By Sarah Biddlecombe
18 Jul 2016
When questioned about the reasons why women are so attracted to getting permanent markings inked onto their bodies, London-based photographer Eleni Stefanou doesn’t hesitate to answer: in her experience, it is a matter of control. A tattoo lover herself, Stefanou has spent the last three years exploring the connections that women from a myriad of different backgrounds and cultures have with their inkings, and each conversation has led her to the same conclusion.
“Women use tattoos as a way of taking back ownership of their bodies,” explains Stefanou, who founded the groundbreaking digital project, Women with Tattoos. “Tattoos are undeniably a way of saying, this is my body, it belongs to me, and I will shape it the way I want to.”
To understand where this impulse for control stems from, you need only flick through the daily papers or turn on the news. We live in a society where women are routinely judged based entirely on their appearance, and have been historically picked apart according to their looks.
But tattoos can offer their owner a protective balm of comfort, and even resistance, against this misogyny.
“A lot of women tell me that, once they have that ownership back, they go on to feel more confident because they are no longer bending to the ideals of beauty they have grown up with and have felt the pressure to prescribe to,” Stefanou says.
“Because they have chosen these tattoos, from the design to the placement, they help them build a confidence they might not have felt [previously]. It’s so difficult to live up to the expectations of how people tell us we should look.”
“ Tattoos are undeniably a way of saying, this is my body, it belongs to me, and I will shape it the way I want to ”
And one of the women Stefanou interviewed for Women with Tattoos summed up this triumphant feeling perfectly: “What I love about tattoos is that they are a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to society, this is what I want to do”.
Yet there is, undeniably, an uncomfortable stereotype that exists around women with tattoos. The imagery of female body art is often highly sexualised and, typically, gives little attention to the art itself, let alone represent the women positively.
There’s a tattoo Instagram feed with millions of followers providing an endless scroll of half-naked women pulling down their bras and knickers and bending over for the camera. While the women in these pictures are obviously free to make their own choices, when the female cover stars of the UK’s biggest tattoo magazines also often seem barely a step away from lad’s mags, it can feel like the only representation of tattooed women out there.
“ What I love about tattoos is that they are a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to society, this is what I want to do ”
Add to this the negative connotations that overshadow tattoos more generally, and it can be hard to see where there is space to celebrate women and their ink. This is what makes Stefanou’s project, with its powerful imagery of female body art and the unapologetic stories that go with it, so vital. The site exuberantly celebrates the feminine beauty of all tattoos, from a tiny symbol on a wrist to an extensive dedication to a favourite pop artist, and explores the reasoning and origins behind them.
Stefanou has met more than 50 women so far, some of whom get inked when the impulse strikes and some of whom spend years planning their designs. Since founding the website back in January, she has interviewed women as young as 21 and as old as 86. Stefanou is firm in her conviction that she wants every woman who visits the site to feel represented in some way.
By sharing the women’s stories, Stefanou not only turns the traditional misconception of tattooed women on its head, but gives the community a voice, helping to break down the barrier of misunderstanding about body art.
“A lot of people who don’t have tattoos and have problems with them often ask, ‘How can you get something so permanent when you don’t even know if you’re going to like it in 10 years time, or how well it’s going to age?’” says Stefanou.
“These are valid questions, and I think a lot of tattooed people ask them themselves, but they show they come from people who haven’t had the experience of being tattooed. Once you have a tattoo, you really feel your skin differently.”
The irrevocable impact of getting a tattoo is something touched upon by many of the women on the site, who are identified only by their first names because Stefanou, “wanted to let the women define themselves in their own words before we, as readers, jumped to conclusions about them based on other signifiers”.
“Tattoos have completely changed the way I think about the world around me,” says Beccy. “They remind me to live in the moment and not dwell on things or people that aren’t important.”
“My relationship with tattoos is one of comfort,” says Aoibheann. “I love the way they make me look. Not in a vain way, but more when I look at myself the image that looks back is one that I like and accept.”
“ Once you have a tattoo, you really feel your skin differently ”
Of course, some women will grow to have regrets about their inkings, and come wish they hadn’t dedicated part of their skin to a passing fancy, or perhaps discover a tattoo artist who might have done a better job. But there is an important lesson to be learned from such an experience, too.
“We don’t fully know ourselves what we are capable of doing,” says Stefanou. “We need to embrace the physical and emotional parts of ourselves that may not be a source of pride and happiness but are still a part of ourselves.”
In this way, tattoos, even the ones that are later a source of regret, challenge another of society’s ideals that can be difficult to live up to. “The process alone of accepting these elements is a positive one,” says Stefanou. “It goes against the ideal of always having to be happy, always having to make the right decision and always having to push away any negative feelings and pain.”
And, conversely, the everlasting nature of tattoos is something that many women are attracted to. Some believe that in our ever-shifting world there is comfort to be found in making permanent markings on our temporary bodies.
Jane, whose colourful tribute to David Bowie made the front pages of newspapers across the world when the star died in January this year, is one such woman.
“I’ve loved Bowie since I was 12 years old,” she said in her interview for the project. “I thought, right, I’m going to get him tattooed on my back. Because things you can lose – materialist things. I’ve collected and lost things over the years and I thought, well, I won’t lose that; my Bowie.”
And the permanency of tattoos can also help women to accept the impermanent nature of their bodies. As Stefanou says, “we’re always growing and evolving as people and tattoos really allow us to confront the idea of permanency and ageing.”
So, how permanent is the project? Stefanou has a long waiting list of submissions from women who have visited the website and is herself always spotting women walking down the street or sitting on the tube whose tattoos are so bright, and so bold, that she can’t resist asking if she can shoot them. The project is slowly gaining a loyal fanbase across the UK, and one woman from Ireland is even planning to fly to London so she can be photographed for the site.
Stefanou hopes the project will be sustainable, if only to give the women she photographs a chance to see themselves in a more positive light.
“I enjoy representing women through images – it’s something that I find personally inspiring and fulfilling,” she says. “One comment I get a lot from them is, ‘Oh, you managed to make me look beautiful’. They sound surprised. But for me, what’s in the image is what’s in front of me.
“Being able to show them they’re beautiful makes it all worth it.”
Images by Eleni Stefanou
Video by Lu Xiao-Wei