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Anni Irish and the History of the American Tattooed Ladies

When Anni Irish was 16-years-old she entered a tattoo shop for the first time. She had ventured in looking to get her nose pierced but ended up leaving with a blueprint for her academic life. After experiencing the culture within the shop Irish was instantly intrigued and would spend years studying the social history attached to tattooing within the United States, particularly focusing on tattooed women.

Women in tattooing have just as colorful a past as the men do but their stories have mostly been left untold, a oversight that Irish is hoping to rectify. On Tuesday, May 12th an 8 pm Irish will be speaking at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn and she was kind enough to take some time to talk with us about the tattooed women of the 19th century, the way the image of tattooed women has changed throughout the years and her own experiences getting tattooed.

Inked: On May 12th you’ll be giving a lecture at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Can you give us an idea about it?
Anni Irish: Last August I approached the Morbid Anatomy Museum about the possibility of giving a lecture about the social history of tattooing with a focus on the history of the tattooed lady. I’m going to be giving an illustrated lecture focusing on 1840 through today with a focus on people like Nora Hildebrandt to Maude Wagner all the way through Kat Von D. I’ll be giving a larger synopsis on that social history. (Tickets can be purchased here)

How did you first get interested in the history of tattoos in general and tattooed women in particular?
It really began when I was in high school. I got my nose pierced at 16. I just remember the first time that I went into a tattoo shop/piercing parlor and seeing people that didn’t look like my family and friends and I was really intrigued by that. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I focused on performance art and women’s studies where I just got really interested in issues surrounding the body and body adornment. I started getting tattooed in college while documenting the process. I was thinking about my body in and out of different social spaces and how it was different pre tattooed and post tattooed. I’ve been getting tattooed for the last 11 years; I’m pretty heavily tattooed now. That question of insider/outsider space really stayed with me. When I was doing my first semester at Simmons I delved into the social history of tattooing and deviant practices at the turn of the century and what tattooing meant. I got really interested in the gender aspect of it since there is so much work already done about male tattooers and the history of American Traditional male artists but there is not that much about female artists and particularly heavily tattooed women. I saw the need to fill that.

Photo by Charles Eisenmann

Nora Hildebrandt Photo by Charles Eisenmann

Can you give us an example of one of those early tattooed women that people probably don’t know about?
Nora Hildebrandt is really interesting; I ended up doing my first thesis on her. She was a German immigrant who was married to Martin Hildebrandt, who is actually pretty famous in American tattooing history as well. So, he tattooed her, this is around 1880, and she eventually started to show with Barnum and Bailey. Another woman came along at the same time, Irene Woodward, but she sort of eclipsed Nora because she wasn’t as attractive as this Irene. Nora had this very short-lived career in the circus scene. She is considered to be the first official tattooed woman. There’s not a ton on her, there’s a book called The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud. (Ed. Note. At the bottom of the article you will find a list of Anni’s book recommendations if you want to learn more about the history of tattooing.) It’s one of the only books out there that that has a comprehensive history about that era. So Irene and Nora were dueling at a certain point and Irene was just more attractive than Nora and people preferred that.

It’s interesting that immediately after Nora became famous there was a rival to challenge her.
Yeah. You see a lot of that, especially within freak show and sideshow acts. I think that it coincided with tattooing becoming more popular at the turn of the 20th century. It was still “deviant” but more people were getting tattooed. I read about ladies in New York City, socialites, getting butterflies tattooed on them in discrete places. That sort of thing was a crossover moment.

When do you feel like women getting tattoos became less of a deviant thing?
I feel like that’s a complicated question, even given the social strata of today. Looking at people like Megan Massacre and Kat Von D they are very attractive, talented women but they are also hyper-sexualized. I think that in a lot of ways the origins of the tattooed lady is that. There is an eroticization and sexualisation because it is a non-normative female body. The idea of deviance has always come with tattooing and body adornment practices. It’s more acceptable today, that’s for sure, but I don’t feel like it has lost all of, I don’t know if deviant is the right word, I think that it is less cache now and more prevalent. But I don’t know if the social attitudes around it have really changed.

Do you feel that there is any sort of a similar sexualisation among men who get tattooed?
I think it’s a different idea with the female body. The female body on display, people make the argument today, is very different. I mean, you had men and women on stage together but I think it is the context and the history surrounding it that needs to be considered.

What have you learned about the early history of female tattoo artists?
People like Maude Wagner taught themselves. Her husband was a tattooer, Gus Wagner. She was one of the first ones to really come out. Then there are people like Madam Chinchilla who were working in that vein. There were a small group of women who were working aside their husbands, boyfriends, or brothers who were tattooing but they didn’t become as well known. I think that’s the point of the work that I’m doing, I’m trying to elevate that history and make sure those stories are known.

