Tattooed Ladies: Between Myth & Truth, from Burma to Barbie, the Feminist Evolution of ‘Monster Beauty’

By Romany Reagan

Everyone knows: tattoos are for convicts, prostitutes, and drunken sailors. Any woman who dares get one is destined to live fast and die young. Harlots of the saucest degree. Her only job prospects are the circus sideshow or a biker’s Old Lady.

Or so we think…

Tattooed women have meant many things over the past several hundred years that have nothing to do these stereotypes: an emblem of the aristocracy, an unlikely international impulse towards sisterhood, and a mark of feminism. 

But before I dive into what the tattoo is, let’s explore what it is not. Debunking myths is, to me, one of the most thrilling aspects of historical research.  So here we go…

Little bit of tattoo history…

It’s been tricky navigating research for this post, because so much of the world of tattoos and the shared, often mythical, history of the practice can lead to romantic origin stories being retold as fact. The line between tattoo legend and tattoo history is blurred. Part of the work undertaken by tattoo historian Dr Anna Felicity Friedman—author of the glossy coffee table wonder The World Atlas of Tattoo and her blog TattooHistorian.com—is debunking tattoo myths.

One of the biggest myths Friedman has worked to debunk is the ‘Cook Myth’. The Cook Myth basically asserts that modern Western tattooing has its roots in Captain James Cook and company’s visits to Polynesia in the late 18th century, that there was no tattooing going on in Europe previous to this (because the church had banned it), and it was the travelling sailors who brought the concept of the tattoo back from Polynesia into European tradition. 

Sydney Parkinson’s classic illustration of a tattooed Maori from Cook’s first voyage

I thought this was so. Previous to researching this piece, I had vague notions that that is how this went. While tattooing has gone through the expected waves of coming in and out of fashion, it never left Europe entirely. (And the notion that the church banned all tattoo practice is disproved by the unbroken practice of pilgrimage tattoos in the Holy Land.) As Friedman points out, French explorer Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, writing in 1791, noted that modern European tattooing was not only common, but of great antiquity: 

We should be wrong to suppose the tattooing is peculiar to nations half-savage; we see it practised by civilised Europeans; from time immemorial, the sailors of the mediterranean, the Catalans, French, Italians, and Maltese, have known this custom, and the means of drawing on their skin, indelible figures of crucifixes, Madonas [sic] &c. Or of writing on it their own name and that of their mistress. 

Criminals, Sailors & Ne’er-do-wells

Another myth—although perhaps less a myth than a vague feeling held by society—is that only undesirables get tattoos. There were two factors that went into this association, and when looked at even in passing, the fact this association came to be regarded as ‘fact’ is pretty ridiculous.

One key surviving source of tattoo descriptions we have today are from newspapers, which from 1730 onwards would print announcements of criminals, deserters, and escaped convicts to aid in their recapture. One sure way to identify a person you’re looking for would be describing their tattoos. Since people with tattoos who are not on the run from the law would not end up in this section of the newspaper with their tattoos discussed, the sample set by definition will be nothing but rogue sailors and criminals. 

By the late 19th century, the burgeoning field of criminology began to equate tattoos on those of European heritage with pathology, championed by the debating researchers Cesare Lombroso in Italy and Alexandre Lacassagne in France. This is the second factor. 

On the surface, the research conducted by both Lombroso and Lacassagne sounds fascinating. I’ll readily admit that I perk up at the first mention of ‘criminal pathology’, but the study conditions of their enquiries followed some very dodgy protocols.

Lombroso and Lacassagne both held notions that tattooed non-Western peoples were childlike, primitive, inferior, and that the whole concept was atavistic. Lombroso took this idea and linked it with criminality in Western people; Lacassagne linked it with socio/psychological degeneration. (Lacassagne was also interested in phrenology, which did little to lend him lasting status in the canon of sociological research.) 

‘Phrenology’ creative commons

Getting to the root cause of criminality was a driving research project for many 19th-century scientists. But this assumption that there is a physical / external linkage or clue map to criminal deviance that can be studied has since of course been disproven. The link these researchers claimed to have found was a link between being tattooed and being a criminal—but where the research falls down is their sample set of research subjects were imprisoned criminals and the institutionalised mentally ill. 

