Girls with Tattoos is a project in celebration of female and tattoo beauty, inspired by lots of things…
– questions I’ve been asked about my own tattoos and the wider questions these raise about expectations of female appearance /
– a love of illustration and admiration of the skill of top-notch tattooists /
– factors which affect female body image /
– a wish to share positive stories and images from tattoo owners/
I’m excited that Rae agreed to be my third participant…
Name: Rae Alexandra What I do: Music Journalist / Live: Austin, Texas / Age: 38
How many tattoos do you have?
Before I answer that, I want you to know that I had to count four times to figure this out. I have been getting tattooed for 21 years and you stop keeping track after the first five. But… if my calculations are correct, I have 41 (31 professionally applied and 10 drunkenly applied by friends armed with sewing needles and Indian ink.)
What inspires the subject matter of your tattoos? Is there a general theme?
All of my tattoos either mark a significant event in my life, or a person. (Or in the case of the stick n’ pokes, a really, really fun night with humans that I love.)
Do you have stories behind some of your tattoos? If yes, can you tell us some?
I have two on my inner forearms that are extremely important to me. They face me, not outwards because they are very personal. The one on the left arm is a reproduction of a painting done by my friend Pete Doolittle. He painted it when my best friend died to help us raise money for the funeral, and it depicts an abstract idea of my friend that really captures the essence of him. The painting broke my heart and lifted my spirit at the same time, so I had to get it put on me.
Mirroring it on my right arm is a depiction of San Francisco, where I lived with the aforementioned best friend. This was based on a combination of two paintings by Bay Area artist, Ursula Xanthe Young. San Francisco was my home for a very long time and, as the cliché goes, I left my heart there. The city has been annihilated by rich, tech assholes in the last five years and, like so many other people who loved the city as it was, I can no longer live there. But I keep San Francisco on my arm as a reminder of what home feels like and the wonderful times I had there.
Also on the home front, the half sleeve on my left arm is about my hometown of Cardiff in Wales. The swans are for my parents, the daffodils are for my Welshness and the tower is from Roath Park Lake – a really beloved spot for my whole family.
What inspired you to become tattooed, and have your reasons for getting tattooed changed as time has passed?
When I was a kid, I was an obsessive journal keeper – I always documented everything. As a journalist, I do the same thing. Tattoos for me are a visual journal that is written on my body. Memories, people, places – if they are important enough, I will put them in my skin and carry them with me for the rest of my life. I am much happier for it. Also, I can think of no greater honour to give someone than getting a tattoo for them.
Have your tattoos changed the way you view your body at all?
I’ve been doing this for so long and since I was so young, I actually don’t know how to answer that. I do know that the one time I allowed a make-up artist to cover a tattoo on my wrist, it immediately freaked me out. I would hate my skin to have nothing on it. The idea of not having tattoos actually makes me feel anxious.
What has been the reaction to your tattoos by your world around you? If relevant, what have been the positive reactions, and what have been the negative?
This is a really mixed bag. I always live in places where there are lots of other tattooed people, so it garners very little response in my day-to-day life. I will say that things were quite different when I was working in London back in 2004. People openly stared at me on the train – especially the men in suits on their daily commutes. I think that probably happens rarely now given how much more prevalent tattooed humans are in the UK these days.
I always cover my tattoos when I’m with my family because my dad is absolutely enraged by the fact that I have them. That’s a super bummer, but I cover up out of a combination of respect for him and my own desire to not have a blazing argument every time I’m home. I also cover up for job interviews, to avoid any bias the interviewer might be hanging onto.
By far the most extreme response to my tattoos occurred in Dubai. Tattoo shops are illegal in the UAE, so if you have work that is visible, it feels like being in a freak show. One day, while visiting my sister, who lived there at the time, we went for a drive so she could run some errands. I wasn’t planning on getting out of the car, so was only wearing a short skirt and sleeveless top. At the last minute, she decided she needed to stop at the supermarket and that I needed to go in to help her. Within five minutes of being in there, I had a trail of middle-aged local men following me around, getting really close to me and staring at my tattoos. It was probably the most uncomfortable ten minutes of my life, but entirely my own fault for being a dumb foreigner.
Do you feel the reactions to your tattoos are any different as you’re a woman, than they would be for a man?
