Credit: Camille Dubuc

Article • Tattooing: Challenges of Inked Bodies

27 October 2020
Lou Bonnet

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Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Zoe Yarymowich

In February 2020, Les 3 sex* organized the event “Corps tracés : tatoué.e.s pour la diversité sexuelle et de genre” (Traced bodies: tattooed for sexual and gender diversity) where nine tattoo artists gathered for a weekend of volunteer work. The funds raised were donated to four Quebec charities working for sexual diversity. More than fifty participants received unique designs on their skin for the cause, raising nearly $5000 in two days.

Meanwhile, Denise Bombardier, a notable figure in the Quebec press, began the year 2020 with her article entitled “Être à la mode”, published on January 10th in the Journal de Montréal. Tattooing is at the forefront of her opinion piece, in which tattooed people are described as “...monsters, dehumanized people, amateurs in search of anything new, sometimes illicit and sexually deviant and criminal, abusers, exploiters and manipulators who [believe] they are above the law.” (Translated from French). Despite the usual controversy that Bombardier’s ideas attract (Radio-Canada, 2018), the media waves generated by her article led to the realization that the practice of tattooing remains a phenomenon that makes it possible to probe social and cultural news, in Quebec as elsewhere.

In the United States, close to 50% of millennials and 40% of people between the ages of 26 and 40 have tattoos (Ruffell and Wilson, 2019; Shannon-Massal, 2016). Thus, to use Bombardier’s words, what are the workings behind these “ideas about fashion of which all the obsessed seek to free themselves from the prohibitions, taboos and social, moral or cultural codes of which they believe themselves prisoners?” (Translated from French).

The Evolution of Appropriation

Tattooing is anything but a Western invention. One of the origins of the word as we know it today (“tattoo”) comes from the Tahitian dialect “ta-tu”, which means “to mark”, introduced by James Cooke into the English language around 1760 (Mitchell, 2019). In recording the oldest traces of the practice of tattooing, it was found that they date very far back, to the Upper Paleolithic era, i.e., between 38,000 and 10,000 years before the Common Era (Faulkner and Bailey, 2018). In North America, this art was practiced ancestrally by a multitude of indigenous peoples, until it was disrupted by the arrival of the colonial era. The turn of the 17th century heralds the beginning of the appropriation of indigenous techniques by Europeans, marking their skin with religious symbols rather than tribal symbols (Faulkner and Bailey, 2018). Tattooing thus became more and more common among travelers and sailors.

Until the end of the 19th century, tattoos existed among women as well as among men of the upper classes, testifying mainly as souvenirs of exotic travels. Despite a decrease in popularity among the wealthy classes at the turn of the 1900s, the First and Second World Wars popularized tattooing in the military.

The 1970s and 1980s then transported tattooing to a more marginal culture, becoming a symbol of rebellion and transgressive social movements (Farley et al., 2019). Towards the end of the 1980s, tattoos appeared to be more accepted and more prevalent among women, among whom this practice was relatively rare during the 20th century. More recently, it is possible to observe the democratization of tattooing in popular culture, propelled by the globalization of the 1990s. Bringing the practice of tattooing to the forefront in the media, we now see them on the skin of celebrities of all kinds (athletes, music, TV and movie stars, etc.; Farley et al., 2019).

Gendered Ink

Tattooing is intrinsically linked to the symbolism of white heterosexual masculinity throughout Western history. There are many symbolic examples: pin-up tattoos on sailors of the late 19th century and 20th century (Mitchell, 2019); the hyper-patriotic (“traditional”) American style of the 1920s to 1950s, “rebel” tattoos (punks, rock stars, motorcycle gangs) from the 1950s to 1980s in a more marginal context, but still male-dominated and finally, athletes and reality TV stars at the turn of the 1990s and 2000s where the tattooed, white, masculine body, was glorified through advertising (Farley et al., 2019; Mitchell, 2019).

Credit : BAB/LFI. Fair Use. David Beckham, a top soccer athlete, sported his first visible tattoos on television in 2004.
Credit: Pinterest/Mark Freeman. Example of a traditional American patriotic tattoo from the early 20th century

Aside from the symbols themselves, the perception of large and highly visible tattoos is still to this day coded as typically masculine, whereas discreet, thin and easily concealed tattoos are perceived as more feminine (Mitchell, 2019).

For tattoo artists, the gendered aspect of tattooing comes across on several levels. Through the use of Instagram in particular (which has recently become a crucial tool for artists), several differences can be perceived according to gender. The way of interacting with the clientele is one example: unlike men, women tend to maintain more continuous communication with the audience, which speaks to the concept of relational labour (Mitchell, 2019). Furthermore, the type of content shared is also perceived as typically masculine or feminine, with male tattoo artists’ accounts generally revealing less personal content and limiting interactions with their clients, unlike women who sometimes post selfies or interact in a more personal way with their clientele via their posts (Mitchell, 2019). In the tattoo studio, a practice that is performed in an atmosphere of “care” (where the client is welcomed with great care, in a horizontal power dynamic and with particular attention), is perceived as typically feminine (Mitchell, 2019).

