An Ode to the Misunderstood Beauty of the Tramp Stamp
From 20th century fertility rituals to Britney Spears's "Stronger" video, lower back tattoos have been a symbol of women's self-determination. It's time to embrace the unfairly maligned tramp stamp.
Photo by Evil Pixels Photography via Stocksy
I faced backward with my legs splayed open like Britney Spears in her "Stronger" music video. Behind me crouched Tessa BX of Gnostic Tattoo, who was adorning my lower back with my 11th tattoo—colloquially known as a "tramp stamp." Spears also has one; hers is a fairy. (I was getting a snake, based on a piece by one of my favorite artists, Alejandra Sáenz.) Much like Spears' infamous 2007 meltdown (which in my opinion was a valid mental reaction to her circumstances and metal as fuck), the lower back tattoo is largely—and unfairly—viewed by society as trashy and even tragic.
Women in Western society began inscribing ink on their lower back in the late 1980s, according to Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, tattoo historian and director of the Center for Tattoo History and Culture. "Due to lingering mid-century stigmas about tattoos, they wanted to get them in a place that was easily concealed," she explains. Jill Jordan, one of the most well-known female tattoo artists to emerge in the 1980s, called them the "chick spot," according to Margot Mifflin in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. The trend crept into the early 1990s as more women started getting tattoos and by the mid-90s, the tattoo's popularity soared due to an influx of tattoo magazines featuring models with lower back ink.
I recall growing up during this time and hearing men refer to the tattoo as a "target" or "bull's eye," insinuating it was the sign of a slut and that the bearer was "easy." While I'm sure some women have gotten tattoos to lure lovers, body modifications from makeup to cosmetic surgery are choices women make to feel more powerful or comfortable in their body. "Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why," Mifflin writes . But our patriarchal society assumes women's body modifications are less about their own agency and more about catering to men's preferences, so women with lower back tattoos are simultaneously sexualized and shamed.
Selecting the image and placement for a tattoo is personal. It's a decision rooted in reasons ranging from healing after sexual assault to simply wanting something pretty to adorn your body. In Bodies of Subversion, Jordan says that lower back tattoos are "a tremendously sexy and really flattering way to be tattooed—it just narrows your waist." In The Witch's Book of Power , professional witch Devin Hunter writes that the primal soul "sits within the lower soul of our being" and explains that in dharma, a concept with multiple meanings in Indian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, a "giant serpent known as Kundalini lies coiled within our root chakra, acting only out of primal instinct." Kundalini deals with basic life energy, or prana, writes Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa in Kundalini Yoga: The Flow of Eternal Power .
I wanted a tramp stamp of a snake to commemorate a time in my life when I was unchaining myself from patriarchal restrictions like toxic relationships and finding my authentic self. The snake imagery and body placement represented my primal self and "living deliciously," like Eve accepting forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The tail of my tattoo begins at the root chakra but the rest lies mostly on the second chakra, like all lower back tattoos. While the root chakra represents primal energy, security, and survival, the second chakra represents sexual energy (and is located by our reproductive organs). "That area is sacred; it's called sacrum for a reason" says Ashlee Davis, a Kundalini yoga instructor and holistic health coach that specializes in helping clients that struggle with emotional eating and body image.
Before the boom of '90s tramp stamps, 20th century examples of lower back tattoos could be found as early as 1937. In an article titled "Tattooing Among the Arabs of Iraq," originally published in American Anthropologist by Winifred Smeaton and republished in The Tattoo History Source Book . Smeaton writes of a midwife from Al-Kadhimain (a Northern area of Baghdad) who he called "one of the best informants on the magical aspects of tattooing." The woman, who Smeaton did not name in his ethnography, explained the practice of tattooing a small design of three to five dots on women's lower backs "just above the buttocks" as a fertility ritual to ensure childbearing.
By 2000, when Spears and her fairy tattoo were owning a chair in "Stronger," the tramp stamp began falling out of fashion, says Dr Friedman. "When low-rise jeans exploded around the year 2000, making these tattoos very visible, it clinched the association with slutty sexuality," she explained. Mifflin writes that by the new millennium the "chick spot became the tramp stamp and lost its charm." When I asked Dr. Friedman for a contemporary equivalent of a '90s tramp stamp, she answered rib cage tattoos. While speaking with Tessa prior to my appointment, she said that one of the most popular tattoos for women is the feather, so the butterfly above the butt has given way to the feather on the ribcage.
"I have done fewer lower back tattoos than I have forearm tattoos or other places, but since I've grown up, that's always been a stigma. It's a ' tramp stamp.' From someone that loves tattoos, both giving and receiving, I find it hard to have an opinion about the placement of a tattoo," Tessa says. As she inscribed a snake on my lower back, it made me feel protected and powerful, and I wondered if Britney felt a similar kinship to her fairy. (I hope so.)
While I (and the rest of the tattoo community) strongly advise against getting a paramour's name tattooed on your body, the rest is up to you. Good luck trying to shame me for my tramp stamp—my snake has charm, and the 90s are back in fashion.