THR Web Features   /   June 2, 2015

Big Easy Ink

Leann Davis Alspaugh

Maud Wagner, circus performer and one of the first female tattoo artists, around 1911.

The tourist season in New Orleans is gearing up. The sounds of music fill the French Quarter: I can hear a virtuosic African bass harp player, the remarkable duo Tanya and Dorise, and an ersatz bluegrass band. (“I’m wearing my tramp pants,” I heard the fiddle player say during a break to someone on the other end of his smartphone.) A mime covered in silver paint does the moonwalk in front of the Café du Monde. One enterprising fellow on Royal Street has a Transformers-style act, ingeniously switching back and forth between impersonating a motorized car and an action toy.

Having spent recent weeks researching tattoo photographs for our upcoming summer issue, “The Body in Question,” I was keen to see how the expanding craze for self-expression would play out in the Big Easy. I had barely set foot in Jackson Square when I noticed the prevalence of tattooed tourists, and it brought to mind Christine Rosen's forthcoming THR essay, which cites a poll that found that one in five Americans has a tattoo. Rosen also notes that 86 percent of respondents said they had no regrets about “getting inked.”

Tattoos, as Rosen explains, have occupied just about every possible cultural position. They have been identified with criminals, but also with kings. Today, they have become so mainstream that those who are heavily tattooed scorn those with small butterflies or dolphins as unserious and ordinary. The heavily tattooed form communities and attend conventions, send letters to the editors of tattoo magazines, and bond over shared imagery from their “tattoo collections,” a phrase used by Beverly Yuen Thompson in her 2015 book Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women, and the Politics of the Body. Thompson also describes a number of issues facing the modern tattooed woman such as the lack of acceptance of female tattoo artists, workplace bias, normative concepts of gender and beauty, and discrimination faced by tattooed moms. Herself heavily tattooed, Thompson is particularly perturbed by the presumptuous and often rude reactions of strangers to her appearance. The fact that tattooing now has its own ethnographies and etiquette skews its outlaw aura toward something decidedly more bourgeois.

New Orleans, where spectacle and transgression are part of the infrastructure, is the ideal place to conduct completely unscientific research on tattooing. This is a city, after all, where strippers hold court at Galatoire’s, one of the city’s oldest and most prestigious restaurants. Several years ago, walking down one of the quieter sections of Bourbon Street, I passed a young woman wearing a corset that showed off her exposed breasts and nipple rings; the snake around her neck seemed only secondary. The city has always been hospitable to the eccentric and the flamboyant, and its several subcultures—musicians, the gay and transgendered community, transient young people—appear to have embraced tattooing (and piercing) with enthusiasm. Especially popular right now is mixing vintage vixen style—1950s clothing with Bettie Page make-up and hair—with a dash of punk, a look that has extra flair when cultivated by a young woman covered in tattoos of pistols, zombies, and skulls.

Among the tourists, you could almost hear the purr of self-satisfaction produced by a combination of skimpy summer clothing  and the endless French Quarter promenade that affords ample opportunity for showing off tattoos of all kinds. In New Orleans, you can be assured of a tattoo-friendly environment. The judgmental gaze that the heavily tattooed both invite and scorn seldom fixes on Big Easy tourists, few of whom, in any case, would qualify as “serious collectors.” (One can only imagine the derision that real collectors would heap on those displaying henna tattoos.)

Where then is the line between the true tattoo collector and the dilettante? What about the forty-something woman with her upper chest covered by a tattoo of a skull flanked by angel’s wings? The high quality of the design and its prominent location seem to indicate that she was a serious collector, but it was her only (visible) tattoo. She might just be a biker’s wife, and the biker himself might just be a banker, conforming perfectly to the demographic profile of  today’s Harley-Davidson enthusiast. Would she show off her tattoo at home, or is she adopting a different persona in the anything-goes atmosphere of New Orleans? Or consider the twenty-something woman in platinum bob and vintage dress, sporting, among others, two complete sleeve tattoos in a traditional Japanese design—truly stunning work. Surely, this qualifies as authentic evidence of a serious collector immersed in the tattoo lifestyle.

The appearance of tattoos on so many otherwise conventional looking men and women tends to thwart the ambitions of those originally drawn to ink by its trangressive appeal.  (Those seeking to brand themselves in the name of self-expression, liberation, or simple contempt for the conventional must now turn to more extreme forms of body modification,  including the most extensive and painful kinds of piercing.) And the fact that tattooing has become so widespread and replete with sub-genres (geek tattoos, self-affirming mottos, blackwork designs, ethnic designs) means that it now reifies the very kinds of social stratification that the heavily tattooed want so badly to resist and transgress.

In the face of such normalization, the body’s potential as a site of self-expression is rapidly dwindling, something that Rosen addresses in her essay. What used to be about empowerment has, she observes, “lost much of its rhetorical force.” As my experience in New Orleans suggests, nowadays it’s what’s not written on the body that might be the real rebellion.