We speak with multiple women who view tattoos as a way to celebrate their culture and identity, revive traditions abolished by colonisation, and transform scars into works of art

You get some interesting (often unwelcome) questions as a woman with tattoos. Like “Can I touch it?”, or “How will you hide them on your wedding day?” 

Shame, promiscuity and undesirability are common associations people have made with women who have chosen to decorate their skin. But many of those women have a very different perspective.

“As a relatively heavily tattooed person, you definitely receive judgement sometimes,” says Akiko Sakai, a model and founder of The Studio, which teaches art and yoga in Hong Kong. “On the flip side, there is so much appreciation, and I would have to say in my experience that the appreciation outweighs the judgement. The perception of women with tattoos is changing in a positive way.”

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Above Akiko Sakai (Photo: Simon Schilling)

In 1997, American journalist and author Margot Mifflin published Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, which takes readers on a journey through eras of significance. From indigenous tattoos to when tattooing was an upper-class social fad in Europe in the late 19th century—Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston, famously had a tattoo of a snake eating its tail as a symbol of eternity on her wrist—to the surge of women’s interest in tattoos during the fight for women’s suffrage in the 1920s and the feminist 1970s.

In the introduction, Mifflin writes, “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”

Indeed, amplified by the #MeToo movement and the controversial overturning of abortion rights in the US, the topic of women’s bodily autonomy is particularly potent today. And some women are taking to their skin to tell the stories of who they are, where they come from and what they have been through.

I think tattoos are something that empower women. Through our tattoos, we tell our stories.

- Gaga Ma -

Our Bodies Tell Stories 

For over ten years, Amy Black, a US tattoo artist from Richmond, Virginia, has specialised in post-mastectomy tattoos, covering scars from breast reconstruction due to cancer. Having studied fine art and anatomy, Black began by offering realistic nipple tattoos before expanding her practice to include adorning her clients with artful designs, transforming their scars from painful reminders to empowering works of art.

“There were so many women who didn’t know they had any options in that arena,” says Black, adding that as her work gained popularity, she began to receive more creative requests. “I do a lot of flowers, one client got Pegasus and I’ve also done a few giant octopuses,” recalls Black, who started the Pink Ink Foundation, which provides funds allowing underprivileged women to receive post-mastectomy tattoos.

“It’s a huge honour. I realise what a privilege it is to be able to be a part of their life and to utilise art in such a powerful way.”

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Above Tattoos by Gaga Ma in Hong Kong

The trust involved in receiving a tattoo is not lost on artists. Gaga Ma, a tattoo artist in Hong Kong, believes that the bond between the artist and client is a sacred one, and makes a point of connecting on a spiritual level with her customers to give them a piece that’s deeply personal.

“It’s a pleasure to meet with clients, to hear their stories and explore their inner dialogue and to get to know what’s inside their heart,” says Ma, who uses freehand drawing to create dream-like tattoos that follow the contours of her clients’ bodies. “It’s like a meditation.”

Ma’s clients are mostly women, whom she says often opt for tattoos that symbolise “self-love and self-care”.

“Women—they love to record their love stories and experiences in life,” she says. “I think tattoos are something that empower women. Through our tattoos, we tell our stories.”

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Above Quannah Chasinghorse (Photo: Vincent Farone)

Reclaiming Culture

Sakai wanted to get her first tattoo when she was 15. At the time, she asked her mum, to whom she’s very close, what she thought of the idea. “She told me it depended on where and what I wanted to get,” Sakai recalls. “The fact that she didn’t say ‘no’ took the rebellious angle out of it and made me really think about what I wanted to mark my body with.”

In the end, Sakai waited until she was 21 to get her first tattoo—it’s of her family crest, or kamon, which sits proudly between her shoulder blades. “My dad would tell us about the Japanese side of my heritage, which is something I was always curious about growing up,” she says. “I have learned that we have connections to samurai, and that our kamon is a well-known symbol marked all over Japan.”

For many women, tattoos are a way of reclaiming their culture and identity.

