agree to answer my questions? "Things change," she explains. "I don't reject the overall sentiment I used to champion, however, I now find myself in my late 30s, the mother to a two-year-old daughter, married to a strong career man, and I've gone through what most creative career women in my position experience: a massive change in circumstance."

But gender does still seem to have a bearing on how women are represented at tattoo conventions. At a convention I attended in Los Angeles last summer, that 1-in-6 ratio looked like a gross miscalculation. Of the more than 100 artists at the expo, only a few were women. On another convention's website, of the approximately 300 artists who attended in 2016, only 14 were women (that's 4%).

How is it that women make up 16% of tattooists, but are so underrepresented at conventions? What accounts for that disparity? It might be the same problem that plagues fine art: "Despite the fact that women represent over 50% of the population of artists," the Cornell Fine Arts Museum wrote in a press release in 2015, "just 5% of the works presented in modern and contemporary art galleries and major museums in the United States were created by women." That figure hasn't changed since 1989, when the activist group Guerilla Girls glued posters onto New York City walls that asked, "Do women have to be naked to get into U.S. museums?" Less than 5% of the artists at the Met are women, the poster argued, but 85% of its nudes are female.

The same question could be asked of the media: Do women have to be naked to get into tattoo magazines? The answer, for years, has been yes. Men could appear rough and rugged, clothed or unclothed, but women were treated like models. They were often posed provocatively, with fewer clothes on than necessary to show off their tattoos. Even in modern-day mainstream outlets like Inked, women are still presented in much the same way; based on photos alone, it's hard to determine who is a nude model or a tattoo artist. For their April 2017 issue, for example, Ryan Ashley — the first female winner of reality show Ink Master — appears topless or reclining on an ottoman in a pink lace bodysuit. The shoot clearly implies that how she looks is more important than how she tattoos.

The Internet has changed that. Just as it birthed fourth-wave feminism, social media has created a digital space where women can circumvent mainstream media and control their own images. On Instagram, for example, women are just as visible as men, and the focus can be on their work rather than their bodies. "I very rarely show my face on the Internet, because for me, that is not rewarding," Mina explains. "What is rewarding is being recognized for my art."

Some women, however, do use the platform to show both. "When I first started putting my tattoos on the Internet I felt very off-put by other females who had seemed to be getting more business because of their risqué Internet presence," Mina says. But there is an upside to that: For the first time, women tattoo artists are in control of their own images, rather than men or the media. They can choose to show their work, or their bodies too. And Mina no longer feels put off by it: "It isn't fair for me to judge whatever reasoning other women have to put themselves, bodies and all, on the Internet," she says. "It is important to remember that everyone practices that differently, and the point here is for that prose to exist."

This sort of attitude of acceptance — from both men and other women — is what will continue to grow women's presence in tattooing (and also, hopefully, the presence of people of color, and trans and genderqueer artists too). So, is the future of tattooing female? "We're on it," says Miso. "The past, present, and future is female."

Read Part 2 of this series: 5 Female Tattoo Artists on Making it in a Male-Dominated Industry


Text Zio Baritaux