So here is the one-two punch: only the tattoos of naval deserters and escaped convicts made the newspapers, and only the tattoos of the already incarcerated were research subjects. 

A passing glance at this as a basis for any accurate theory on tattooing shows it to be impossible to formulate any genuine picture of the practice in the 18th and 19th century from these findings. However, Lombroso published his findings for the general public in the journal Popular Science in 1896.

By linking Western tattooing practices with the notion of being a primitive, mentally deficient criminal, the social acceptance of being tattooed took a dive—in Europe. Not so in Britain. Perhaps because this research was being conducted in Italy and France it seemed a uniquely Continental finding, or perhaps there was something else going on, but whatever the reason, a British upper-class fad for tattoos in the late 19th century continued unabated. The tattoo artists of London were celebrated in newspapers and catered to wealthy clients in lavish Oriental-inspired studios. Being tattooed in late 19th-century Britain was an emblem of cultural elitism rather than the radical ‘outsider’ status it conferred elsewhere in Europe. As historian Jordanna Bailkin asks:

Why did this uniquely British fad, which continental scholars found so baffling, appear at this particular historical moment, clustered in the years around the Great War and the onset of imperial decline? How was this anomalous metropolitan ‘craze’ shaped by a specific set of colonial encounters: for example, between the British and the hill rises of Upper Burma? What was it about the experience of being a modern British aristocrat—especially an aristocratic woman—that made the ‘foreign’ practice of tattooing so appealing? (Bailkin 2005 34) 

Burmese Women & British Feminism

The key difficulty with tattooed women in Britain was not their atavism, but the fact that they were so tragically, irreversibly modern. (Bailkin 2005 52) 

I’m going to start the discussion of the impact of Burma with first a rather horrifying story. But bear with me, the narrative does get more encouraging. 

In the summer of 1889, shortly after Upper Burma fell to the British, a local paper in Mandalay reported an ‘extraordinary’ crime. A British police officer was charged with forcibly tattooing the face of his Burmese mistress. The woman, Mah Gnee, had been marked with what The Times of London called ‘opprobrious’ words on her forehead: a tattoo that spelled out ‘Memma Shwin’ (Market Prostitute). (Bailkin 2005 33) 

This crime sent a shockwave through the British press. Obviously the act itself is heinous, but there were many interesting facets of Britain’s relationship with Burma in general that made this crime an exemplar of the issues of the time. 

Elsewhere, where Britain had extended its empire, the idea was to swoop in, capitalise on the local upper class’s desire for power, and use these local people to control all the rest. In Burma, however, this tried-and-true method of takeover didn’t work as planned. There was the ‘tyrancial’ King Thibaw to contend with to ‘save’ the people from, but the rest of the Burmese people were a Buddhist society with a flattened hierarchy. As Britain’s aristocrats were increasingly marginalised in social, political, and economic terms, Burma was characterised by British ethnographers as a place devoid of aristocracy altogether. An anomaly within colonial South Asia, but also a dystopian vision of what Britain itself might become. There was no clear ‘elite’ class to lure into doing Britain’s bidding; when everyone is more or less equal, who would be interested in being your imperialist cudgel? 

British [newspaper] readers also tended to associate Burmese women with an astonishingly wide array of social and economic freedoms. British scholars frequently praised the equality of Burmese men and women before the law and observed that Hindu or Indian practices of child marriage and compulsory widowhood were rejected in Burma due to the ‘perfect fairness’ of Buddhism. In terms of gender roles, Burma was painstakingly differentiated not just from South Asia—a popular focal point of Western feminist reforms—but also from Britain. The freedom of Burmese women to obtain divorces, to trade at bazaars, and to enter into contracts on their own authority contrasted sharply with the limited gains of British feminism. (Bailkin 2005 41-42)

And this brings us back to the tattoo crime against Mah Gnee. Under King Thibaw, being tattooed across the forehead with the name of your crime was a punishment he pronounced against male criminals, but not female. Women were not punitively tattooed. In fact, the only evidence of female tattooing was voluntary and undertaken by women of the hill tribes, such as the Chin (Chinbok).

