Tales of A Tattooed Lady

When I went to the boardwalk on my days off, I saw a tattooed man, Jack Redcloud. He was the man who had Christ’s head and crown of thorns on the top of his baldhead. That’s when I decided to get tattooed. I wanted to be independent and take care of myself. I sure didn’t want to go back to school.[1]

I used to be a thrill seeker, but thrills are a dime-a-dozen these days.[2]

The old giantesses were not the overtly sexualised fantasy girls of the internet, just overly tall ladies, in long dresses, standing on boxes. They toured as carnies, along with their oversized friends, the fat ladies, their undersized friends, the midgets and living skeletons and their friends in excess, the hirsute lady with her beribboned beard, the conjoined twins (twice the woman, twice the fun!) and the individual whose permanent decoration made her the most excessive of all, the tattooed lady.
However, the tattooed lady is the odd one out, her freakishness is not caused by an unfortunate gene, there is no accident of nature. She is a self-made freak, choosing to permanently align herself beside those socially deigned as oddities by constructing her own identity and status as other.

The circus tattooed lady has become an icon, her image, published on souvenir postcards, sold at the travelling fair are now static, residing in the museum and the collection[3] But the tattooed body itself is much harder to contain than the postcards displaying her image, although capture and control have been attempted. The first tattooed exhibits were seized “savages”, tribes people discovered, hunted and caught by explorers as though they were animals. Bought back for display, like curious zoo creatures, revered and feared in much the same way as a ferocious, unpredictable beast might have been. These tattooed tribes people were treated as commodities, to be bought and sold, traded and controlled the way a hunter controls its prey. But these trophies were living, not stuffed and mounted, and even in western captivity retained much of their supposed danger.

Tamed through enforced Christianity, renamed, rehabilitated, but still bearing the indelible marks of their past, their identities could not be truly altered, no matter the will of their captors. No Pygmalion-style transformation could take place, these disorded bodies could not be forced to order, although they tried, even in death their captors sought to possess, to control and classify, either by having them studied as scientific curiosities or by burying them with enforced labels, Christian names.[4]

Of course, not every exhibited tattooed person was from a far away tribe, although initially those that were not were certainly inspired by them and adopted stories and narratives utilising the legends of exotic others in far flung lands. Being tattooed became a profession. The “savages” were replaced with the “civilised” and the cultural fantasises that were presented with them “disguised what had been repressed, the brute act of genocide”[5]. A typical sideshow presentation of a tattooed wonder would include a fantastical tale, explaining the circumstances that led them to their indelible fate. The popular legend, as seen in various documentations of the period would be of the basic premise that this poor, hapless lady (or indeed, hapless man) had been captured and taken against their will into the lairs of an altogether more primitive people. That these terrible savages had forcibly and painfully tattooed their perfect, pink flesh, desecrating the very self of the pitiable, traumatised kidnappee. These were fictional tales, but tales inscribed with the politics of power and the powerless, nonetheless.

A variation on this theme was that told of the (non-native) American tattooed lady, La Belle Irene (Irene Woodward 1863-1916). Her fantastic biography, as presented to her European audience, placed her tattooed fate at the feet of her father, rather than some strange, exotic abductor. Her tale of being forcibly and completely tattooed with blue and red patriotic images was said to have been done in order to protect her, to repel the unwanted advances of the kind of so-called primitives, the very same primitives that were usually the culprits that applying the tattoos in these fictional narratives. Of course, La Belle Irene’s tale was just as much about control, power, ownership and objectification as her predecessors’ and just as unreal. The truth was usually far more practical and constituted a pragmatic solution to an economic problem. However, this was not a career to enter lightly. After all, there was no going back and even in retirement the marks of the working life would remain.
Certainly, many women must have felt that it was a irreversible step worth taking as in time, no sideshow was complete without its tattooed wonder, negotiating the cultural terms in which her body would be publicly encountered via the addition of spoken narratives. La Belle authored her body and thus controlled her audiences experience of it with the phrases that were etched into her flesh, missives such as “Never Despair”, “I live and die for those I love” and most interestingly of all, “Nothing without labour”.

