Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lydia is just one of many tattooed ladies these days

The gender balance has shifted, and body art becomes the terrain of young and old
The 33-year-old Julie Larocque has more than 500 hours inked onto 
her body in 60 tattoos. Chris Mikula The 33-year-old Julie Larocque has more than 500 hours inked onto her body in 60 tattoos.
The first time a needle embedded ink into her skin, Julie Larocque felt like a more beautiful woman. The electric buzzing became harmonious, a lullaby that put her to sleep. Fifteen years later, 33-year-old Larocque has more than 500 hours inked onto her body. Each of her 60 tattoos -- which cover her arms, back, chest, neck, half of her feet and half of her leg -- tells a different story of struggle, strength, and courage.
Single mother to an autistic 11-year-old boy, Larocque has dedicated her life to his condition. She provides 24-hour care to her son, counsels other families living with autistic children, and has the autism ribbon permanently etched onto the back half of her leg.
"It's such a great feeling. I feel so at peace when I'm getting tattooed," said Larocque, whose body is now 60% tatted. "When you see a person with tattoos, you know where they've been and what they've been going through."
Tattoo artists are increasingly seeing a shift in the makeup of their clientele. Skin art is no longer exclusive to bikers, sailors, and jailbirds, but today can be found on just about anyone, from a favourite celebrity to the neighbourhood priest. After 20 years of working as a tattoo artist in downtown Ottawa, Darin Comley says about 70% of his clients are female, most between the ages of 28 and 45.
Since the art form shed its taboo reputation, women are taking over the once male-dominated industry. A 2003 Harris Poll in the United States determined that tattoo statistics for men and women are now nearly even, with 16% of men and 15%of women having at least one tattoo. About 9% of Canadian women have a tattoo, according to a 2002 Leger Marketing poll. Both nations' statistics have likely climbed since, especially with the advent and popularity growth of television shows like TLC's Miami Ink and A&E's Tattoo Highway.
And it's not just women in their 20s fuelling this statistical rise. Tattooists report women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s seeking to sport one or more designs.
"When I started tattooing a lot of women, I found they were recently single or divorced and they were looking for something they could do now that maybe their husbands didn't let them do before," said Comley, who has been Larocque's personal artist for more than 10 years.
"They get to the point where they are retired and comfortable in life, and they can do it because other people's ideals aren't really going to reflect on them anymore."
Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, studies the art's sociological implications. She says female baby boomers, specifically, found themselves in uncharted waters and in response, have used tattooing to reflect their pioneering sense of individuality. In other words, more women are getting tattoos because they now have unprecedented freedom to do so.
"Middle-aged women have had to navigate an entirely new world of female possibility and social protocol in the wake of second wave feminism," Mifflin said.
"The gulf between them and their mothers is greater than between any mother-daughter generation, probably, since the Industrial Revolution, and it's caused women to have to find their own way when it comes to their social, professional, and family identities," said Mifflin, who directs the arts journalism program at City University of New York.
Mifflin also attributes the phenomenon to the media's coverage of more body issues, such as surrogate motherhood, breast cancer, cosmetic surgery, and eating disorders.
"Many of these women felt and continue to feel the desire to assert power over their own bodies, which tattoos have helped them express, for better or worse," said Mifflin.
Massage therapist Marnie Seguin, 38, is an adventurous spirit. She rocks out at concerts, takes last-minute road trips, and shoots the breeze with friends over afternoon pints, but had never found herself in a tattoo parlour's chair. That changed when her husband left three years ago.
"That was the hardest winter of my life -- rock bottom. But I chose to see it as an opportunity to clean my slate. Now I am the best I have ever been, and I want that reflected in art on my body," said Seguin.
The new-found confidence and self-pride drove Seguin to Ottawa's first tattoo exposition in October, where artists from across the country gathered to recruit new enthusiasts and provide on-site tattooing.
Running from vendor to vendor like a child at a toy store, Seguin was already envisioning her skin stamp.
"I think they're amazing. The art form is such a commitment," she said, standing next to her new fiance. "I want something that embodies my children, which I know is a common theme, but I just want something that will speak forever."
In six months, Seguin's back will be home to a bare but eloquent tree branch. Starting grey and shadowed, the branch will grow up her rib cage into a soft, mossy green plant where three flowers bloom to signify her three children.
"The strides women have made in society -- and I'm talking on a global scale -- have almost everything to do with the explosion of female body art of all forms," said Seguin.
"I want my tattoo to reflect my pride in how far I've grown and changed."
Women like Seguin and Larocque define their breed today: fearless, bold, and strong-spoken. Tattooing is an attractive vehicle for women to highlight their femininity. A red rose on a delicate ankle, a butterfly on the midriff, or a dolphin just above the buttocks are the most common requests in Comley's shop, especially among older women.
Although Larocque admits to one regrettable tattoo, she will never stop. She's addicted to the euphoria that emanates from each prick.
"It makes you feel good and makes you feel empowered," she said.
"It makes me feel that I'm not just a mom. I leave my job and everything behind, and I can be myself. This is my outlet to be myself.

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