Absolutely, yes. I think all heavily tattooed women have dealt with ridiculous questions about our tattoos that tattooed men never deal with. We also have to contend with men in bars thinking they can come over and touch you, under the guise of admiring the work. I have to say, things were much worse when Suicide Girls was a really big, popular thing because it spread this idea that tattooed women were all hyper-sexual and “up for it”. During that period, I literally had super straight-laced guys in ties stopping me in the street and trying to take me out. A couple of them literally referenced Suicide Girls to me as a conversation starter. It was obvious they were just trying to hook up with a tattooed girl, so they could brag about how “wild and crazy” you were to their office friends the next day. Needless to say, none of their approaches were met with a warm reception from me!
On a happier note, when I lived in New York between 2013 and 2016, I noticed there was a direct correlation between levels of street harassment and my tattoos. Believe it or not, I was harassed significantly less in summer, when my art was on show, than I was during winter, walking around wearing big puffy coats and unflattering woolies. Men who harass women view us as lesser than. When we have tattoos, they see this as somehow masculine and they treat you with more respect. This is just a theory, based on personal experience, but I gave the matter a lot of thought and that was the conclusion I reached. It made me start thinking of my tattoos as protective armor.
Questions I’ve been asked about my tattoos, include:
- “What are you going to do on your wedding day?”
- “How will you feel when you’re old?”
How would you answer these questions?
- Why would I not want to look like myself on my wedding day?
- I am old. I’m middle-aged. Pretty sure my personality and taste isn’t going to change at this point. Also, being heavily tattooed means me and all the other people who like the same things as me will be able to find each other that much quicker when we get to the old folks home. Party.
Do you feel there are expectations regarding appearance and body type in society today?
Good Lord, can I write 3000 words on this please? Women’s bodies are scrutinized and criticized endlessly. The pressure on women to conform to body standards that are dictated by advertising, media, the dieting industry, the fitness industry and the fashion industry are overwhelming and they start when we are about 8 years old. When you get a lot of tattoos, you commit to not conforming to mainstream beauty standards for the rest of your life and, as such, the pressure to conform to a dress size just evaporates. Women are compared to each other all the time – who’s slimmer?, who’s prettier?, who wore it better? – but as a tattooed woman, I am already “other”, so it frees me up to do whatever the hell I feel like, with less eyes on me. I bowed out of that whole thing years ago and I wouldn’t have been able to without my tattoos.
Are there any tattoo artists you love above others?
I love Yutaro at Skull & Sword in San Francisco specifically for how he tattoos women. He
did my left (Roath Park) arm and it was a real treat to watch him work. His tattoos on women have a much more delicate sensibility than what he does on men and the results are usually mindblowing. My most-complimented tattoo is the one he gave me.
Annie Danger is phenomenal. She did my San Francisco forearm tattoo and the level of detail on it is astonishing. She uses really tiny needles, which hurts like a bitch, but the results are worth it.
An early favourite for me was Ms. Mikki who used to be at a shop in Oakland, but works out of Portland now. She did the Mucha-inspired work on my legs, as well as my “Survival Never Goes Out of Style” back piece. She does really beautiful work.
Honorary mention to Eric Jones from Let It Bleed, also in San Francisco. Eric was my go-to guy for any small work I was getting done on the spur of the moment. He’s just someone I could always rely on to understand what I wanted very quickly and execute it beautifully.
Can you name a best tattoo you’ve ever seen?
No. I really, really can’t. I can’t even pick a favourite on my own body!
Are you planning to get any more tattoos? Do you think there’ll be a point when you’ll stop getting tattoos?
I will get tattooed until the day I die. Like I said, it’s a visual journal of my entire life. Can’t stop now!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes. I meet a lot of people who are un-tattooed, but tell me they’ve “wanted to get [insert tattoo description here] for years.” If you have been thinking about getting one particular tattoo for years, just go and get it already. It is not the gigantic deal that you think it is!
Rae Alexandra lives in Austin, Texas with a ridiculous ewok dog. She is a music journalist, raccoon enthusiast, pop culture nerd, and shouty feminist killjoy.
She has worked for everyone from Kerrang! and Rock Sound, to Justin Timberlake and Hello Giggles. She loves the blog she keeps of the terrible things her friends say – www.dickssaythefunniestthings.com – and you can follow her on Twitter: @raemondjjjj.