From Kat Von D to Lena Dunham: An Amazing History of Women and Tattoos


As of 2012, tattooed women outnumber men for the first time in American history, making the third edition of Margot Mifflin‘s Bodies of Subversion more relevant than ever. Initially published in 1997, the book was the first history of women’s tattoo art and remains the primary source on the subject. Mifflin’s newest revision updates stories from earlier editions while expanding to include over 100 new images, as well as offering a modern take on how the public’s opinion of tattoos has evolved.

What has been the biggest public shift in perception toward females and tattoos? “Three words: Kat Von D,” Mifflin wrote in an email. “When I revised the book in 2001, women artists were getting established[…]but many were struggling to get a foothold in the profession, and few were considered famous even within their field. None had the kind of notoriety someone like Ed Hardy or Leo Zulueta or Guy Aitchison had. Now Kat Von D is the far and away the best known tattooist, male or female, in the world. I would never have believed this could happen in 10 years.”

“I still hear comments like ‘she doesn’t look like the type to have a tattoo,'” she continued. “The fact is, there is no type anymore. Look at Lena Dunham on Girls. She’s visibly tattooed, but it doesn’t reflect much on her character or get much play in her public life. It’s just a fashion choice. She’s not a renegade or a rebel. She’s a self-described ‘everywoman.’ But I argue in the book that women of power are accorded that luxury much more readily than lower status/lower profile women, who still take flak for being tattooed.”

From newspaper and university archives to social media interactions (in the case of Jessie Knight, Britain’s first female tattooist, Mifflin connected via the artist’s nephew on Facebook), Mifflin found new material from a myriad of sources. “There were really two criteria for the new work I added,” Mifflin says. “Either it had to reflect some interesting sociological take on tattoos…[or it needed to be] technically impressive and original.”

Some of these fascinating new stories include Nadia Bolz-Weber, a heavily tattooed Lutheran pastor, and Eric Spruth’s Sacred Transformations in Chicago, a studio “where women who have been physically damaged — burned, shot, demeaningly tattooed, for example — in gangs or prison or abusive relationships go as part of a victim services program. It culminates in a tattoo (sometimes a cover-up) confirming their transition to a healthier lifestyle,” Mifflin explains.

The third edition of Bodies of Subversion, which was released earlier this month, is available through powerHOUSE Books; click through below for a slideshow of images from the book.

Attraction turned tattooist Irene “Bobbie” Libarry, 1976, by Imogen Cunningham. Copyright 1976, 2011 Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Tattoos by Roxx. Courtesy Roxx.

Model Lacy Soto’s Poe portrait by Kat Von D. Courtesy Soto.

Tattoo by Sky, L’art du Point. Courtesy the artist.

Post-mastectomy tattoos by Tina Bafaro. Photos by Bafaro.

The German collaborative team Simone Pfaff and Volker Merschky combine realistic imagery with graphic elements in a mostly black and red style they call “realistic trash polka.” Courtesy Pfaff and Merschky.

Betty Broadbent, 1920s. Courtesy Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Legendary Bowery tattooist Charlie Wagner tattooing an unknown woman. Don and Newly Preziosi Collection.

Cindy Ray, 1962. Courtesy Randy Johnson.

From Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin, published by powerHouse Books.