Out of a booth in the back of a barbershop on New York's Bowery, a former embroiderer by the name of Mildred Hull was putting her needleworking skills to new uses. It was sometime in the 1920s, and Hull was busy making a buck and working on a legend. She was that rare and strange bird -- one of the first of her kind, in fact -- a lady tattooist.
In "Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo" (Juno Books, $23.95), author Margot Mifflin details Hull's story, along with those of the many other iconoclastic women who embraced tattooing in the days when it was the exclusive territory of sailors and carny folk. She follows the colorful tale of women and tattooing through its rough biker days, into its revival during the '70s, and up to the present as it continues its spillover into the broader pop culture.
"Two years ago when I started on the book I was concerned that the tattoo craze had peaked," Mifflin says by telephone from her home outside New York City. "I was wrong -- it was just beginning."
Mifflin will be in town this weekend to take part in the first festival devoted to women tattooists in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center's sixth annual celebration of tattooing as an art form. "Needlework: A Festival of Women Tattoo Artists" will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at the center, in the Tri-Main Building, 2495 Main St. (Admission is $8. Show a tattoo or piercing at the door and get $1 off.)
Mifflin will give a talk and hold a book signing. She will be joined by tattooists Angelina (Cosmic Rainbow, Rochester), Chimene (Strange Brew, Buffalo), Chyna (Captain's Cabin, Rochester), Tee Jay (White Tiger, Rochester), LaMar Van Dyke (Tattoo U, Seattle, Wash.) and Pat Sinatra (Pat's Tats, Woodstock). All will demonstrate their work, and Sinatra will make a presentation called "Ritual Tattoo and Magical Marks."
Mifflin counts independent characters like Hull, Nell Bowen (aka "Painless Nell") and Maud Stevens Wagner, the first known woman tattooist, as among the pioneers of women's tattooing. These were tough women. In her Bowery shop, Hull and her husband, Thomas Lee -- barber and part-time tattooist -- offered a full slate of services.
"Twenty-five cents bought a haircut and a shave, a shower or a small tattoo," writes Mifflin. "Hull loathed the drunks who staggered through her door angling for a fight, and boasted of having done 'fistic combat' with more than 100 men, painting 'pretty pictures on glass chins.' "
As an arts writer, Mifflin had little to do with tattooing before she embarked upon this first history of women and tattoo. "I was a journalist writing about the fine arts, and I got bored with both the elitism and the fact that art seemed to be stalled in the '90s. I was looking for an art that had more relevance to people, and about that time I got interested in outsider art."
Outsider art -- which can include anything from folk painting to toothpick sculpture to bad sign painting -- led her to tattooing.
"As a folk art I found it fascinating," says Mifflin. "It is historically instructive and has great sociological interest."
As it turns out, it is a huge field. "Tattoos go back 5,000 years and cover many cultures," she says. "I had to narrow it down."
Women's initial enthusiasm for the tattoo came with feminism's first wave in the late 19th century and expanded in the '20s when women like Hull took up their needles.
"In 1870 woman jumped aboard," Mifflin says. "It had a lot to do with woman's restrictive role in that era."
Sailors and beehives
From the beginning, tattooing was an act that challenged patriarchal society's concept of the untainted female, says Mifflin. "These women stripped away notions of 'purity' by exhibiting their bodies in a time when skirts that touched the top of the shoes was shocking."
It was, she says, a time of "curiosity about curiosities," and many tattooed women joined the circus, making it pretty much their entire lives.
In the 1880s the stigma against tattoo hadn't yet jelled, Mifflin says. She gives the example of the heavily tattooed 19-year-old, Irene Woodward, who debuted at the time. The New York Times coolly decribed the event, detailing in a surprisingly open-minded way tattoos that included a hive of worker bees, a sailor leaving home, a floral necklace that disappeared in her cleavage, the goddesses of Hope and Liberty and the watchwords "Never despair," "Nothing without labor" and "I live and die for those I love."
By the '50s, television and movies -- plus an increasing awareness of the impropriety of exhibiting extreme curiosities and freaks -- had dimmed interest in tattoos, Mifflin says. "It wasn't until the feminist '70s that a lot of women artists broke into what had been a macho art for centuries before." Today, she says, women are accepted -- albeit still reluctantly by a segment of their male peers -- as equals as artists and as businesspeople.
Mifflin doesn't see tattooing as innately feminist, but she says that it does have the power "to define a self-styled kind of feminine beauty."
"It has to do with the body politics of our era, when controversies about date rape, abortion rights and sexual harassment have many women thinking hard about who controls their bodies -- and why. At times it can be horribly degrading and can say as much about feminine acquiescence as empowerment. And with really extreme tattoos a woman can put herself out on the far fringes of society.
