Women in Tattoo: A Brief History of a Boys Club

One thing you should know about me, is that tattoo culture is a big part of my life. I’m also lucky enough to have a crazy talented friend who’s also a female tattoo artist. I love the art, the process, the history of tattooing. But what I don’t love is the continued ‘boys club’ mentality as far as female artists go.

Common opinion among the men is women aren’t “tough enough” to tattoo, their art work isn’t as strong or they’re too emotional–all of which has nothing to do with the way women artists are treated. Many artist and tattooed women are viewed as sex objects or merely something nice to look at.

In the United States, the art of tattooing dates back to the 19th century–starting as an illegal, underground secret society, that only men were allowed to be a part of. Only in the last 50 years were women emerging into the tattoo scene as artists. Circus performer, Maud Wagner, is said to be the first female in the business after meeting her tattoo artist husband, Gus Wagner. She began as a “hand-poked” artist even though the tattoo machine had been the norm for many years. At the time there were a few other women being tattooed but also had to find their places in the circus or freak shows. Wagner was the one that opened the door for women.

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It wasn’t until the early 70’s when American traditional artist, Kate Hellenbrand (Shanghai Kate) crashed the scene did the world see another female tattoo artist. Hellenbrand apprenticed under some of the most famous men in the tattoo community. Studying under the iconic Sailor Jerry Collins and working alongside Ed Hardy and Jack Rudy. Wagner and Hellenbrand succeeded in the male dominated field, but not all women in the community were welcomed with open arms.

Many women who wanted to tattoo in the 80’s and 90’s were met with dirty looks and abusive behaviors. It was thought, from the male perspective, that women couldn’t work the long hours or ‘pay their dues’ and would just sleep with whoever they needed to for a job. (A terrible reality in many careers, largely do to workplace abuse and the ‘boys club’ pact.) Some women say they experienced bullying in the shops they worked in and had to ‘man up’ to stay in their jobs. Tattoo artist, Su Houston worked hard to land a spot in a shop and experienced the negativity. This made her focus on becoming a better artist than her male co-workers, which we all know is the ultimate way to over come. But the abuse didn’t stop with female artists. Women didn’t feel comfortable being tattooed because of sexual advances by male artists. Polarizing the culture once again.

The 21st century experienced a spike in the acceptance of tattoos. Leaving the dirty underground parlors for a shop on every street corner. The demand of female artists also was on the rise. It wasn’t until artists like Rose Hardy, Kat Von D and Megan Massacre showed up did people really start taking notice. These ladies have changed the style of tattoos and are recognized for tattooing more ‘feminine’ pieces. Pieces most men would usually turn down. They bring an air of femininity that has been lacking for years. Women finally felt like they could have tattoos that reflected their personalities.

However, it’s not about doing ‘girly’ tattoos but making a mark as women in a male dominate world. It’s about allowing women to express themselves as artists and art lovers. Whether you get a butterfly or a grim reaper, the gender of your artist shouldn’t matter. What should matter is having female artists to choose from.

Even with more mainstream female artists, fewer than 1 in 20 artists are women. If you’re lucky enough to find a shop with a female artist, it’s likely she’s the only one. Thirty year tattoo veteran, Deana Lippens hosts the ‘International “Marked for Life” Female Tattoo Artist Expo’, 17 years running. Held annually in Orlando, Florida, the expo was cultivated to support and promote women in the field

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Keep an eye out for my interview with L.A. based female tattoo artist and painter, Misha, later this week!

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Ashley is a social media community manager and artist, who splits her time between Houston, Tx and Los Angeles, CA. With a degree in Mass Media Communications, Ashley likes to use videos, photos, and essays to connect people with what’s happening in the world.
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