EROTIC TATTOOS: Manufacturing Desire
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EROTIC TATTOOS: Manufacturing Desire

Article © 2008 PJ Reece

(continued from page 1)
There was a time when any form of erotic tattoo was understandably well and truly hidden. French prostitutes of the 19th century were said to have worn them on the periphery of their erogenous zones, so, of course, you had to pay to see them.

"No admittance except on business."
"Danger Zone."
"Admission 50 cents."

A gay male might have run into a derriere emblazoned with "Open All Night". Some men sought out prostitutes who sported the most tattoos. The nature of the tattoos themselves didn't matter, it was the skin ink itself that turned the customer on.

If these tattoos were 'erotic', it wasn't due to their content, rather their placement below the panty line. Never mind that these tattoos were jokes, excitement emanated from the radical context of the human body as a medium of communication. Or the notion that erogenous zones could possess an attitude, especially a humorous one.

These days, the joke is just as likely be on the wearer. Santa Barbara tattooist, Pat Fish, was reluctant to ink a 'Gumby' on a girl's crotch. "Who wants their boy friend laughing every time he goes down on you?" says Pat, for whom the pelvic girdle is now a no-go zone. "I might do a delicate fish, but what happens when it expands with a woman's pregnancy? It becomes a whale. Or, if she loses weight, it shrinks to a sardine. Pat doesn't want her customers to regret their tattoo choices.

Erotic tattoos once had a respected place within many indigenous cultures, according to the authors of Art, Sex and Symbol. Tattoos ceremonies were rites of passage, replacing the more painful practices of circumcision and labia mutilation. Usually performed at the onset of puberty when sexual feelings are on the rise, the tattoo proved one's contempt of pain, which made him attractive to the opposite sex. If a Samoan girl required tattoos to be considered nubile (marriageable), then the tattoo was definitely a sexual lure. For Burmese boys, a leg tattoo might have been critical to attracting females. And Dyak women in Borneo are said to have taken tattoos for the singular purpose of turning on their lovers. The tribe might well have depended on it.

Culturally sanctioned erotica is unheard of in the West, with the possible exception of American servicemen, whose flags, anchors, and 'Sailor Jerry' pin-ups were part and parcel of the 'man in uniform'. Cartoonish though the nude girly figures were, women lusted after this eroticized military body, and a puritanical nation hardly blinked. If G.I. Joe had to be denied a sex life in order to defend his country, then his tattoos were his surrogate sex life. No one condemned them as autoerotic -- or even homoerotic -- although that's what they must have been. Tattoos, like the military uniform, were national symbols of which to be proud.

Sailor Jerry Collins - American Tattoo Master

Meanwhile, on Main Street, USA, your average Joe was keeping his erotic tattoo appropriately out of sight. The penis tattooed as a barber pole, hounds chasing a fox into the anus -- these were available for viewing 'by appointment only'. As was anything located below the waist line. Now, in North America, the invisible self is becoming more and more visible. We're baring our souls on television as if it was a spectator sport, and our fashion icons have become so tattoo-friendly that the risqué tattoo no longer poses much risk. It's likely to be poking its nose out far enough to prove that it exists.

"It's easier to think of a tattoo as sexy or erotic if it's partially visible in public," says Ohio photographer, Michael McGowan. "Sometimes, that's the game the person is playing: 'Does my tat turn you on? Does knowing I have ink make me attractive to you? Or is it a turn-off?' As a test, that's a pretty good one."

Photo by Michael McGowan
Photo by Michael McGowan

McGowan recently finished a two-year project called "Skin Deep" for which he photographed individuals with tattoos and piercings for exhibit at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown ( "On average, I'd say that most of the women I photographed did want to keep their 'special' or 'sexy' tats under wraps," says McGowan, "to be shared only by those with whom they were close."

While men are more likely to strip down and show off their skin ink, McGowan suggests that women are more and more deploying their erotic tattoos to advertise their sensuality. "That's one area where I think the gender gap is rapidly closing. For women, having an item for public view hints at where they land on any sort of sensuality scale."

In Vancouver, Sharon Gregson has come out as a tattooed person. As a School Board Trustee with political ambitions, Gregson wants her public to know who they're voting for, and if 'sensual' is one of her qualities, so be it. So far, her tattoos have not been a liability, and she sees no reason why they should be. In the color newspaper photo, her floral backpiece looks more 'pretty' than 'erotic', although her boyfriend-tattooist, Thomas Lockhart, no doubt has a different point of view.

Thomas Lockhart runs Westcoast Tattoo on Vancouver's Davie Street. He's parked his Harley Davidson in the shop's foyer, and himself into a black leather chair as he flips through the latest issue of Skin & Ink. There was a time not long ago when Lockhart's parlour was the beginning and end of Vancouver's tattoo industry, but now he's one of a hundred tattoo artists in the region.

"What do you mean by 'erotic'?" says Lockhart, for whom inking an 'erotic' tattoo would be no different than inking any other. It's skin, it's ink, and he applies his talent to the best of his ability. This kind of objectivity is reassuring. Who wants to be indelibly marked by a tattooist with a sexual agenda?

"I don't think anyone specializes in erotic," says Lockhart, "although most tattooists have all probably done a bit of it at one time or another."

Lockhart wears the full-body 'kimono', much of it hand-tapped in Japan when he was a student of Horioshi III. There are so many exotic creatures and lush themes within the design of his body suit that the entire effect is undeniably sensual, but only explicitly 'erotic' when he lifts his arm to reveal, on the soft upper inner arm, the startling image of a woman being sexually serviced by a dog. The viewing doesn't last more than a few seconds. It's hidden, so that he can control who sees it. Tom explains that his underarm erotica has its origins in Japanese 'shunga' art, and that's the best lead he can give me, by which to explore the nature of 'erotic'.

Shunga translates as 'picture of spring' -- spring being a euphemism for sex. The shunga woodcuts -- from as far back as 16th century -- are a virtual pornotopia of explicit images depicting all manner of sexual possibilities, and usually involving a courtesan. We find bondage, fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, even rape and bestiality. Nudity wasn't inherently erotic back then, so we find the characters fully clothed. Not only does it draw attention to the genitalia that are conveniently exposed, but the genitalia are exaggerated, often to the size of the character's head.

Tattooist Magnus Skogs of Red Hot Tattoo in Sweden has seized on the theme with a vengeance and inked a matching set of male and female characters on a man's calves. In this case, a garment-draped penis constitutes the entirety of one figure, while an anthropomorphized vagina serves as its mate. Side by side, they don't appear very friendly. Perhaps it depicts the 'battle of the sexes'. Is it even erotic? It's hard to be erotic when other sentiments -- like the absurd -- are simultaneously aroused.

UK artist Paul Binnie has produced a more conventional shunga work of art. His 2005 print titled "Utamaro No Shunga" depicts a sitting nude sporting a full-back tattoo which itself is a reproduction of shunga art by the 18th century artist, Utamaro. The erotic effect, although wonderfully multilayered, remains a product of Binnie's imagination, since no such tattoo actually exists.

Painting by Paul Binnie
Painting by Paul Binnie

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