"But still a tattoo is a complicated challenge to the meaning of feminine beauty, and no matter what its symbolism, it always says, 'I'll do what I want with my body.' "
Mifflin herself has no tattoo, but says that none of the hundreds of people she talked to for the book seemed to care one way or the other. Her 2-year-old daughter, Thea, contributed to tattoo history by discovering that tattoo is an ideal baby-talk word: It was her first word.
'It's my one love'
When Tee Jay first switched from illustration to tattooing, she didn't even particularly enjoy her new art form. "Now it's my one love," she says from her Rochester shop.
She sees similar conversions in her clients. "People will come in looking for just one tattoo. Then they come across another that they like and say, well, maybe."
Though she'll work in any style from abstract to the classic "Oriental," she has become something of a specialist in realist tattoos, all done up in illusionistic light and shade. She does portraits, animals and what she, a Native American, calls "Indian designs" -- which, she says, are "primarily imagery that people associate with Native American culture."
She spends time with her clients, meeting with them two or three times just to be sure they are comfortable with their choice. "It's not like you walk in, see what we've got for $60 and say, 'I'll take 27-C.' "
And there are things she won't do. Lovers' names are out -- too many repercussions -- and she won't do what she calls "the drunk-stupid tattoo."
"I'm pretty liberal, but if it offends me I won't do it," she says. But she's not about to be judgmental, either. Recently she adorned a guy's ankle with a Celtic band that, on closer inspection, was made up of illusionistic ants scurrying toward the foot. And she accommodated a young man with a design that gave the very realistic impression that someone had recently hacked off his hands at the wrists and they had been stapled back on.
Tee Jay thinks that a women's tattoo festival is a great idea. "The camaraderie is important. Only one out of 10 of us is a woman, and it can be a pretty sexist business. I don't like it when people say to a woman tattooist, 'Not bad for a female.' That really bothers me."
Pat Sinatra, who sees tattooing as having a spiritual component, has gone so far as to incorporate ceremonies that coincide with the phases of the moon. Tattoos, as she likes to say, are "magic marks." They can heal, motivate and help you to see yourself in a different light. The selection of the design and its proper placement on the body is critical, she says. Some tattoos have "bad energy" and some good, and after 20 years of practice she can tell which is which.
"Except for religious practices, we don't have any rites of passage in our society," she explains. "Tattooing is therapeutic. It is a way to prove to ourselves our own self-worth."
Sinatra says that the reasons for getting a tattoo are many and run from the profound to the casual.
"A lot of the time people are going through a divorce or getting married or giving birth. These are events that they want to recognize and, and in some cases, honor. Others are serious collectors of tattoos, while some need no reason other than just to be a more colorful person."
No resale value
Tattooing is an art form, says Sinatra, for the very reasons painting and illustration are art forms. "It requires the same skills and applies the same tenets of art -- form, balance, color, movement."
Plus the expressive value of the tattoo is compounded by its being displayed on a living body. Initially, the design expresses ideas and emotions generated by the tattooist. These ideas and emotions are given another layer of meaning by the tattoo wearer, who turns the design into a kind of ongoing biographical statement.
"Still," says Sinatra, "tattooing is seldom accepted as an art form, and I think I know the reason: It has no resale value."
As all professional tattooists know -- or should know -- you can't stick inky needles into people without taking into account the health risks involved. "That's why we have a whole series of laws in Erie County," says Peter Coppola, senior public health sanitarian and the author of the county's stringent tattoo regulations.
"We got into the regulation of tattooing because seven or eight years ago we had a person who was going around to flea markets and giving tattoos and reusing needles," Coppola says. "We traced cases of hepatitis B that were directly linked to her tattooing."
Erie County is among a handful of counties in the state that regulate tattooing. "You can go north into Niagara County and there is no regulation," he says. "Our aim is to raise the level of tattoo facilities to the standards of a doctor's office."
And the rules are working. Since the county started the program there hasn't been one case of illness attributable to a certified shop. "I would advise people that they should be extremely cautious in going to a place that isn't certified."
Coppola emphasizes that "Needlework," an event fully sanctioned by the county, is not an open festival where one can wander in and get a tattoo. It is primarily an exhibition designed to show tattooing as an art form. As for those tattooists who will demonstrate, he explains that they will be bringing their own "models."
Coppola tells newspaper reporters the same thing he tells tattooists when they ask if he has a tattoo: "If I did, I'd never tell you about it."
He does offer this prediction for the future, however. "In about five years, the people who perfect tattoo removal are going to be millionaires. Some of the things are just awful. I always tell people, you're making a decision that you'll have to live with the rest of your life."
As in the past, a big part of the festival will be the audience. Anyone can be part of the exhibit and, to encourage participation, 103.3 The Edge, one of the sponsors of "Needlework," will be running a tattoo contest. The categories are: Best Small, Best Large, Best Color, Best Tribal, Best Black and Best Overall. The Edge will broadcast live from the festival.
The other sponsors are Samuel Adams Beer, and Cowpoke, the Elmwood Avenue piercing parlor.