Ink Blood

It is impossible to talk about tattooing without addressing its role in the racism that is embedded in Western society. The roots of this racism date far back: in addition to the widespread appropriation of practices originally present among Indigenous peoples of North America and everywhere else, there was the aberrant use of forced tattooing to mark and identify black slaves in the 19th century. Even today, we deplore the appropriation by white artists of symbols specific to racialized communities to tattoo them on white clients, or even the reluctance of these artists to tattoo darker skin, for lack of interest or experience (Mitchell, 2019).

Ink Master, one of the most-watched tattoo reality shows with a regular audience of two million Americans, presents dark skin in a clearly discriminatory manner. Based on competition, the show’s artists sabotage each other by assigning “canvases” of racialized people to their adversaries, with one of the veteran artists even stating, “I don’t want the dark canvases. They take away half your skill set.” (Kitt, 2017, p. 19). The lack of representation of dark and black skin tones in tattoo-related content on social media is evident, with some artists even avoiding posting photos of their dark-skinned clients to prioritize the contrast of the ink against white skin on their pages (Kitt, 2017).

This racism is found unsurprisingly in the Montreal tattoo world. The difficulty of finding racialized and/or black artists in the metropolis was highlighted by several artists who participated in the fundraiser for sexual diversity by Les 3 sex*. One of them mentioned that tatooing in Montreal is predominantly white, cisgender, male and that it was “difficult to stand out as a black artist” (Translated from French).

Another racialized artist affirmed during the interview related to the event that “as a woman and a person of colour [...] it's hard to get into the world of tattooing” (Translated from French). It is important to note that approximately 33% of Montrealers are visible minorities, of which 10% are black people (Statistics Canada, 2016)


Why It's Hard For People Of Color To Get Great Tattoos


Giving Meaning, Beyond Skin

Several studies attest to the propensity of people who identify as queer to get tattoos, this would be nearly double the average of the cisgender, heterosexual, tattooed population in the United States (Huang, 2016). There are many reasons for this disparity, and the meaning and symbolism of tattooing in recent history have been studied repeatedly. Part of the explanation can be found in Gill’s (2019) study. Among other things, she characterizes this art as an interpersonal and relational tool, through belonging to a community and collaborating with an artist. Tattooing can also translate into bodily agency, offering control and power over the body (e.g., through planning the tattoo, or controlling the perception of others and oneself over one's body image; Gill, 2019). Tattooing also serves as an identity device through the construction of personal symbolism and the idea of preserving a story, and traces on oneself.

Moreover, three of the main motivations for getting a tattoo are to celebrate a transition, decorate the body and express one’s individuality (Kluger, 2019).

These studies corroborate the personal experience of several volunteer artists revealed during interviews for the fundraising project organized by Les 3 sex* in February 2020. One of the volunteer artists stressed that, for him, tattooing was a way to embellish the canvas that is the skin, the “prison of flesh” (Translated from French) that we all find ourselves in. Another of the artists evoked precisely this art as a reappropriation of the body, where living one’s queer identity mainly happens through the body and the way of inhabiting it. They added that tattooing allows the creation of a visual universe, of a personal mythology (creation of symbols unique to the artist) becoming shared once tattooed on several people (who share this same artistic symbolism). Almost all the artists spoke of a relationship of equals with their client and never of a vertical power relationship vis-à-vis the tattooed person.


Ultimately, with all due respect to Denise Bombardier, the art of tattooing goes beyond fashion and remains a catalyst for the same significant issues of racism, sexual orientation, identity and gender roles that we all navigate historically as well as currently. This self-worn art, allowing us to embody a complex identity, weave links, keep traces, express a contemporary reality and inhabit our bodies, finds its raison d'être well beyond an “trendy idea” and a way to “to free oneself from prohibitions, taboos and social, moral or cultural codes” (Bombardier, 2020, translated from French).

1 Special thanks to Penelope McQuade for permission to use her "#ScusePasScuseMmeB" hashtag, which translates to #SorryNotSorryMrsB.

For more details on the “Corps Tracés” project, click here.


To cite this article :

Bonnet, L. (2020, October 27th). Tattooing: Challenges of Inked Bodies. Les 3 sex* 

tattooing, tattoo, skin, ink, art, appropriation, fashion, marginal, popular, bodily agency, reappropriation, relational labour, racism, flash day, power, Denise Bombardier


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