Women and tattoos: A history in ink is on display at Cal State Fullerton


Some women look like walking works of art, nearly every inch of torso and limbs covered in tattoos that read like road maps of colors and shapes that beg to be studied. Others opt for a more subtle touch.

That could describe 2017 as well as 1917 — and earlier, since tattooing goes back thousands of years.

Over the years, women have seen tattoos as adding to their beauty, making a statement, declaring their independence, honoring a loved one. From members of the upper crust to punk rockers, women have gotten tattooed for a host of reasons.

“For Native American women [of the early 20th century], it was sometimes for aesthetic reasons, but it was also a rite of passage,” said Amy Cohen, who has put together an exhibit of photographs of tattooed women through history. “For wealthy women, it was copying the European nobles.”

For women in the circus in the late 19th century, being tattooed meant having a career where they could travel and earn $100 to $200 each week, a substantial living at the time.

“All these women had a choice in what they had tattooed … And in a time when women didn’t always get to make their own choices, I think that’s important,” Cohen said. “I think that for women today, part of the reason for getting tattooed is influenced by the feminist movement and reclaiming their bodies.”

Her “Tattooed and Tenacious: Inked Women in California’s History,” a traveling display from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Exhibit Envoy, is currently at Cal State Fullerton. As part of the college’s museum practicum course, students installed the exhibit, which will be on display until April 23 at the campus’ McCarthy Hall, Room 424.

Cohen, who besides being the show’s original curator is Exhibit Envoy director, assembled “Tattooed and Tenacious” with a focus on the inked women in Native American tribes, the circus performance business and upper-class society.

Almost three years ago, Cohen was searching for topic ideas for her graduate school thesis, wanting something that would be of interest that few people would know about, when inspiration struck. She had worn a sleeveless shirt, revealing her own tattoos, at the Hayward Area Historical Society north of San Jose, where she was interning. Her supervisor suggested the idea of exhibiting tattoos.

The curator discovered the photos for the exhibit through the Library of Congress, archive sources and tattoo artists.

There’s Betty Broadbent, a circus performer and tattoo artist whose more than 350 designs spread from her shoulders down to the frilly ankle socks she is often seen wearing in photographs.

Broadbent — who was famously known as the “Tattooed Lady” — sought to challenge society’s beauty standards of the time by entering a beauty pageant at the 1939 World’s Fair, her body art on display.

Although she did not win, in 1981 she was the first person inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame, which is not a place but rather an honorific list of those who were influential in the world of tattooing.

Olive Oatman, also featured in the touring exhibit, was a teenager when she was given a chin tattoo by a Mohave tribe that she was traded into after the Yavapai kidnapped her during her family’s travels west in 1851.

She received five blue lines on her chin, a common place for California native women to be inked, while living with her Mohave family, who treated her well, according to the exhibit.

Women in high society were said to have tattoos, such as Jeanette “Jennie” Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, who was rumored to have had a snake tattoo on her wrist. But the long sleeves and full skirts of the time would often keep such body art secret.

“Tattooed and Tenacious” made its premiere at the Hayward Area Historical Society in 2015, after six months of research.

The show spent several months in Hayward and at the Pasetta House in San Jose, before Cohen met Cal State Fullerton’s museum practicum professor Trish Campbell at a conference and they discussed having “Tattooed and Tenacious” travel to her campus.

Since January, Campbell’s students have worked on installing and promoting the exhibit, which includes not only photos but also a chart of native women’s facial tattoo designs and a mannequin bearing art drawn by six female Bay Area tattoo artists.

To make the exhibit more interactive for guests, the students decided to set up a table where people can color in tattoo outlines printed on paper and a station where they can draw their own tattoo designs on a wall.

“For me, I see it as a mode of expression for women and a means of control over their own bodies, which historically women have not had,” Campbell said of tattoos. “Ultimately, it’s about expression. It’s an art form.”

And for Cohen, who has six tattoos on her arms?

“I got them because like the ideas of certain symbols, like the hourglass. ... I like the way it looks, but it’s not there for any specific reason,” Cohen said.

The one tattoo that is meaningful to her, she added, is a wreath with a yellow ribbon, matching a design that was hand-drawn on the mannequin.

“I wanted, in some way, to commemorate the exhibit and start of my career,” she explained.

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10