It is no secret that many (though not all) of us who are invested in extreme music and its accompanying cultures are no stranger to the familiar buzz of the tattoo needle. All one needs to do to confirm this is to briefly look around the crowd at any show and she or he will see many tattoos of various colours, styles, and sizes. There are chest pieces, half sleeves, full sleeves, and small ankle tattoos everywhere. Boys and girls who dig metal lots of times dig tattoos too and that’s really cool. One’s first tattoo is becoming a certain rite of passage, along with prom and the first day of high school. Celebrities have them. Athletes have them. Musicians have them, and now many of us do too.
Girls are warned against the dreaded “tramp stamp” lower back tattoo and dudes are told to triple check that Japanese character for “strength” as everyone has a friend who has a friend that got a meaningless Asian character by mistake by relying on flash (the designs on the studio walls) and not consulting a dictionary or native speaker. However, with the rise of tattoos has come a public interest in tattoo culture and the bodies attached to them. As shows like Miami Ink got great ratings, tattooed bodies started to become objects for public consumption rather than private reminders of triumph or personal beauty.
Miami Ink taught the general public that tattoos might not just be for soldiers or prisoners and that every tattoo has a story. Grandmothers even have them! This all sounds well and good, right? If tattoos are slowly becoming part of our contemporary culture and if suburban teens are now running to tattoo studios on their 18th birthdays to decorate their bodies, then doesn’t the world become a safer place for tattooed people everywhere? Many say yes, but a few brave artists and filmmakers have boldly said “No,” especially when it comes to heavily tattooed women, whose bodies are increasingly fetishized and treated as public commodity.
Heavily tattooed women are constantly assaulted with questions about their bodies, unwanted gazes from men and women, and unsolicited touches from the curious passersby. If Miami Ink taught us that every tattoo has a story, then it also taught us that these personal narratives are now terrifyingly public property, everyone has a right to ask…and know. The attitude seems to be, “Why would someone get a tattoo if they didn’t want people to ask about it?’ I cannot tell you how many times strangers have poked my arms, lifted my shirt sleeves, or asked me to explain certain tattoos I have and what they mean. The most recent occurred in an upscale grocery store when a chef who was working a demo station randomly asked me why I liked Cadillac so much (I have a rather large vintage Cadillac icon tattooed on my right arm that is flanked by my parent’s initials in cursive typography). To this I responded, “Very good. You know your iconography, and yes, I do love Cadillac, it’s the ultimate in American luxury.” That’s all I gave him. Just because I have a tattoo of a well known American company doesn’t mean that I’m dying for people to ask me why it’s there. When pressed for more details, I rarely give them. Would I ask someone with a large scar on their face where they got it? No. Why do we not award tattooed women (or men) this privacy?
Like my colleagues are on the constant task of showcasing new musical artists, I am always on the lookout for new and provocative art that challenges us to look deep within our cultural consciousness to break down our desires, disgust, and memories. Filmmaker, photographer, and emerging scholar Stevie Berberick has provided us with just that in her new short form documentary Shouting Through Skin. Berberick, who recently completed her MA in American Studies from the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, NY, explores issues of femininity, gender construction, and social power as they relate to the experiences of contemporary heavily tattooed women in Western New York.
The documentary is a call to arms for the viewer to see heavily tattooed women as entities that exist as subjects who are strong, passionate, and smart rather than the damaged and sexually aggressive stereotypes that have permeated culture. These are women who are tattooed not because they are seeking people’s gazes or approval, but rather, as a method of acquiring bodily autonomy, an act of radical self love in a world that teaches women to hate their bodies before elementary school graduation. Berberick’s filmmaking is tight and deliberate, she gives the women room to speak for themselves, but does not lose focus by turning the film into complete cinema verite. She directly and bravely confronts a culture that simultaneously deifies sexualized tattooed female celebrities like Kat von D, but teaches us that the tattoos of a grocery store cashier are undignified by default because she will not immediately share her personal life with a complete stranger or conform to gendered stereotypes about women and tattoos (i.e. not having hidden tattoos that are pretty and delicate, like butterflies or flowers).
I think the film is especially important to share with the readers of The Monolith because as people who believe in the revolutionary power of alternative music and culture, we owe ourselves a closer look at the way we treat tattooed women among our own ranks. Do we stare? Do we touch in ways we believe to be innocent and curious when such gestures are unwelcome and assume a type of privilege we shouldn’t? Do we form our own stereotypes about heavily tattooed female bodies by buying into franchises like The Suicide Girls or plastering our walls with other pin up revival photos? And if we do, what does it all mean? Is saying that we “only date girls with tattoos” just as bad as saying we are disgusted by them? What does it take for a female body to become more than the tattoos used to decorate it?
Berberick’s film is a great point of departure if we want to address these and other questions, as well as change the conversation about women and tattoos. She is definitely a talent to follow!
Check it out below and sound off in the comments with your thoughts!