Painted Ladies: On Tats And TrashinessS

I think it's probably time we sat down and had a little talk about tattoos: the good, the trashy and the hardcore.

The discussion of Michelle McGee brought out a surprising number of tattoo-critics — so many, in fact, that one reader wrote in requesting a tattoo-positive post. She expressed her surprise at how many people seemed repulsed not merely by McGee's white power tattoos, but also her decision to be so heavily-inked in the first place. It seems that her "trashiness" — the baggage of being a mistress? — was only compounded by the body art. We've touched on this issue before but judging by our inbox, the problem of the tattooed woman is something not so easily solved.

Tattoos have become so common that it is easy for People to gather up a slideshow of "good girls" who've been inked. Everyone has them –- from grandma to America's sweetheart. Tattoos are obviously no longer taboo, but as they become more and more visible, a strange hierarchy has been created — especially when it comes to women with tats. It appears that most fit into one of three categories: good girl, hardcore, and trashy.

Judging by People's list, the so-called "good girls" get small tattoos of unoffensive, cute things. They have hearts, and stars, and tributes to their men (or children). What was once a mark of brute masculinity, worn primarily by sailors and soldiers, has become sufficiently feminized and brought down to miniature scale.

There is also an issue of placement. The once-popular lower back tattoo is now more commonly known as a "tramp stamp," which clearly indicates that this is no longer a place for a good girl to get inked. The ankle is as popular as ever, as is the nape of the neck. Nowhere too overtly sexual, and nothing too big — these seem to be the guiding principles for acceptable body modification.

Anything larger than a few inches runs the risk of looking too hardcore to be considered "good." On women, these tattoos are often considered "trashy," a word which we know really means "slutty" with the added tinge of classism. Unlike men, who are judged less strictly on their body art, heavily-tattooed women are seen as licentious, as though their skin decorations makes them somehow more free with other aspects of their physicality. It also speaks to a certain willingness to judge the female form, and to view women as some Aristotelian lump of flesh, made conveniently for public consumption.

But this is also where it gets hairy. For certain groups, large tattoos are a sign of commitment, a badge of how far you're willing to go. People who revel in the label "hardcore" –- including, no doubt, Jesse James and his mistress -– often look down upon the other kind of tattoo, the diminutive and cute tat. It is the typical subculture vs. mainstream problem, with each viewing the other with slight distrust and distaste.

I should admit now that I am not heavily tattooed, and two out of my three tats are safely small, and conspicuously feminine. However, even with my relatively family-friendly tattoos, I have experienced the same kind of trash talk as many of our readers. Last summer, I was standing in line at a bank in rural New York, wearing a tank top that revealed my upper-back ink when I heard two older men loudly discussing my skin.

"Why do women do that to themselves, isn't it repulsive?" asked one.

"I would never let my daughter do something like that," responded his buddy. "It's just disgusting."

I felt my face redden. After several more comments like this, I turned around to confront my shit-talkers. Fortunately, a woman around my mom's age who was standing next to me in line snapped first. In a loud, disapproving voice that was far closer to a shout than a whisper, she said: "Some people are just so rude!" My defender then turned to give them a pointed death-glare that cut right through their swagger. She turned to me and added, "I think your tattoo is lovely, dear."

While not nearly as obnoxious as my bank bullies, there is another way in which the un-inked routinely shame those of us who have opted to enhance our skin. People seem to believe that every tattoo holds some secret meaning, and perhaps this is the final criterion for a "good" tattoo. This assumption never fails to annoy me, as if every swath of ink should have a better back story than something like, "I got this weird Dorito-looking thing on my ankle because I was drunk at a party and this guy said he was pretty good at doing at-home tattoos and I thought he was cute so…" Okay, so maybe that's my back story. But that's not the problem; the problem is that the questioner, who usually means well, seems to need for some greater significance behind my decision, and I suspect I'm actually being asked to justify the whole thing. Why? To clear up some misconception about the type of person who would willingly get some meaningless image permanently captured on their skin simply because –- here is a real shocker -– they might just like the way it looks. Strangely, this answer never seems quite sufficient.

Some have argued that, by wearing our choices on our skin, we are signaling our willingness to engage in a discussion of our bodies, that we are actively inviting commentary and judgment. I disagree. Body art is not necessarily a cry for attention. Certainly, there are tattoos that are intended as conversation-starters (the oddly popular mustache-finger is a pretty good example of this) but for most of us, our art is for ourselves and no one else. We don't routinely stop men on the street to ask them why the stupid goatee? or what's the significance of your soul patch? — we just assume they think it looks attractive. Tattoos, be they tiny hearts or a flaming skull, should be given the same consideration. Furthermore, while going under the needle may be a choice, unlike say, our nose size or weight, they are a (generally) permanent choice that we make about our bodies. Getting inked is not the same as picking out a particularly ugly skirt or donning a ridiculous hat. The things we do to our bodies are personal, and should be treated as such.

Related: Model Behavior: On Jesse James, Tiger Woods, And Sex With "Trashy Girls"