Anni Irish

Anni Irish

You made mention earlier about how successful female artists are, in this day, often hyper-sexualized. Do you feel like sometimes they are still judged by their appearance more so than their art?
I think there is something about celebrity culture and having a certain bit of social capital that comes from having someone like Megan or Kat tattoo you, and they just happen to be attractive on top of that. I think they have chosen very different ways to go about their careers. For example, when Megan was on New York Ink she was actively pursuing an alternative-modeling career. While they are both tattooers, it seemed like that was all that Kat was interested in doing. She ended up getting a Sephora line and a fashion line out of it, but that came afterwards, where as Megan was pursuing multiple things. I don’t think that this takes away from the art at all but I do think that the conversation is different because they are women. I don’t think that you have that conversation about male celebrity tattooers. There are shirtless pictures of Ami James, sure, but I don’t think that question would ever be posed about him. It’s a different conversation.

How much do you think the image of tattooers, female or male, has changed over the years in our culture?
I think it’s definitely become cooler. More people definitely have tattoos; whether it is one or three or being heavily tattooed, whatever that means. It’s clearly become more socially acceptable because it is more visible on people. I think there is something about that that has elevated the industry. People are still working out of the Bowery but now it’s in fancy shops, not out of someone’s apartment. It’s not what it was 100 years ago.

I mean, tattooing wasn’t strictly legal in certain places including New York City until fairly recently.
There’s something about that too. People have a lot of misconceptions about cleanliness and the use of needles and conversations needed to be had to demystify that. A lot of people don’t really understand what it means to get tattooed and the amount of time and effort people in reputable shops put towards cleanliness and hygiene. You have to get a tattooing license and your bloodborne pathogens certification and other things, it’s not just a random person setting up shop working on you.

You said that your lecture was going to be focused on the nineteenth century on but I was wondering if you had done any research on tattooed women from earlier than that.
Working in this field there isn’t a ton of work being done on that. Lars Krutak is a tattoo anthropologist who has done a tone of work around Borneo, Polynesia and Africa. Recently I came across a book called Drawing With Greater Needles by Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados from UT Austin Press. It’s the first comprehensive history of North American tattooing that has come out. It is mostly focused from 1400 and later but is looking specifically at Native American tattooing practices. I’ve started to do work about the larger scope of tattooing but with a focus on North America because that’s... I’m from here. My interest started in one very specific place and now I’m zooming out to get a wider, bigger idea of that history.

Irene Woodward, Photo by Otto Lewin

Irene Woodward, Photo by Otto Lewin

When you first started getting tattooed, and in the many sessions since, do you feel that your knowledge of the industry’s background influenced your personal tattoo choices?
So, I guess, my tattoo story is that in college I started getting very specific… I’m really into Art Nouveau. That’s my aesthetic. When I was first getting tattooed I was really interested in the gesture behind it, I was interested in the idea of male artists interpreting the female form. So I chose specific images that I liked by male artists by women and I felt that the act of getting the image tattooed on me was a sort of feminist gesture, like I was reclaiming that on my own body. At this point I have so many that it’s just become more of an aesthetic choice because I really love that era and everything that comes with it. I’ve continued to get the same kind of work done because I think that it’s beautiful. I should probably give a shout out to my tattooers, I’ve been going to Ryan Faulk at the End is Near in Park Slope for the last couple of years. Or, and Ellen Murphy, she’s out in Oregon, she just opened a new shop, she used to work at Chameleon in Boston. Interestingly I’ve mostly been tattooed by male artists.

Was this a conscious choice?
It just sort of happened that way. When I was younger I felt like I had something to prove being 18, really white, from Connecticut and going to school in Boston. I got my knuckles done at 21, and I remember the shop apprentice, Alex, being like “that’s fucking hardcore.” You know, I remember being like I had finally proved myself and carved out my own space within that shop. Now I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, but at the time there was something about as much coverage as possible, how much money I was putting into it, and where I was getting it. Twenty-one is when I made that life choice. I always feel like I’m doing that insider/outsider thing within that industry because I’m not a tattooer. I do get tattooed, and I have friends in the industry, but that’s not what I do by trade. There are tattooers who have extensive knowledge on the topic but they are in a different position. So I felt that I had to constantly check my position within that hierarchy.

Anni Irish's Recommended Reading List:

The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Oustreud
Tattoos in American Visual Culture by Mindy Fenske
Drawing With Greater Needles by Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados 
Tattoos: Secrets of a Strange Art by Albert Parry
The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women by Lars Krutak
Modern Primitives
Written on the Body, collection of acadmeic essays on tattooing from a N. American and European perspective.
Bodies of Subversion by Margo Mifflin

Irish also will be teaching a class at the School of Visual Arts this summer entitled "Freak Show: A Historical and Cultural Analysis of American's Entertainment Industry." Click here for more info.

You can keep up with everything Irish is up to on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr as well.