‘A Chinbok Lady’ of the Chin people, Colonel Thyne collection of the Burma Military Police, India Office Collections, 1920s, British Library, Photo 830/(45)

Since these tribes had rejected the rule of King Thibaw, surely they would resist any British efforts to rule just as summarily. These tattooed women of the hills represented not just freedom, but active resistance. Their mere presence marking proof that British efforts for control in the region would be incomplete at best. 

Read in this light, the jilted British police officer who ordered the tattoo maring of Mah Gnee’s face was a flash of violence that illustrated British impotence in the region by throwing the mark of female freedom back in the face of the Burmese, but in misreading it entirely by conflating the punitive tattoos inflicted upon men with the proud tattoos worn by Chin women. 

British outrage at this scandal ran the gamut from buttoned-up shock that a British officer would stoop to primitive measures—in so doing becoming atavisic and ‘going native’—to something rather interesting that I’m sure the scandal pages never intended: a closer look at Burmese society by British feminists.

While the rest of Britain was patting itself on the back for the superior culture that they were gifting to the ‘primitives’, British women noticed that here was one demographic that they looked up to, not down. When it came to social freedom and power, British feminism fell short. The women of Burma, especially the tattooed women, seemed to exemplify the freedom wished for by the Modern Woman, and something to emulate. “Although exoticist metropolitan consumers took up many objects of empire during this period—from Kashmir shawls to Bantu spears—the adoption of the tattoo by aristocratic British women pointed to a different type of imperial traffic, which documented the insecurity of Britain’s rule rather than its successes.” (Bailkin 2005 34) 

The transgression of being tattooed, and its association with the Modern Woman, clashed with its long history and seeming primitivism. How could something seen as so atavistic suddenly be seen as avant-garde? The issue sparked many novels on the subject, and the notion that highborn British women had a passion for the tattoo was well in place by the 1890s. 

While statistics on tattooed women in Britain are to be treated with caution, one source described ‘hundreds’ of British ladies being tattooed every day. Lombroso was greatly disturbed by this British craze, which he saw as a dangerous anomaly within civilised Europe. By 1895, Lombroso was offering long diatribes against British aristocratic women, who appeared to spoil many of his criminological claims. His response was to broaden his arguments. The aristocratic tattoo was proof that all women were fundamentally at odds with modernity: ‘it is very much’, he said, ‘like returning to the trials by god of the middle ages.’ He concluded with an attack against the true enemy: not just atavism, but fashion itself: ‘O Fashion!’ he said, ‘you are very frivolous; you have caused many complaints against the most beautiful half of the human race! But you have not come to this, and I believe you will not be permitted to come to it.’ The fatal flaw of highborn women—namely, their susceptibility to ephemeral crazes—must be corrected or restrained by more rational social forces. Thus, the transgressive aristocratic woman, rather than the low-class criminal, became the true source of savagery within Britain. (Bailkin 2005 48)

Despite Lombroso’s paroxysms regarding the state of female savagery, the popularity of the female tattoo for the Modern Woman held strong into the early 20th century. The celebrated Edwardian tattooist George Burchett lamented that his clientele was replete with highborn ladies, millionaires, and decadent British flappers who demanded the names of their lovers tattooed on their toes, and compelled him to buy expensive modern art books and plates of heraldic devices to copy.

George Burchett tattooing a client in London in 1930s

Whereas tattoos on aristocratic British men were typically linked to themes of loss and degeneration, British women’s tattoos encompassed a wider and more complicated range of associations. “High-end journals like Tatler and Vanity Fair offered women a range of new tattoo motifs. In addition to the delicate birds and butterflies by tattooists trained in Japan, ‘ladies who like to keep pace with the times might be adored with illustrations of motor cars’, or images of the Jazz Wave, the Great War, and Prohibition. […] The tattoo was associated in Britain with leisured pastimes dedicated to the improvement of the female appearance: linked not only to commemorative and representational art, but also to relatively new technologies of self-portraiture. The aristocratic female tattoo—often quite an expensive endeavour—signalled the hyper-modernity of the female body itself.” (Bailkin 2005 49) 

Upper-class crazes for tattoos waxed and waned around the turn of the century, as people toyed with ideas of the meaning of modernity and progress. “Two contrasting viewpoints illustrate the different positions taken. In an 1897 New York Herald piece, the writer chastises the non-tattooed reader: ‘[Until tattooed] gracious madam and gentle sir, you cannot be au courant with society’s very latest fad’. In 1896, Ward McAllister, a society don, lamented, ‘It is certainly the most vulgar and barbarous habit the eccentric mind of fashion ever invented. It may do for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat.’” (Braunberger 2000 6) 

