Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

In an era when tattooed supermodels grace Chanel ads, it’s easy to lose sight of a time in the not-so-distant past when a lady getting inked was truly a subversive act. I suspect not many people know about women like sweet-faced Betty Broadbent, born in 1909, considered the most photographed tattooed woman of the 20th century. Despite her 565 tattoos, she entered the first televised beauty contest, held at the 1939 World’s Fair, challenging the popular view of beauty. To boot, Broadbent was also a tattoo artist herself.

Stories like Broadbent’s lend important context, and journalist Margot Mifflin has done the work of preserving and bringing to life this history of western women’s tattoo in her book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. Originally published in 1997 and now in its third (and updated) edition, it’s brimming with interesting tales flanked by even more interesting images. The book is organized chronologically, and so naturally the pictures evolve from black and white to color. In its 160 pages, Mifflin does a solid job of painting the entire landscape (well, at least up to 2011ish), with equal attention given to tattooed women as well as pioneering female tattoo artists.

While the entire history is engaging, I was particularly fascinated by the earliest stories and the mesmerizing images that accompanied them. There’s the ever-serious Olive Oatman, forever buttoned up in high-collared dresses of the mid-1800s, which only seemed to accentuate the blue tribal tattoo that covered her chin, compliments of the Mojave tribe that reportedly acquired her and her sister through a trade with another tribe. Though the official story was that she was abducted and enslaved, the Mojave only tattoo their own people, so it was thought that she was taken in as family. I could go on, since there are countless other interesting characters chronicled, but you should probably just read the book for yourself. – Goli Mohammadi

See sample pages from this book at Wink.