Welcome to Harpy Seminar, a regular feature we plan to have at regular intervals, unless we get too busy to have it at regular intervals, in which case it shall appear whenever we have time and inclination for it. Each Seminar begins with a question, which we discuss amongst ourselves, and we then edit the highlights of our conversation into a post. Please feel free to join in in the comments!
In response to our Six Monthiversary post, commenter Kari wrote:
Would love to see a post on tattoos. I have several, in visible places, and some of the reactions I get can be highly gender- or age-biased. I think there’s a lot of issues regarding bodies, individual choice, and public/private distinctions going on with tattoos (or any aesthetic body modification). It’s a relatively fluffy topic, but I’d enjoy talking about it here!
Well, Kari, you’ve come to the right place. BeckySharper wrote about tattooing a few months back, when there was cultural hand-wringing about the Tattoo Barbie, but we are happy to revisit the topic. It’s a subject close to our hearts skins, as four out of the five Harpies are tattooed. Only Pilgrim Soul still rocks the undecorated look, because, in her words: “I do not have a tattoo because I do not enjoy pain. The End.” So join us as we discuss our inkage–what it looks like, where it is, and what it means to us.
PhDork: I have one tattoo, which I got in 1997 while on a Spring Break trip to New Orleans. Although I might have had a Hurricane or two prior to doing the deed, it was long planned. I’d guess I had been considering it for about five years before I got it. It’s on my lowish back–if you pushed my bellybutton through to my spine, that’s where it is. I believe the kids today refer to that as a “tramp stamp,” but whatevs, that didnt’ exist in ’97. It’s the woman/venus symbol, about 2 inches high, in simple black. I thought about putting the women’s lib fist logo thing in the circle of it, but I think that would have muddied it, visually.
Even though I can’t see it without trying, I’m glad of the placement. I like symmetry, so putting it on one ankle or bicep or whatever didn’t appeal. I got it for me, as a recognition of my becoming a “woman-identified woman” and my commitment to feminist politics/activism. It was sort of right-of-passage-y for me, marking my cis-female body with a symbol of chosen adult woman-ness. I can feel the difference in skin texture, and sometimes I touch it, talismanically, I suppose. Most people don’t see it, but sometimes I wish it were slightly more visible, as advertising, as a warning, as a celebration.
SarahMC: I have one tattoo – the Southern Cross constellation comprised of five small stars – on the top of my left foot. I got it after I returned to the U.S. after studying abroad in Australia. The Australian flag features the Southern Cross.
My time in Australia was a bit transformational. I learned a lot about myself – and the world – whilst I was there. And I just had a fantastic time in general. Sydney is probably my favorite city. I wanted to commemorate my experiences there, and I wanted a tattoo, so I chose the Southern Cross design. It’s simple and nondescript. I love its location because I can look at it when I want to but it’s inconspicuous. And I don’t expect to gain weight in my feet so it won’t stretch out.
It’s plain but pretty and it reminds me of a wonderful period in my life.
BeckySharper: I have two tattoos, on the inside of each ankle (like SarahMC, I deliberately picked a body part that’s not likely to sag or stretch). One is of an iris plant—one of my favorite flowers, which grew outside my childhood home—which I got in a small town in Tidewater Virginia when I was 18. The second I got in New York in my mid-twenties: an entwined alpha and omega, which I copied from the front page of a novel by William Styron, one of my all-time favorite authors. Being the first and last letters of the first Western alphabet, they encompass all written thought and human experience (which is why they’re cited in the Book of Revelations). Having those symbols literally inked onto my body was perfect for me because transforming thought and experience into writing has always been my greatest passion as well as my life’s work.
And no, although I’m a practicing Jew, my tattoos do not prevent me from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. That is a common misperception. Tattooing is technically forbidden per Biblical and ancient rabbinic literature, but then again, so is gender equality. (For a full midrash on tattooing and Judaism, read this.)
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: I have a purple and red butterfly hovering over a blue rose. It’s on my hipbone and nobody sees it unless I want them to, which is something I like. It did not hurt, even though it was right on the bone. I have an extremely high pain threshold and the pain issue was not one that was part of the equation. There are times I regret it because I have VERY complicated feelings about things like scars and self-injury/cutting, and tattoos (or, at least, my tattoo) feel like that to me in a weird way. I also wish I had picked something more meaningful to me. I have thought at times about getting a second tattoo, if only because I would like one that actually signifies something special in my life, like my son’s name or, uh, the New York Yankees logo. (Yes, I mean it.) But I’m not planning on doing that right now.
BeckySharper: I’ve thought about getting another tattoo—a feminist/mystical Hebrew symbol—but I’m kind of on the fence about it. Part of me worries that it’ll be one decoration too many, like wearing too many accessories. But while I may want only understated tattoos on myself, I love seeing big, bold tattoos on other people.
PhDork: I have friends with lots of tattoos, large tattoos, impossible-to-hide tattoos, words and pictures and abstract designs, and while I don’t think I want any more (although for a time I planned a whole series up and down my spine), I understand the attraction, and I find many of them beautiful. And many others utterly hideous.
BeckySharper: Yes! It’s all so subjective, isn’t it? One woman’s beautiful body art is another woman’s “Eww, WTF?” (For a hilarious gallery of truly, unambiguously, hideous tattoos, go here)
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: I am always curious as to what tattoos other people have. One of my favorites is my oldest stepsister, who has a toe ring tattoo of roses on a vine, which is lovely. My little sister has one that makes for a great anecdote: while drunk in Cancun while on spring break during college, she went to get a shamrock tattoo on her ankle. Please note that we are exactly 0% Irish. In pain after the outline was done, she gave up and never got it filled in. People think it’s a thought bubble or a gelatinous blob.
BeckySharper: I don’t think that for our generation even the more visible tattoos are considered all that transgressive. Only my Jewish grandmother had a problem with it—she thought it was low-class–and told me: “It’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made.” Which only goes to show you how very little she knew about the rest of my life. Neither of my tattoos ever caused anything more than a raised eyebrow with the rest of my family or friends, and they don’t even get noticed at work.
PhDork: The warning about tattoos is that “you’ll regret it!”, but I chose carefully, and I’ve never regretted it. I know who I am. My mom was a little “…really?“ but my dad thought it was pretty cool.
I don’t think tattoos are a huge professional detriment in my field, unless they are highly visible, like on your face, and/or obscene (profanity or image). Anklets and wristlets wouldn’t be a big deal, nor shoulderblades. Sleeves? Maybe in some departments, but I don’t think it would keep you from getting a job–the economy is doing a fine job of that.