Freak Shows & ‘Monster Beauty’

Masculine tattoo connotations—brave, heroic, macho—slip off the skin of women. […] On a woman’s body any tattoo becomes the symbol of bodily excess. When a woman’s body is a sex object, a tattooed woman’s body is a lascivious sex object; when a woman’s body is nature, a tattooed woman’s body is primitive; when a woman’s body is spectacle, a tattooed woman’s body is a show. (Braunberger, 2000, 1-2)

Miss Creola and Miss Alwanda, 19th century poster

While all this was going on with the upper classes, something very different was going on in the lower orders. One defining mark of the Victorian era is the burgeoning middle class that the industrial revolution helped bring about, and the precarious position the people in this new social demographic held. The Victorian seeming obsession with buttoned-up propriety and correctness was due to the precarity of this position. The aristocracy could do what they liked; they could do their worst and still be labelled charmingly ‘eccentric’. The middle class struggled to elevate itself above the working class rabble and this translated into rules—and lots of them. 

Irene Woodward, 1880s

The travelling pop-science exhibitions of medical oddities and ethnographic voyeurism of the Victorian era led to many disenfranchised people of one aspect or another being drawn to ‘run away with the circus’. To self-identify as a ‘freak’ was to belong somewhere. One way to self-freak would be to get tattoos. This conscious mark of ‘otherness’ was undertaken by people who wanted to manifest on the outside how they felt on the inside. For a woman to self-freak was also to claim a form of dangerous freedom, but also a subversive power. 

Lady Viola, 1920s. She wore portraits of presidents Wilson, Washington, and Lincoln on her chest and popular figures on her left thigh, including Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin. Her work was done by artist Frank Graf, and early tattoo portraitist.

[The tattooed ladies of the Victorian freak show] made their living as freaks, but they also had full (albeit feminine) freedom in public. Because they were never tattooed on their faces, necks, or hands, the fashions of the day allowed them to cover their tattoos completely when out in public. […] On stage in the tents they could be ‘the women your mother warned you about’, but off stage they could be everywhere. There is a reckless kind of freedom in horrifying others, in making one’s body into the seductive and scary and strange combination that is Monster Beauty. (Braunberger 2000 12)

Antonia Gibbons, 1920s

I love this term ‘Monster Beauty’, and I’m going to take a quick detour into feminist theory to explain how this term came about in more detail. Two theories that came out of 20th-century feminism are Judith Butler’s ideas on how our concepts of gender are a performance that we present to the world, along with Andrea Dworkin’s activism against the degradation of women in pornography and to ‘get the makeup off’.

Braunberger calls for women to be able to embody the double motivation of decolonising the ‘fashion-beauty complex’ from our minds, while also allowing for the joy and exploration in the body play of masquerade and performance. Following on from Butler and Dworkin, performance artist Joanna Frueh addresses this desire for performative gender with playfulness—but with an edge to it—as ‘Monster Beauty’. 

One brilliant example of the frisson of Monster Beauty was the bold move by the heavily tattooed Betty Broadbent to enter a beauty pageant in 1939.

Betty Broadbent, 1930s

Broadbent had run away to join the circus in 1927, and by 1939 was working as a sideshow attraction in Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. While working the sideshow at the 1939 World’s Fair, she enrolled in the Fair’s beauty pageant. Perhaps it was a publicity stunt, or perhaps a feminist commentary, or perhaps just for a laugh, but the move was unprecedented and bold: transgressing her assigned arena of the sideshow to enter the arena of normative beauty.

And what makes her entry so exciting from today’s point of view is Broadbent was a classic beauty. Her face and body were conventionally beautiful according to the standards of the day. The only thing marking her out as different from her fellow beauty pageant entrants were the patterns inked into her skin. Of course she didn’t win, but I would have loved to watch the confusion on the (male, of course) judges’ faces as they were confronted by the sudden presence of a beautiful woman whom they weren’t ‘allowed’ to find beautiful. 

