Erotic Tattoos: Manufacturing Desire

“First of all, you should define erotic,” says the tattoo artist. “Some people might not know the difference between ‘sexy’ and ‘erotic’.”

IMAGE IS COPYRIGHT © JUSTICE HOWARD PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo by Justice Howard

Erotic: ‘pertaining to sexual desire’.

The key word is ‘desire’, the ‘sexy’ part of the definition a mere qualifier. In any event, these are only words, and conventional wisdom tell us that it takes a thousand of them to do the job of a single tattooed image. A tiger, for instance, an entire penis tattooed as a tiger. Is that erotic? Since when is a tiger erotic? A vagina, then. The fashion photographer recounts the story of the guy with vaginas tattooed all over his body. Is that erotic? “Not to me,” explains the photog. “Unfortunately, not to him anymore, either.”

So, who’s the tattoo for? Or breast implants for that matter? For whom does one go to the gym? The closer you look at this ‘erotic’ business — exploring how and why erotic tattoos actually work — the more complicated it gets. Let’s step back and look at the big picture.

“There’s something ‘bad’ about getting any kind of tattoo,” says the well-tattooed professional woman. “It’s flirting with danger.”

Body art in general helps define us as individuals. The body as a work of art — what better way to bring order to an existence that’s increasingly chaotic and meaningless? Tattoos, just like strong opinions and expensive leather Italian shoes, provide certainty in an uncertain world. If we don’t feel at home in our bodies, life proves pretty hopeless. Erotic tattoos, then, would seem to be the unique domain of those who feel especially comfortable in their own skin.

Never mind definitions, we know instinctively and immediately what’s erotic. A recent trip to the local supermarket provides the perfect example. A young woman, a complete stranger, is squatting to price-compare porridge oats on the bottom shelf of aisle 9, exposing her lower back. At first glance she appears to be sporting the ubiquitous ‘tramp stamp’, the tattoo that lurks along the tropical latitudes of the female pantyline, except on closer look (okay, it’s a blatant stare) they aren’t panties at all, but a tattoo skillfully crafted to appear as such. Now, here’s the point — the observer (old enough to be the girl’s grandfather) finds himself applying his imagination to her deeper ‘no man’s land’. He can’t help himself, of course. She, on the other hand, has likely organized her attire for accidental viewings like this. Not that she wouldn’t prefer someone younger, she would, but that hasn’t stopped her tattoo from doing its erotic work.

Mark Lowry photo
Photo by Mark Lowry

Justice Howard photo
Photo by Justice Howard

“Anything under clothing is hidden and therefore ‘erotic’,” according to Justice Howard, a visual artist working in L.A. “It’s very personal, like a child hoarding things in a little box. He empowers them by keeping them out of sight. ‘I got it and you don’t.’ That kind of thing.”

Most tattoos, like other forms of personal adornment, are objects of pride, and tend to be marched out at every opportunity as a sexual statement. But exhibitionism can dull the erotic edge. Someone who cuts a hole in their T-shirt to show off their tattoo — forget erotic, is it even sexy? Yes, tattoos are increasingly coming out of hiding, but when it comes to erotic, something must be left to the imagination.

The intimate tattoo is hidden for a reason — it’s meant for special viewings only. Sure, accidental glimpses can happen in the supermarket (maybe not so accidental!) but otherwise the erotic tattoo requires an especially receptive audience.

“I was shooting portraits of a wrestler,” says Justice Howard. “I asked him if I could shoot him nude. He whips off his clothes, revealing the most beautiful body with Hawaiian tribal tattoos. I love ‘tribal’ on a man, it’s a turn-on, the way the lines graciously follow the curves of his musculature.”

But for your average middle-class woman with an erotic tattoo, only her lovers will ever see it,” according to tattoo historian Vince Hemingson. “It’s her declaration that ‘I am a sexual being!‘ I find that fascinating,” says Hemingson, who speculates on how such a tattooed woman might think on a promising first date:

“Here’s a guy who might get to see my tattoo.”

