I‘m chatting with my friend Gretchen, a petite songstress, ukulele player, and substitute teacher. She’s telling me a story and gesturing as she does so, her left arm decorated with a tidy, tattooed ball of yarn, floating over a plump cloud flanked by bluebonnets and a blooming yellow rose. Her two sons – Fisher, age six, and Max, age ten – play in the next room, sparring over whose turn it is on the iPad.
“You have to see this one, too,” she says, lifting up her shirt to reveal the ultimate early aughts girl tattoo: a circular, vaguely tribal wheel burned into her lower back.
“Oh yeah, I thought I was super cool when I got that,” she says, lifting her shirt further to reveal a faded visage of a hair-swept woman’s bust on the back of her left shoulder. “And this is Cosette, because I was obsessed with Les Miserables in high school. Obsessed,” she repeats.
The arguing from her boys grows louder, and she rolls her eyes as she lowers her shirt. “Let me go round up the savages,” she says, and moments later I hear her cooing calmly. “Boys, this is not your home,” she says, just like the kindergarten teacher she used to be.
“After I had two children, I felt like I had lost me.”
– GRETCHEN DuPRE
I know lots of moms like Gretchen. Moms artfully tatted in obvious places, the bold designs a charming contrast to an otherwise demure personal style. Gretchen has no piercings besides her ears, dresses almost exclusively in vintage skirts and frocks, and is the type of woman you’d instantly feel safe trusting your secrets – or your children – with. Which is why it’s funny to read contemporary research papers on tattoos, the academic authors barely disguising their wary caution.
“Tattooing has increased in popularity during the past decade,” reads a 2012 report from the Annals of Epidemiology. “Yet tattoos still appear to be a marker for risk-taking behavior in adults.”
Really? As someone with a tattoo – and also someone with an impeccable credit report, stable job, and intimate relationship with dental floss – I question this. Then again I also live in Austin, home of the enormous Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival, now in its 12th year. That was roughly the same time tattoos began bubbling up from a tougher underground, and found their way onto the bodies of the mainstream.
“Back in the mid 90s, everything was still pretty taboo with tattoos. It was like bikers, hookers, drug dealers.”
– MIKE TERRELL
“Back in the mid 90s, everything was still pretty taboo with tattoos. It was like bikers, hookers, drug dealers, and that’s it,” says Mike Terrell, owner of Gully Cat Tattoo on South 1st Street. “But then you had this influx of young artists coming out of art school at the same time MySpace was taking off,” he explains, himself an arts graduate of Midwestern State University.
“And then suddenly, folks got this immediate window into the tattoo world, and artists could show off their work. So the Internet, I think, is what pushed it mainstream.”
To be clear, Mike is not a reformed biker/hooker/drug dealer turned college graduate: he went to West Lake High School. He’s part of a general class shift in tattooing culture, where folks with disposable income and tattoo-accepting jobs leapt into inked circles beginning in the 21st century. These days, the only prime piece of untattooed real estate left on Mike’s body is his left forearm.
Beginning in November 2013, I started getting Groupon after Groupon of laser tattoo removal specials, which led me to believe that something was happening in Austin. Had tattoos gotten so bougie, they were out? Were the original rebels fed up with the encroachment of the mainstream, eager to distance themselves from newly inked yuppies?
As it turns out, I was completely wrong.
“Here’s what’s happening,” says Michelle Eades, owner and removal technician at Mad Dog Tattoo Removal near downtown Sixth Street. “Tattooing is definitely on an up trend, so people want to get their old stuff altered or taken off to make room for bigger, better designs,” she says. “I am taking off tons of Asian characters right now, tons of tramp stamps. But we’re seeing more requests for lightening these days than out-and-out removal, because clients want to work with artists for something that better represents them now.”
And isn’t that always the question with tattoos: what’s an accurate, visual representation of you? Will it endure? In other words, what can you get right now that not only speaks to the current state of your soul, but will continue to do so in the future?
Perhaps these are the wrong questions to ask. As Addie Broyles, food writer at the Austin American-Statesman (and tattooed mom of two) reminds me, there is value simply in getting the tattoo when you become a mother. In other words, the act is more important than the design.
“After you give birth…getting a tattoo is about reinscribing the rights to your body.”
– ADDIE BROYLES
“After you give birth, you go through a prolonged period of giving over your body,” says Addie. “Happily of course, but it’s not without sacrifice. So I think for moms, getting a tattoo is about reinscribing the rights to your body. It’s like saying, ‘this is now mine again, and I get to make my own decisions with it.'”
It helps that tattoos’ sundry associations are quickly fading. Twenty-one percent of Americans now have a tattoo, and it’s even higher among women: 23% have a tattoo. And among individuals age 30-39 – i.e., mom age – the number is higher still: 38% of this group has a tattoo.
These numbers, from a 2012 Harris Interactive study, tell us all kinds of things about the mainstreamization of tattoos (especially that they’re generational: only 5% of adults 65 and older have a tattoo). But the data on tattooed mothers is scant, despite the fact that it appears to be a growing demographic. A feminist through line runs through their stories too, echoing a similar note to Addie’s.
“When I got my chest tattoo, it was a reclamation of my breasts,” says Chasity Gordon, owner of sewing/handmade apparel company Belle and Burger and mom to a six year-old son.
