Why Do So Many Queer Women Have Tattoos?

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Queer babes have a lot of tattoos, and we are all so appreciative. This exists for a lot of different reasons.

Historically some of you are probably familiar with ordinances like people in gay bars being required to wear at least three items of “gender-appropriate” clothing. This was mostly utilized as a technicality to enforce incarcerating drag queens, butch lesbians, trans folks, and anybody else they felt like hauling in that night. Dressing in ways that people find to be appropriately gendered has been a way that gender has been coercively normalized and aimed at queer folks in particular for a very long time. But something that some (often, butch) lesbians did was to have a small blue star tattoo on their hand or wrist so that folks in the know could spot them.

Tattoos have meant a lot of things across time and culture, but specific to the US in the last 200 years or so, tattoos have many connotations, ranging from criminal to simply counterculture. I credit punks and other music scenes with increasing the density and visibility of tattoos in the last 50 years.

Growing up as a weird girl in Seattle, I anticipated getting tattoos when I was older, and my friends and I would doodle vines and swirls on our arms with Sharpies in anticipation. One of the first girls I ever dated took me with her on her birthday to a really divey tattoo shop to get a “bumper sticker” of the dragon she had on a hat from Hot Topic. Ah, youth.

I remember thinking Ani Difranco was AWESOME when I was a teenager—and thinking I was going to get the same tribal (NO, DON’T) art tattoo underneath my clavicle when I turned 18. Shortly before my birthday, I went to my first Ani show—and saw three women there with the same tattoo. I was shocked anyone else had had that idea and quickly realized I would have to come up with something different. These days, I am a moderately tattooed lady, and am part of a cohort of friends with tattoos based on Nikki McClure’s art, because lesbians.

There is something about tattoos though that queer women, in particular, want to own. I love the way Michelle Tea talks about tattoos being a process that she reclaims her body. In a particular community so bent on self-invention and articulating oneself uniquely from one’s peers and maintaining a strong individuation from our family of origin, tattoos are a way that we claim ourselves. We inscribe our histories and intentions upon our bodies in a way that no one else chooses for us.

Our bodies literally recreate themselves every seven years, and while logically your skin should shed your tattoos in this time, there is something about that process in which your skin imitates the color of the tattoo and imprints upon the molecular structure of your body. You are both embedding time and history into your skin as well as shaping the future.

In a community of folks who have learned to distrust their bodies or have lived experience of disassociating from them-queer women maintain higher per-capita rates of eating disorders, substance abuse, and rates of sexual assault, particularly bisexual women per the last statistic. Tattooing is both a physically cathartic experience as well as a clear statement of identity. It is one of the most straightforward ways we have to claim ownership of our bodies while reflecting our aesthetics.

So go get a tattoo, if you were thinking about it—do it! Impress your friends and dates with your pain threshold and self-expression. Girls love that stuff.

Maria Turner-Carney is a therapist and writer in Seattle. You can follow her at seattlefeministtherapy.com/blog.

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