Native American model Quannah Chasinghorse, who is of Hän Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota descent, decided aged 14 that she wanted a traditional face tattoo: specifically, the three chin lines known as Yidįįłtoo, which she had seen on photos of her ancestors while growing up in Alaska. Her mother agreed to perform the ritual for her, saying at the time, “It was a powerful healing moment for my daughter. As I finished the tattoo, I felt that every poke provided Quannah with an immense amount of strength and power.”

Chasinghorse has appeared in campaigns for fashion houses such as Gucci and even on the cover of Vogue Mexico, bringing to light the significance of traditional Indigenous tattoos. Often given as symbols of blessing, protection, devotion, strength and identity, these practices were abolished by western colonists.

Recent years have seen the rise of young Indigenous content creators taking to platforms like Instagram and TikTok to reclaim and revive customs and traditions, from throat singing and hoop dancing to tattooing.

Shina Nova, a 24-year-old Inuk from Canada, made headlines when she shared her journey of receiving her Tuniit, the traditional hand-poked face tattoos of the Inuit, the indigenous peoples of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. The practice is done almost exclusively by women tattooing other women.

“A lot of people told me I would regret it and that it would ruin my face, my ‘beauty’,” she wrote in an Instagram post, along with the hashtag #womanhood, as she proudly displayed her markings of a line down her chin and triangular marks on each cheek. “I don’t think so.”

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Above Jana Yar

Such markings should not be treated as a mere fad. “If you’re going to get traditional tattoos, I believe it’s important to go to an artist who understands and respects the ritual,” says Jana Yar, a photographer based in Singapore who is heavily tattooed from the neck down.

Yar has an eclectic mix of tattoos; a tattoo by Thai master Ajarn Noo Kanpa, who famously tattooed Angelina Jolie; one by a Cambodian monk; and one by the grand-niece of the fabled Whang Od Oggay—who at 105 years old, is often described as the last mambabatok, a traditional tattooist of the Butbut tribe in the Philippines’ remote Kalinga province. Oggay’s grand-niece, who is also her protégée, continues her great aunt’s legacy, tattooing clients with thorns, soot and a bamboo hammer.

In Southeast Asia, ancient tattoo practices are often linked to ancestor worship and spirit magic. In 1565 in the Philippines, the Spanish arrived at the islands of Visayas and nicknamed the local inhabitants pintados—the painted ones. After the Spanish took over, tattooing fell out of favour due to opposition from the Catholic church.

In East Asia, tattoos are still viewed by some—especially older generations—as something that taints both the physical and symbolic purity that is typically revered in, and expected of, women.

- -

Yar, whose husband is Sam Yar, a prominent tattoo artist in Singapore, recalls a day they had spent walking in Botanic Gardens. “An older man walked past us and turned to his wife, saying in Chinese, ‘Look at her, she has a pretty face, but she destroyed her body’,” says Yar. The same comments were not made about her husband.

In East Asia, tattoos are still viewed by some—especially older generations—as something that taints both the physical and symbolic purity that is typically revered in, and expected of, women.

It’s a belief with deep roots in the region. In Chinese history, tattoos were used to denigrate ethnic minorities, punish criminals and brand slaves. Tattooing also goes against Confucian values of filial piety—the idea of intentionally causing injury or scarring to the body, which was given to one by one’s parents, is more or less sacrilege.

These beliefs are common in Japanese and Korean society too. Tattooed people aren’t allowed to enter Japan’s onsen, or bathhouses, as tattoos are still associated with yakuza. In March this year, the Constitutional Court in Seoul announced that it would uphold its ban on tattooing. Though being tattooed is not a crime, South Korea is the only developed country that permits only medical professionals to tattoo. In spite of this, there’s a thriving subculture of talented tattoo artists—many of whom are women—who risk their freedom in the name of body art.

After all, tattooing is one of very few career paths for artists that promises consistent income and creative freedom. “Going through, and after art college, I saw a lot of friends who struggled,” says Black. “I realise how lucky I am to do what I’m doing.”

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Above Amy Black empowers breast cancer survivors with beautiful mastectomy tattoos

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A resource for women to be their best selves, Front & Female celebrates trailblazers, breaks taboos and tackles timely issues in Asia. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale

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