Tramp stamps are making a comeback
Women and queer youth are reclaiming the subversive and highly sexualized lower back tattoo.
Photo via Anthony Harvey - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images and Instagram.
In 2003, Britney Spears arrived at a red carpet event in a fedora hat and a low-rise skirt that showed off her fairy lower back tattoo. At the time, the tattoo was dubbed a “tramp stamp” and, somewhat like Britney herself, it was viewed by society as trashy, overtly sexual and routinely the target of sexist jokes. In the 2005 film Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn’s character said the lower back tattoo “might as well be a bulls-eye.” Still, celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Brandy Norwood, Christina Aguilera and Nicole Richie all got one, though some have later had their tattoos removed. Even Barbie had a tramp stamp by 2009. Over 10 years later, the tramp stamp is having a comeback as the ultimate tribute to a much-loved era.
In 2021, Britney’s very public meltdown is no longer considered tragic (thanks, in part, to the documentary Framing Britney Spears), but a reflection of misogynistic treatment by both the media and the music industry. Almost every fashion trend from the early 00s has come back into style, including low-rise jeans and exposed thongs (to the dismay of many millennials). And our seemingly endless love for all things Y2K has also paved the way for the lower back tattoo revolution — the seeds of which have already sprouted on social media feeds everywhere. Instagram brands like Tank Air Studios and Paloma Wool have recently released temporary tattoo pieces and there are even tattoo-inspired thongs.
But it doesn’t stop there. Those wanting to make a more permanent commitment to the reclamation of the tramp stamp are running to tattoo artists like Kyle England, who told i-D that he gave his first lower back tattoo in years a matter of weeks ago. It was a lamb, but he hopes to tattoo some wilder tramp stamp designs in the coming months — just in time for summer.
Neon, a 21-year-old model, had an intricate band tattooed on her lower back last July, to celebrate her first trip to California. She doesn’t find the term “tramp stamp” offensive, and simply loves the way the tattoo placement looks on her body. “I’ll say [to people who use the term in a derogatory way], only the baddest of them all tramp around town like it’s their own,” Neon adds. “I’m not at all worried about the label of the tattoo. It’s iconic and a trend will always be a trend.”
Brooklyn-based designer and founder of Rhee Studio, Cherry Kim, shares Neon’s lack of concern for the “tramp stamp” label. “I honestly don't find the placement offensive or intrusive. I remember being a pre-teen and seeing older girls wear low-rise track pants and jeans with an exposed thong and 'tramp stamp,' and thinking it looked so cool,” she says. “I'm just trying to fulfil my fantasy.”
Cherry’s lower back tattoo is of her brand’s name, Rhee, which is also her mother's last name. She says she decided to get it last month on a whim. “I wanted to get Rhee tattooed somewhere, but in all honesty the next campaign shoot was coming up and I thought it would be funny to include it as a shot,” she explains. “I asked the tattoo artist to add little flame flickers on top of ‘Rhee’ for some added irony.” Cherry says that the night before getting her tattoo, she re-considered the placement, but only because her “taste changes so drastically every couple of years.”
For Cherry, embracing the tramp stamp has been empowering. But she would be offended if the term “tramp stamp” were used by a man to describe her tattoo, as with other derogatory terms used to refer to women or their bodies. With this, she touches on a key issue: tattoo placement for women has always been sexualized. After all, there's also no equivalent to the tramp stamp on a man's body.
The correlation between women’s sexual promiscuity and tramp stamps was so engrained in the cultural dialogue of the 00s that by 2013, there was a study conducted by French psychiatrist Nicolas Guéguen that explored whether women with tramp stamps have sex earlier (think: the media’s unwarranted obsession with Britney’s virginity). The notions associated with lower back tattoos can have very real consequences though. The study found that women with the tattoo placement are more likely to be hit on by men and viewed as promiscuous. It also uncovered that men believed women with tramp stamps to be less athletic, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent and less artistic.
With deeply misogynistic roots, the reclamation of the lower back area and the “tramp stamp” tattoo label is led by being led by women and queer youth. The movement, if you will, goes hand-in-hand with the resurrection of the bimbo aesthetic, through which teens are reclaiming the once misogynistic stereotype used to infer promiscuity and a lack of intelligence. Together, the new-age bimbo and modern tramp stamp turn sexualization on its head and empower the next generation of radically left-wing feminists to reclaim the way their bodies are objectified.
Eliona Kryeziu, a 19-year-old self-confessed bimbo on TikTok, has a custom butterfly tramp stamp, inspired by popular tattoos in the 90s. “I got it a week before my 19th birthday last year because I wear my pants really low and wanted something cute to show through,” she said. “Some people say ‘tramp stamp’ in a rude tone like it will offend me, but it doesn’t. My Mom told me not to get it, but now she thinks it’s cute.”
Inspired by the 00s, 18-year-old musician Shima got her lower back tattoo at the age of 17. “I just found them beautiful and made it my mission to get on as soon as possible,” she says. Shima chose a Hello Kitty design because she “didn’t want to take it too seriously,” and thought it would be hilarious to have Hello Kitty on her lower back through adulthood.
While Shima is fond of the term “tramp stamp”, she says she had several friends bring up what the tattoo could do to her reputation. “One of my friends even sat me down to tell me that I really should reconsider due to the aspect of men seeing me as ‘whore’ or a ‘slut’ with that sort of tattoo,” she says. “I did think about the consequences that come with having a lower back tattoo and how people will perceive me with a lower back tattoo, but I wanted to do what makes me happy and not worry about how I will be treated with one.”
The tramp stamp comeback allows us the opportunity to celebrate some of the 00s most iconic styles, but also to give a previously taboo and highly sexualized area of the body a do-over. This can only happen, of course, with the continued dismantling of systemic misogyny and slut-shaming that is still rampant in today’s society. With freshly-inked tramp stamps on their backs and jeans sitting well below their hip bones in 2021, young people are freeing the lower back area. Next on the agenda is to #FreeBritney.