The History of Women in Tattooing

At Fox and Moon Tattoo we pride ourselves on fostering an inclusive environment. Although the majority of our artists are female and we are predominantly female owned, we endeavour to make people of all gender expressions feel welcome. For us, the importance of women in our space is at our core and we like to honour those who paved the way to make what we do possible. 

Currently, there are more women than men being tattooed in Australia, and in total, over a quarter of women in Australia have at least one tattoo.  The continual rise of feminism over the last 50 years has been credited as the main motivator for this, but the history of women in tattooing actually goes back much farther than that.  Although the concept of tattooed women in the west is relatively modern, the practise is thousands of years old. 

The oldest record of tattooed women dates back to ancient Egypt. Archeologists have recovered female mummies with evidence of tattoos, and interestingly enough, this was common amongst those of different classes and not just the ruling upper class. Additionally, artefacts found dating back to 5th century BCE Greece depict Thracian women with full sleeves and sometimes even bodysuits. In Greece, Cycladic women were also depicted in paintings and sculptures with tattoos during the Bronze Age (3000-2000 BCE).  The figurines created by both of these civilisations also portray tattooed women and evidence of tools used in tattooing have also been recovered.  

Picture of a Maori women of high rank, 1903.

Traditional tattooing has also been around in Native civilisations for centuries. In Aotearoa, Maori families would tattoo the eldest daughter, who was revered as the most tapu (sacred). Specifically, the daughter of the chief would have her lips and chin tattooed in a rite called ahi ta ngutu (sacred fire) as pictured above.  The designs for these sacred tattoos would be chosen based on the family history of the woman and were a sign of high status and attractiveness of the individual.  In Pacific cultures, while the tattooist would be traditionally male, it was widely believed that the gods intended the recipients of tattoos to be solely women.  Similarly, Native Americans would tattoo the chin of both men and women to signify power and status among the tribe, as well as acceptance. Unfortunately, in 1907 tattooing was criminalised as an aspect of the Tohunga Suppression Act and wasn’t reinstated until the Maori Welfare Act of 1962. Since that though, women and men alike have been getting tattooed, both traditionally and in more modern styles. 

It’s a wonder why Western society took so long to come around to tattooed women. Some argue that this was a reflection of the racist perspective on Native culture and society. An extension of the West’s motivation to separate themselves from the Indigenous peoples.  It’s also argued that the idea of a women being tattooed violated Catholic ideals of purity of a woman. Either way, it was a slow process for tattooed women in the West. 

The first instance of tattooed women in Western society were featured in Freak Shows. Generally, tattooing was something women avoided. This was especially true during the early 19th century where womens bodies needed to be hidden and under the control of men, and where female self-expression was frowned upon. Those women who chose to ignore this were completely expelled and marginalised  from modern society and viewed as freaks… literally.  There was a small subset of tattooed middle class women during this time who wore discreet decorative tattoos, which were trendy in the late 19th century. However, these were never to be seen by anyone else and were often kept secret even from their husbands and families to avoid ridicule. 

As we moved into the 20th century, tattoos remained stigmatised due to their association with negative and over-sexualised male stereotypes and imagery.  Women who partook in tattooing (especially if the tattoo was visible) during this time were labelled as “whore-ish” and “un-ladylike” due to the link to this negative stereotype. Luckily, as we rolled into the late 60s and early 70s, tattoo subcultures began to develop and for women specifically, tattoos were much less taboo and were starting to become more of a tool of self expression.  It was during this time that women seeking out careers in tattooing began to be more and more accepted into the industry.  Like with any male dominated field, this process was a gradual one, and female tattoo artists had to fight against a lot of discrimination and adversity to get to where they are today. Nowadays, women view tattoos in a variety of different ways - for some, tattoos appeal to ideals about empowerment and taking control of ones femininity and body. For others, tattoos are worn as a badge of self expression, or to mark an important life event or change.  For whatever reason you gals choose to proudly wear your tattoos, we support you. Women before us fought for our opportunity to express ourselves in any way we choose, so in learning about those women who pioneered tattooing and tattoo culture, I hope you have a new found perspective and respect for those that came before you.