Everyday Freaks

Moving through the 20th century, tattoo culture skipped over the middle class almost entirely to jump from the aristocracy to the working class. “As anthropologist Margo DeMellow explains: Working-class women have more experience than their middle-class sisters in using their bodies to destabilise dominant notions of power, whether through clothing, makeup, or hair styles, and it is not accidental that working-class women have worn tattoos for much longer than middle-class women. Working-class women are less likely to accept the idea of the quiet, pale, and bounded female body, and tattoos have long been a sign of that resistance within the working class.”  (Braunberger 2000 5-6) 

By the 1970s freaks were everywhere. Disco was talking about it. Frank Zappa had an album about it. Feminism revived the ‘tattooed lady’ aesthetic in terms of bodily autonomy and ownership of Monster Beauty. To be a tattooed lady is to be a freak by choice. Taking the brave step to ‘other’ yourself is a clear and visual refusal to acknowledge any ability in others to define you. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw tremendous increase in the proliferation of tattoo shops, tattoo collectors, pop-cultural references, tattoo conventions, and increased social acceptance. In the mid-1970s, there were an estimated 300 tattoo shops in the United States; by the early 1990s, the estimate was at 4,000, and by the mid-2000s, the estimate had climbed to over 15,000. By the late 1990s, tattoo studios were considered among the top six fastest-growing national industries. Since this rise in popularity, the association with deviance has lessened. Indeed, as Karen Bettez Halnon and Saundra Cohen argue, these symbolic forms of ‘lower-class culture’ (muscles, motorcycles, and tattoos) began to gain middle-class status and provided a cultural terrain for gentrification practices. (Thompson 2015 33) 

And we know this today. I’m writing to you about the brave freaks of the 20th century from my perspective as a tattooed lady in 2020—and we are oceans apart. I’m a feminist, but I’m not a radical feminist. My tattoos would perhaps be classified as ‘Monster Beauty’ in the 1970s, or in conservative rural places even today—but in 2020 London? Not so much. 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Yet even in the 21st century, despite the seeming ubiquity of tattoos on television and city streets, there are still tattoo scandals to be enjoyed by a titillated press. This one from a rather surprising source: Barbie, the queen of idealised beauty herself. 

Tokidoki Barbie and her cactus / dog Bastardino

In 2011, Mattel teamed up with Japanese-inspired fashion brand Tokidoki to create Tokidoki Tattoo Barbie. The doll, priced at USD $50, was never aimed at children, but instead collectors. However, this didn’t stop the press from interviewing worried mothers from New York to Colorado about the effect this would have on their children. Le Freak? Le Gasp! 

But 2011’s Tokidoki Barbie (and her delightfully bonkers cactus / dog pet Basdardino) was not the first Barbie to sport tattoos. In 2009, Mattel unveiled ‘Totally Stylin’ Barbie’, but her tattoos were stick-on and removable.

Does Barbie’s flirtation with temporary tattoos, then permanent tattoos, follow society’s slow toe dip into subversion? And if so, does that mean yummy mummies and soccer moms rocking full sleeves will soon be welcomed without a blink into suburban society? If so, then what’s next? This sparks an essential question about tattooing as a practice: is the freedom to be tattooed the point, or is it the fight for the right to be tattooed the point? Is it just decoration, or is it a battle cry? When the battle is over, perhaps the prize itself was never the goal, and 21st-century freaks will move onto the next thing. 

Sources and further reading…

Bailkin, Jordanna, ‘Making Faces: Tattooed Women and Colonial Regimes’, History Workshop Journal, No. 59, Spring 2005, p33-56 

Braunberger, Christine, ‘Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women’, NWSA Journal, Vol 12, N 2, Summer 2000, p1-23. Journal. 

Dibon-Smith, Richard, ‘The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth’, New Ideas About the Past: Seven Essays in Cultural History, p91-102 http://www.dibonsmith.com/tattoo.pdf

Friedman, Anna Felicity, World Atlas of Tattoo, (London: Thames & Hudson) 2015. 

          – ‘Tattooed Transculurites: Western Expatriates Among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500-1900’, PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2012

Mifflin, Margot, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, (New York: Juno Books) 1997. Book.

Thompson, Beverly Yuen, Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women, and the Politics of the Body, (New York: New York University Press) 2015. Book. 

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