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Black Women and Tattoos: Beauty Enhancer of Feminine Depressor?

By: Shaunese Johnson

Walking down the street you see a gorgeous dark skin/brown skin sister. She has beautiful natural hair and her melanin is glistening in the sun. However she’s different from the rest. Her beautiful melanin is covered in ancient cultural art called tattoos. Is she deemed unattractive or undesirable by her own race? What about society’s standards of tattoos being edgy on other races but negatively stereotyped as “trashy” in the African American community?

I personally have ten tattoos consisting of a huge back piece (pictured above) and others on various places including my arms, wrist, thighs, etc. I view body art as a sacred and beautiful indication that allows one to tell a story about certain aspects of their life. Whether large, small, or medium, tattoos speak volume no matter what it may symbolize to others.Of course I get awkward stares at times and the occasional “You’ll regret that when you are older,” but I simply learn to ignore others and keep a smile on my face. If others are quick to judge me by ink instead of getting a chance to know me, these aren’t the type of people who I need or even want in my life.

Even though tattoos have been around for centuries the generationl gap seems to be a factor in determining how and what it represents in today’s culture. Turn on the television and we see actresses, models, and musicians who exhibit artwork on their bodies and individuals seem to accept this. Yet when we see a woman walking down the street with the same artwork individuals either seem to criticize or become judgmental of an African American woman’s body art.

In order to understand a woman’s tattoos, individuals have to change their thought process and the way they perceive others. Instead of the typical “What the hell was she thinking,” ask yourself “What obstacle in her life made her choose to get that tattoo?”Tattoos are often a beautiful mystery especially if it’s a design that’s not your typical dream catcher or star tattoos. I always believed in the quote “Always wonder,” especially when it comes time to tattoo art. Cultural art can showcase the deepest and darkest aspect especially when it comes time to our history and hardships we have had and still continue to overcome.

Sexuality and femininity have become intertwined when it comes time too tattoo art. Scientific studies have been debating if women with more tattoos are more likely to be promiscuous. However these “scientific” studies fail to represent every spectrum of women who have body ink including their lifestyle, choices, reasons, and who she is as a whole.

Tattoos that are visibly displayed in “sexy” areas of the body including the stomach, thighs, breast, etc. are often seen as sexually enticing and women with them are often sexualized. What happens if a woman is simply comfortable with her sexuality and doesn’t want to be defined by her body art? It misses the fact that not all woman want “girly” tattoos. Is a woman who wants a tribal sleeve versus a butterfly on her backside less feminine? Of course not! Maybe she wants to show the world as a symbol of her ancestors, her past, and her life.

A woman who’s simply confident in her sexuality and isn’t afraid to be liberated by her body art, is NOT to be confused with being a sex symbol among others who can’t understand who she is as a whole. Women of color look extremely beautiful with tattoos however the media continues to portray us in a negative light and are less glorified. We see so many Caucasian people with body art and it’s automatically considered “beautiful,” “edgy,” and often becomes a popular “trend.” African American women will have the same tattoos and it’s considered “ghetto” or even “masculine” to some.

One thing that I love to see are Tumblr pages, magazines, blogs, etc. showcasing women of color with body art. Not only are their tattoos unique but they tell stories of spirituality, oppression, hardships, and show the evolution of how they overcame their obstacles. Recently I came across an forum post in which a user was arguing that black women with tattoos were less feminine than those without them. Here is just one of the many quotes I read on the forum:

“It’s sad to say but sistas are slowly losing the feminine battle. Between the tattoos the outrageous hair, loud dispositions, and 10 inch nails they seem less like women and more like cartoon characters.”

I sat at my computer confused and had to shake my head at this kind of ignorance coming from my own race. The fact that the man was African American wasn’t the most surprising aspect, but rather it was the fact that a woman’s femininity was defined by the tattoos she chose to have on her own skin! Femininity is whatever a woman wants it to be as long as she is comfortable in her own body. I don’t give a damn if she has a ten inch afro, short/long nails, wears baggy clothes, or has her whole body covered in ink, femininity is how a women feels on the inside and should NEVER be determined by her outside appearance.

Therefore a woman can’t ever be defined by or “lose” her femininity based on her body ink. It’s a shame to see the amount of self-hatred women have to face, from others who don’t have a clue about what their symbolic features mean. If a woman wants to have a full sleeve, a neck tattoo, or tattoos that cover her whole body it doesn’t make her masculine nor does it define who she is.

If anything I think tattoos empower femininity. When you get a tattoo a part of you will be forever changed, not just physically by being able to see the ink, but mentally as well. It’s a sign of liberation and powerfulness of a woman who’s not afraid to be herself. The same way people love dance, fashion, writing, art, some just choose to decorate their temple known as their body.

If tattoos aren’t your thing then that’s fine, there nothing wrong with that and for some it may be a just a “trend,” but also realize the cultural connection and meaning some tattoos have that are permanently engraved on an individual’s skin.African American women already face enough discrimination from housing, the workplace, natural hair, and even our natural features. Please give us the encouragement and freedom to express ourselves through art without feeling the oppression we already face on a day to day basis.

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