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Holiday notes: the “Tramp Stamp”

2011 August 22

Ah, summer holidays. Bringing with them the many body-related tribulations of trying to get on in life in the face of ridiculous social conventions on how you should look (yes, thank you very much Special K Lady and your Cohorts of Doom). With the annual Revelation Of The Flesh comes a more recent addition to the pile of what Caitlin Moran might term ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT.

Photo of a caucasian person's lower back tattooed with a purple butterfly surrounded by black tribal-style pattern markings. Image via, shared under a creative commons licence

The puerile association between a woman’s choice of tattoo placement and her sexual availability. AKA the Tramp Stamp. I hate that word. I hate it as a woman who has many tattoos and is bored rigid of all the shitty comments from the Morally Uptight Brigade about how ink looks “common” or “trashy” on women (and it’s almost always about women), how I’ll hate it when I get older, which is another dull reminder of how once we’ve lost our looks we’re for the bonfire of other people’s vanities.

But worse is the fact that tattoos, particularly this placement, have been added to the ever mounting list of Reasons Why Women Are Sluts. We marched for this, people!

A quick scroll around the internet reveals the extent of the problem. Over 2 million results on Google for the term “tramp stamp” alone. Top hit is the Wikipedia article which doesn’t even try to assert any form of anti-sexism editing beyond the coy reference to “lower back tattoo”, which I initially applauded until I saw the bare bottom shots used in the article. There are pages and pages devoted to deriding these tattoos, and the women who have them. So far, so bad.

The litmus test is whether the chaps get tarred with the same brush. Seems not. They may well have tattoos in this place (it’s a good bit of skin to get inked) but they’re apparently doing it for the irony factor. Or, poor thing, by accident.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying that some of these tattoos are ugly, silly or plain ridiculous. I’m very fussy about my tattoos and I love each one to bits almost as much as I love bitching about crap ones. Tattoos are a matter of personal taste, not a flag declaring whether or not I want to sleep with you: if you pour scorn and sexist drivel on my ink, then I definitely don’t.

Tramp stamp – another phrase that we can probably do without. Agreed?

6 Responses leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011

    Agreed in every possible sense of the word.

    I’m not much into tattoos on a personal level (never found anything worth the pain of having it permanently engraved into my skin). Regardless, I love looking at others’ tattoos and I love hearing the reasons behind them, particularly if it involves a story.

    Some tattoos aren’t as interesting as others and many are either aesthetically pleasant eye candy (redundant?) or downright fascinating. Also, the lower back is a great place for an etching. I recently read somewhere about literary tattoos. Those sound double awesome (but still not worth the pain, I’m such a baby about a pain hee~) and many look absolutely wicked (in a good sense).

    Interesting article, thanks!

  2. Markgraf permalink
    August 22, 2011

    My dad calls them “arse antlers” which is about a million times more hilarious.

  3. August 22, 2011

    Tramp stamps originated on gay men in San Francisco, precisely to indicate that their ass was available – oh the irony!

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 22, 2011

      I didn’t know that! That’s really interesting, it’s got me comparing the gender politics of the different contexts and trying to work out the possible differences.

      Were they commonly called “tramp stamps”, as in the actual phrase, though?

      • August 22, 2011

        I’ve never heard that either. I teach cultural studies, and tattoos often come up in class discussions (especially since I have several that are visible), and I tell students that while “tramp stamp”, “ass antlers”, “New Jersey license plate”, etc., are offensive labels, the lower back is a perfectly reasonable place for young women to choose for her first (or only) tattoo.

        First, it’s easily concealed by clothing when she needs to conceal it — whether for professional reasons or judgmental family members. Second, it’s one part of the body that changes very little with age or pregnancy, so a well done bit of ink on the lower back is likely to age well as she ages.

        Third, especially in U.S. college contexts, young women may be getting tattoos in contexts of peer pressure and the above reasons are even more important: if she’s not certain she really wants a tattoo and is just getting one because all of her sorority sisters are getting one, best that it *is* easily concealed AND in a place where she herself doesn’t have to see it every day.

  4. August 24, 2011

    I hate the phrase, mainly because it has so far successfully deterred me from getting a tattoo there even though I did at some point quite like one and logically it’s a nice place for it (visible in bikini but not in the workplace, skin doesn’t stretch/change, nice and symmetrical). I am forever haunted by my mother telling me not to do x, y and z because “it’s common” (although to be fair she says that about all tattoos including my existing one).

    Unfortunately the barrage of imagery of really tacky lower back tattoos out there on really tacky people (not you, obviously) that I see probably will keep me put of from considering that area as a tattoo location.

    Sometimes other people do kind of ruin certain symbols for the rest of us (I am looking at you Nazis, for ruining the swastika, and you the EDL for making the waving of English flags all questionable).

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