French women have a similar relationship with their lingerie, for which they are reported to spend small fortunes. Though it remains hidden during the course of the day (no sleazy reveals, s’il vous plait!) they’re drawing on the seductive power of these lacy undergarments, nevertheless. It’s an act of self-seduction, isn’t it? A strategy to feel good about herself, to be happy in her own skin. She walks around with a self confidence that proclaims, ‘There’s more to me than most people know.’

Do hidden tattoos work the same way? They can’t entirely, since lingerie involves the possibility of it being removed, a highly erotic component of lingerie’s seduction dynamic. But most erotic tattoos claim a sexual element that’s unique among fashion accessories.

“By the fact that you have to be somewhat naked to show them off, tattoos are inherently sexy.” That’s Sharon Gregson speaking, ‘the most tattooed politician in Canada’ according to The National Post. But there’s something else about tattoos — any tattoo — that make them erotic, Gregson explains. “The pain, it’s painful to get them. The pain changes the nature of what it is.”

Gregson, who sits on the Vancouver School Board, got her first tattoo at age 16. En route to Mexico with her girlfriends, the car broke down. “We were in Phoenix, and while we were there I got a ‘rose’ tattoo. It felt like flirting with danger, getting a tattoo from a guy named ‘J.C.’ Short for Jesus Christ. Definitely an erotic experience.”

However much tattooing has entered the mainstream, Gregson claims there’s still something inherently ‘bad’ about going under the needle. For years, Gregson has been hanging out in Tom Lockhart’s Vancouver tattoo shop watching young girls get tattooed. “It was always exciting for them, undergoing the blood rite, making the leap to being a tattooed person while taking on the pain,” says Gregson. “And the more tattoos you get, the more painful it’s likely to be, since subsequent tattoos have a way of gravitating toward your erogenous zones.”

For both client and tattooist, getting inked has the potential to be a sexually charged experience, which turns out to be a common observation among those who’ve been on the sharp end of the needle.

“Especially for a female being tattooed by a male,” says Vince Hemingson, “you can’t easily ignore the pain and blood and penetration. All that touching of body parts that rarely otherwise get touched. You can’t help but compare it with the sexual dance between male and female. Most women can count on one hand the number of men who have touched them below the panty line. It’s not surprising that so many love affairs have started in the tattoo parlour.”

Photo by Michael McGowan
Photo by Michael McGowan

Justice Howard has observed many friends and strangers getting tattooed over the years, and reports that not everyone describes their tattoo experience as dripping with all that ‘sexual’ innuendo. Says, Howard, “Some people just like the pain.”

“Yes, there are some who get off on that,” says Marisa DiMattia, mistress of tattoo couture and the brains behind Needled.com. “The very act of leaning in to open up someone’s skin and change them permanently is primal in itself. I’ve heard more than a handful of stories of clients coming to full orgasm while getting tattooed. But flirty clients tend to stop sexual advances once the pain of the needles take hold.”

A less-than-scientific probe into the sexual nature of the tattoo experience appeared in the Kinsey Report, a ground-breaking study of sexual behavior of men and women (now half a century out of date). San Francisco tattooist, Phil Sparrow, volunteered to assist Alfred Kinsey by keeping a record of his clients’ post-tattoo antics. Sparrow reported that immediately after receiving their first tattoo, 1724 clients had sex with their girl friend, 635 got into a fight, 231 got drunk, and 879 masturbated in front of a mirror while looking at their tattoo. Bearing in mind that male bravado most certainly distorted the results, tattoos and sex would seem to be natural bedfellows.

“But many tattoo artists studiously ignore the intimate act that the tattooing process actually is,” says Hemingson. It’s definitely time to visit some Vancouver tattoo studios, to learn first-hand how erotically charged the tattoo experience really is.

“Our tattoo artists don’t do erotic,” explains the receptionist with ‘VERITAS’ boldly inked across her chest. Well, excuse me. The bad news is they wouldn’t talk ‘truth’, either, won’t even return e-mails or phone calls. No foreplay at all.

A taboo within the tattoo world! Who woulda thought?

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