“They had been blessed with this grand abundance, but when I was done breastfeeding my son, it was like, ok. These are funbags again!” the Georgia native says. “I’ve always thought tattoos are very sexy, and I like drawing people’s eyes to where I want them to go. Part of my upbringing in the South was having a mother who was very traditional, so tattooing myself was liberating because I was claiming my sexuality.”
“tattooing myself was liberating because I was claiming my sexuality.”
– CHASITY GORDON
Like Gretchen’s, Chasity’s tattoos are beautifully domestic. All done by women, the most prominent one splashes across her chest with gold and pink-hued flowers, the name “Belle” (her childhood nickname) stitched in needlepoint. Petals and thread spill down the crevice of her cleavage, indeed drawing my (and many an admirer’s) eyes in. They’re winks at rebelliousness rather than the real thing, and tattoos like these reconstruct an identity many moms feel they’ve left behind, visually announcing to the world a sense of self beyond caretaker.
“After I had two children, I felt like I had lost me,” says Gretchen Dupree, possessor of both the yellow rose and Cosette tattoos. “It was like, ‘can’t play music anymore. Can’t do art. Just have to be a mom!’ I even bought my first pair of blue jeans after I became a mom, which probably says something.”
Living in Hong Kong, Gretchen lost her teaching job when she began to show with her first child. An artsy chick from Texas, she had always been creative (the lower back tattoo is, in fact, her design), but lacked a social system of fellow knitting, guitar-playing girlfriends. Now jobless and strumming alone at home, she threw herself into the only vocation left – momhood – and as she puts in, “went temporarily insane. I didn’t know what else to do with myself.”
Writing this article less than three months away from giving birth, I get it. Two emotional tracks seem to run simultaneously through my mind, the one that is burstingly eager to meet my daughter and kiss her tiny toes, and the other that is, well, terrified. Terrified that her care will subsume my creative outlets, terrified my career will suffer, terrified other moms will judge me for worrying about these things.
But watching Gretchen, an objectively incredible mother, climb the stage for performances with her all-female, Austin-based, ukulele-and-tiny-piano band HoneyPunch, it’s clear these fears don’t have to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Reunited with her posse of fellow musicians and knitters, Gretchen got her mini-sleeve in 2008 shortly after her family moved to Austin. She got it both to commemorate her old self and, as she says, to “become even more me.”
While moms like Gretchen and Chasity enjoy the dynamism that comes with ink, including the old tattoos they got in their youth, the overall trend of tattoos’ growing popularity is still regional. Tattoos are the least prevalent in the South according to that same Harris Interactive study, and among those polled without tattoos, a quarter said they viewed those with as less intelligent, less spiritual, and less sexy. I put out an informal poll on Facebook asking for people who either wanted their tattoo gone or were in the process of getting it removed: an expensive, painful
“Tattoos are a great way to shout out your interests…but as a mom, you have to shout a little louder.”
– MICHELLE SOTO
procedure involving several sessions, each one like a hot curling iron sizzling against your skin for five to 10 seconds. Among the responders were two women around my same age, one – my personal favorite – a nurse with a tattoo of a gecko crawling out of her butt. The other is an esthetician and owner of her own skincare studio with a Celtic cross on her lower back (“I hate it when I’m wearing a swimsuit, especially if I’m with a girlfriend at the country club – it just doesn’t fit there”) that cost her $150 to get. Now, she’s spending well over a thousand to have it taken off.
Which underlines the fact that we get wiser with age. And for moms, for whom having children both undoes and solidifies the pre-parent identity, tattoos quickly communicate a time-wizened taste. As well as, one imagines, a proud assertion that she hasn’t been whittled into a Disneyfied creampuff: “yeah I’m a mom AND a tough badass, what’s it to ya?”
Michelle Soto, a Procedure Writer at Apple and a mother, just got her thirteenth tattoo. Trained as a graphic designer, she acquired most of them later in life (“which I am so grateful for”) after her style was already in place: a flare for Art Deco and Art Nouveau dances down her body, with geometric designs inspired from late Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to 19th century illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. She says that opposed to her previous homes, where she was the lone tatted girl, it’s hard to find any friends in Austin who don’t have tattoos. In those sparsely inked regions of her son’s young life, this fact made sightings of other tatted moms especially poignant, a shared nod passing between them on the playground, a recognition of one’s people.
“Tattoos are a great way to shout out your interests and what you’re into, but as a mom, you have to shout a little louder,” she says.
And 13 tattoos? The number of visits alone reveals something else in her identity, a brand of maternity that hasn’t gone soft.
“The buzz of the tattoo gun, the smell of the alcohol, the rock n’ roll blaring…all of that, when you’re in the tattoo shop feeling that pain, solidifies the fact that I’m not at home baking cookies,” she says. “I’m doing something slightly rebellious, and it feels good.”
This article originally published in The Admire Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [February 2014].
Download the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.
Photography: Kelly Rucker
Tattoo Graphic Art: Kazyavka, Antipathique
Culture & Lifestyle Columnist
Tolly Moseley is a freelance writer and journalist in Austin, TX.
With a focus on arts/culture and life, her work has appeared in Salon, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, on NPR Austin, and more.
She is also the voice behind the popular blog Austin Eavesdropper, and one half of the aerial silks performance duo Vayu Aerials.