Monday, July 28, 2008

Dear Peculiar B: Painted Ladies

Dear Peculiar B,

Who were the first women to get tattoos and for what reason?  And when did tattoos (on women in particular) become acceptable in North America/Western Europe?


Dear Curious,

Ladies have been getting painted for thousands of years.  Egyptian priestess Amunet lived 2160-1994 BC, and her well-preserved mummy was found with a tattooed belly and limbs.  In the 1950s, a 2500 year-old female corpse was found, preserved in ice, in Northern Russia.  Her arms and shoulders were "decorated with artful tattoos of birds, deer and other mythical creatures."
I've read about some cultures in Egypt, India, Japan in which all women were tattooed to ensure fertility and safe childbirth.  Temporary henna tattoos (mehndi) are still believed to heal liver and skin diseases and headaches.  I wonder if there is some truth to this.  Acupuncture cured me of some vague and possibly imaginary problems, so couldn't the pressure of the tattoo needles and even the lingering presence of ink affect a body in some way?

Anyway, Nora Hildebrandt was the first tattooed woman to be publicly exhibited in this country, in 1882 at Brunell's museum in New York City.  She had 365 tattoos-- one for every day of the year, done by her father.  She kicked off the trend of "painted ladies," on display at carnivals and fairs.  Many other tattoo artists began to show off their best work on the skin of their wives and daughters.  Here are some good photos of those girls.  The girl in the photo above is named Lena.  The picture was taken in 1912, and I admire her starry headpiece.

Tattoos only became acceptable in the mainstream very recently.  Hippies and biker chicks got tattooed in the 60s and 70s.  America led this trend with most of Europe a few years behind.  In the past two decades the popularity of tattoos gained momentum, which brings us to now.  With so much ink flowing, there are bound to be errors.  I'm sure you've heard about the highly sophisticated methods now available to erase the past.

I do not have any tattoos, but if I ever get one, it will be white.

I love to answer your questions.  Write to me or leave a comment if you have a beauty concern, or you're just curious.