Guest blogger, Gina Snooks, is a Master of Gender Studies student at Memorial University. She’s currently writing her thesis on women’s tattooing practices and spirituality. In September 2015, she’ll begin doctoral work in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at the University of Western Ontario.
Scripting Skins: A Look at Women’s Spiritually Inspired Tattoos
By Gina Snooks
Are tattoos graffiti for the soul (Sullivan 1995, 143), I wonder? I mean, are contemporary tattooees searching, through their bodies, as Maureen Mercury proposes, “for the sounds and images of our own personal gods that have all but gone silent” (2000, 5). What is it that truly motivates women to inscribe their flesh with spiritually inspired tattoos? After all, to borrow words from French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born a (tattooed) woman, but rather becomes one” (1989, 267).
To explore these questions, I draw upon auto/biographical and auto/ethnographical research to briefly consider the entanglement of body and mind, more specifically theorizing women’s tattoos as markers of spirituality.
The simple answer is that tattoos tell stories. More to the point, tattoos tell stories of the relationship of human beings and their bodies (Lee 2012, 156). Or, as one of my participants puts it, tattoos are a “way of showing what’s on the inside as well as what’s important — who you are, in a lot of ways, making visible what’s on the inside” (Sheila 2014). Similarly, another participant says that ink is “an amazing way to express yourself” (Scotia 2014). Some women, thus, use the ink etched into their flesh and the intimate connections they have with their bodies to express their thoughts, beliefs, and their life experiences (Arp 2012, xiv).
Perhaps, then, tattoos tell stories about the bearers’ souls. Indeed, one woman described a tattoo as having emerged from her soul, thereby marking her skin with a public statement about her spirituality (Lori 2014). Her tattoo, however, would not be easily recognized as a spiritual marker, given that it does not depict any specific religious symbology. Instead, the significance of this piece is best understood through the oral narrative she shares about the image.
Interesting, more than half of the women I interviewed bear ink of written text taken from songs, poetry, books, etc. as s form of spiritual self-expression. Tattooees, in this way, are wearing their life philosophies openly, albeit discreetly. For example, one of my own tattoos, which reads “I (th)ink, therefore I am,” reminds me of the inextricable link between mind, body and spirit (at least that is my belief), yet a viewer would not easily make that connection without the accompanied narrative. Conversely, many others openly wear controversial symbols, including pentagrams (a five pointed star surrounded by a circle) that are associated with numerous Pagan belief systems. The choice to openly display tattoos is, of course, a personal matter and often relates as much to the bearer’s personality as it does in how they expect the images will be viewed by others, particularly with regard to employment and social spaces.
This open display of spiritual markers, whether discreetly or easily recognizable symbols makes me question how tattoos fit into broader conversations about Canadians’ rights to wear spiritual symbols in public spaces, particularly with regard to recent controversies surrounding Muslim women wearing a hijab in public (but that’s a topic for another time).
What I also find interesting is that some women inscribe their skin with symbols intended to motivate action in certain ways and not in others. In other words, for some women, tattoos are mantras that reflect their spiritual philosophies and guide their behaviour. On this point, women have described their tattoos as visual reminders of attributes they seek to embody. One woman, for example, has an emblem tattooed on her arm to encourage her to be truthful to her own beliefs and values; that is to say, to follow her own path (Jaime 2014) While another participant indicated that her tattoos remind her that everything passes and this helps her to keep a positive perspective during turbulent times (Zaren 2014).
In many ways, then, tattoos function as personal manifestos for the bearers. Thus, in the same way that Gloria Anzaldúa insisted that we (women) are the shapers of our flesh and of our souls (2009, 125), I propose that some women manifest what is most important to them by making their flesh with spiritually inspired tattoos. Indeed, a mark can be quite powerful — if you let it be (Sheila 2014).
Arp, Robert, ed. Tattoos Philosophy for Everyone I Ink Therefore I am. Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2012. Print.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Haciendo caras, una entrada.” The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Ed. AnaLouise Keating. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2009. Print.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex, ed. and trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books. 1989. Print.
Jaime. Personal communication 2014.
Lee, Wendy Lynne. “Never Merely ‘There’ Tattooing as a Practice of Writing and Telling Stories.” Tattoos Philosophy for Everyone I Ink Therefore I am. Ed. Robert Arp. Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2012. 151-164. Print.
Lori. Personal communication. 2014
Mercury, Maureen. Pagan Fleshworks. Rochester: Park Street Press, 2000. Print.
Scotia. Personal communication. 2014
Sheila. Personal communication. 2014
Sullivan, Nikki. “Illustrative Bodies: Subjectivities, Sociality, Skin Art.” Social Semiotics 5:1 (1995): 143-158. Web. 30 January 2014.