Thus, the tattooed lady was both victim and instigator of her own fate. She picked out her own identity and a name to match it “When [she] submitted to the needle, it was not only her flesh which was pricked; the very letters of her name were rearranged.”[6] And this new arrangement was to be permanent. Perhaps this explains why La Belle Irene’s constructed narrative of enforced tattooing had the intention of preserving her purity in the face of her impure appearance:

She needed to emphasise her status as victim in order to restore an innocent blush to her skin; only then could respectable folk not feel unnerved at the sight of her. Her story was a fabrication, but it remained ambiguous, poised between claims of civilised behaviour and intimations of savagery.[7]

Is this where I am now? Am I poised between claims of civilised behaviour and intimations of savagery? Perhaps. My teenage desire for movement and transience has been augmented with a desire for the fixed, the permanent. Tattoos have always been popular in places with a transient population, sailors in dock, migrant workers. There is a lot to be said for stability, even as a notion. So if my identity as a tattooed lady is now fixed, perhaps I should pick a name to reflect this new permanence. A name that is not reliant on my status, a name all of my own, rather than my father’s, or my husband’s. After all, I am no longer a wife, nor do I feel like a daughter. But how do you pick your own name, title your life’s work? These words now seem so crucial, affecting the reading of everything:

It is not enough to simply see the work to decide what the subject is…at the edge of the work, neither inside, nor outside, readable rather than visible, the title is our only recourse. As for deciding the subject, the initiative is always left to words[8]

As yet, I have no answer, my inspiration lies in the re-interpretation of the words of others, a kind of grandiloquent cover version. Perhaps, for now, the names of others are adequate, as long as the opportunity for speech remains and I am not again silenced, the way the Guardian silenced me.

On August the 8th, 2008, The Drive-By Truckers played a gig in Manchester. I had never seen them live before, although I knew their melodies, instruments and narratives well, as they had been my connection to my now closed Alabama chapter, my familiarity, my muse. They had allowed me to connect with nostalgia for my own, near experience. I was almost afraid to witness them, afraid of the disappointment that inevitably follows a love affair, no matter how pure.

But I was not disappointed; instead, I stood in the darkness, alone in a tightly packed crowd and felt what I had not felt since that first gig at the Kilburn Ballroom. And I cried. I cried for the teenager I was. I cried for my past and the girl I would never be again. I cried for my blank skin. And then I began to write.

“Sister’s been a troubled teen, ever since she was 12.”[9]

[1] Broadbent, B. quoted in Govenar, A. Tattooing in American Culture, 1846-1966 in Caplan, J. (2000) Written on the Body: the Tattoo in European and American History London, Reaktion.

[2] Drive By-Truckers. (1998) Tails Facing Up lyrics by Patterson Hood. Complete lyrics, appendix one.

[3] In August 2008 I had the pleasure of meeting Lyle Tuttle (b1939), the most famous of the old-time American Tattooers and proprietor of the San Francisco Tattoo Museum. I gave him a photograph of myself for his collection, explaining that I greatly admired the old-time circus ladies and aspired to be like them. He looked me right in the eye and with a twinkle, said “Honey……. I don’t think there is much money in it anymore.” He did however, give me one of his special elongated keepsake one cent coins.


[5] [5] Beard, S The Tattooed Lady, a Mythology. (1992) in Wroblewski, C. (ed) Tattooed Women London, Virgin Pub.

[6] [6] Beard, S The Tattooed Lady, a Mythology. (1992) in Wroblewski, C. (ed) Tattooed Women London, Virgin Pub.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Derrida, J in Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked : the Politics of Performance London ; New York, Routledge.p15

[9] Drive-By Truckers (1998) Too Much Sex, Too Little Jesus Lyrics by Patterson Hood

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