Cover Story

Tattoos More than Skin Deep  by Alexis Keinlen
Tattoos More than Skin Deep

When Patricia Roe was 46, her 20-year-old son, Adam, died while mountain climbing in Guatemala.

Several of Adam’s friends got tattoos to mark the loss of their friend. A few weeks later, Roe got the same design tattooed a few inches above her knee, while Adam’s father had the tattoo applied to his shoulder. The design is an impala—a type of deer—surrounded by a sun. The deer was an important symbol for Roe’s son, who loved speed, movement and freedom; he also loved the sun.

The same design appears on the tombstone on Adam’s grave. Roe wanted to mark her body in a way that would give her a constant memory of her son.

“Sometimes it’s just like he’s disappeared and my tattoo is a symbol of our relationship and our closeness. I can touch it and it makes me feel like he’s part of me.”

Even the pain of the tattooing procedure, at such a tumultuous time in her life, was important, Roe explains. “It was pain that I welcomed at the time, because I chose it for myself at a time when there was so much other emotional pain that I couldn’t control.”

A Brief History
The word ‘tattoo’ derives from the Tahitian word ‘tatu,’ which means to mark something. It’s an art that’s been practiced for over 5,000 years; tattoo instruments have been found at archeological sites throughout the world.

Tattoos have been used as a mark of royalty, and many cultures have incorporated tattoos for religious and other ceremonies. It was common, for example, for women and men in 18th century Samoa to have tattoos, though women wore smaller patterns and avoided tattoos on their hands. The Maori of New Zealand have used tattoos for over a thousand years as a marker of tribal rank, eligibility to marry and generational heritage. Popular as an alternative to permanent tattoos, mehndi is the traditional art of henna body painting that has been practiced for centuries, mostly by women, in India, Africa and the Middle East.

As world travel for the more affluent increased, so did the North American fascination with tattoos. In the 1880s, North American and European women entered the world of circus sideshows as tattooed ladies. Many of them were married to tattooists and became walking advertisements for the work of their husbands.

While male soldiers and patriots were getting tattooed during the Second World War, women in North America discovered that they could not be tattooed unless they were over 21, married and accompanied by their husband. It is not surprising, therefore, that when the sexual revolution began in the 1960s, tattooing in North America and Europe became a form of self-expression. By the 1970s and 80s, tattooing was seen as a form of rebellion and was popularized by punk and rock music and the alternative fashion trend. By the 1990s, there was a huge growth in tattooing among a new generation of women.

Today’s Tattoo Ladies Teresa Johnson, owner of the tattoo parlour Electro Lady Lux, in Vancouver, explains that women tend to want tattoos for different reasons than men do.

“A lot of women do it as a type of reclaiming of their bodies and marking of certain incidents,” she observes. “Women seem to find symbols to signify events in their lives.”

Johnson, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, got her first tattoo at age 13. At 40, her arms, back and chest are covered in tattoos. One trend Johnson sees among women is that their tattoos are getting larger. “They’re not scared to make a bigger statement,” she says.

“Dainty isn’t in anymore, and it’s okay not to be dainty. It can be just as beautiful to have a sleeve (a full arm tattoo).”

Johnson has a whole arm tattoo which represents a reclaiming of her childhood. She says that her tattoos are not separate from her, but are a part of who she is and don’t make her more or less nice. “The whole idea of beauty has changed,” adds Johnson. Not everyone thinks so. When Johnson worked at a used clothing store chain, some customers came up to her and said: “You’re a nice girl. It’s too bad that you have so many tattoos.”

Business is so good that Johnson now employs two other female tattooists in her store on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. While acceptance of female tattooists has improved, especially among younger people, Johnson notes that “there’s still the attitude that ‘You’re good, for a girl.’”

The secret to being a good tattooist, says Johnson, is to be both technically and creatively skilled. “We work to give people what they want, not what they think they should have,” she says. “Really, I’m tattooing because I want to make people happy. I believe this comes from the place of being female and the idea of choice. We have people telling us what to wear, what to look like. We have more empathy for what people want.”

Justina Kervel, owner and operator of Liquid Amber Tattoo in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, used to tattoo dogs and cats for identification when she worked as a veterinary assistant. On weekends, she began taking the tattoo machine home to practice on herself and her friends. Later she travelled to Paris, where she apprenticed under a female tattooist. After getting her first tattoo when she was 19, Kervel has added tattoos of Celtic, tribal and Eastern designs over one arm and half of her other arm, as well as on her legs and back. Kervel agrees that tattooing often has a special significance for her female clients, particularly those in their early to late 30s.

“When women go through a life change, they want to do something for themselves,” she says. “The first thing they do is change their hair or get a tattoo.”

Kervel, who bills her company as “female owned and operated,” has observed some unique gender differences among her clients. Whereas men tend to get tattoos to change the way society sees them, Kervel says women tend to get tattoos to mark a change in the way they see themselves. Another difference she sees is that while men tend to tattoo their arms, women often prefer their torso, including the stomach, as well as their back and hips.

She adds that while many women are getting larger tattoos, most still want pieces they can cover. Lyndell Montgomery, 30, isn’t covering up. A musician who collaborates and performs with singer/songwriter Ember Swift, she first became interested in tattoos as a response to being raised in a religious household where women were not allowed to wear makeup or cut their hair, and where they were required to wear skirts or dresses.

Tattoos were as far from her upbringing as she could get, so she was drawn to them. Montgomery has a series of tattoos in a full sleeve on her left arm and prefers to have her tattoos in a place where she can see them. The tattoos that make up her sleeve represent her belief that the energy, truth and honesty a person puts into the world are returned. “It’s a basic concept that gets forgotten in this self-centred, self-motivated, self-first world,” says Montgomery. “I loathe the selfishness that has spread throughout Western culture, and I suppose that being heavily tattooed is a means of visibly setting myself apart from the mainstream flow.” Montgomery enjoys it when other people share their tattoos with her. “I like meeting people from a foundation of art,” she says.