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book review: the tattooed lady

 Being a tattooed woman even today means thrills and ‘excitement’ on daily basis – people’s stares and occasional disapproval are easy to feel and notice. What it meant a few decades ago is no longer left to imagine as Amelia Klem Osterud did quite thorough a research on the tattooed women of the past allowing us to have a glimpse in the not so glorious past.

For such an unusual subject as ‘tattooed ladies’, the book begins in a very standard way – a short description of the history of tattooing around the world. One must, however, be understanding here as the lack of such introduction would cause accusations of a sloppy approach toward the subject. Not the case, though, and the introduction is decent enough and even makes a bow in direction of the ‘Western tradition of tattooing’ which – we are told – is quite deeply rooted in the European history. From here on it gets only better.

The strong points of this book are, as it seems, well-done research and setting the subject in the broad (and yet still detailed) context. Since the first tattooed ladies appeared in the 19th century, the century heavily influenced by the Victorian era in England, the reader is introduced to basic information on how the Victorians perceived women, their place in society and rules they should have followed. Tattooed women, clad in scanty clothes and seemingly shamelessly exposing their bodies to the audience, defied the norms which made them ‘mixture of both ordinary and exotic’ and ‘[a representation of] freedom to choose what to do with their bodies, the freedom to live an unusual life…’ Osterud is too good of a scholar, though, to be led astray by very modern concepts of womanhood and women’s freedom, so she makes us look both at the economic and social situation of women in the 19th century and what choices were possible to them back then. She also did another very important thing – she went through letters, memoirs, leaflets and everything else that’s left of the first tattooed ladies and their descendants in trade to see/hear what they had to say on the subject themselves. Suddenly long-dead women come to life again and can not only shatter some of our false impressions on them but also teach us a few life lessons. The romantic image of circus life, love for art and freedom aside, there were also other reasons to get tattooed and become a tattooed lady; as one of them, Ada Mae said: ‘when people ask me how come I’m a tattooed lady, I tell’em it’s because I love Art … and that’s true, too … – up to a certain point … I mean, I like to eat regular.’

One of very fascinating side-subjects here is the circus life and the book contains many rare pictures of performers both on and off the stage. The author points out the meaning of the sideshow to people visiting it, describes the everyday life on the road, shows what the sideshows had to offer and how they helped ordinary people define their own identity and learn about the world outside their own micro cosmoses.

The famous tattooed ladies themselves, such as Nora Hildebrandt, Irene Woodward or Emma de Burgh, are not only names and a few lines of basic information but rather detailed portraits and solid attempts on the author’s part to follow their lives from the beginning of their careers to the very end of their lives. Old photos, anecdotes and rare information on their private lives makes it a fascinating story of women who were brave enough to go against the norms and strong and clever enough to survive the hardships of the everyday life.

The book wouldn’t be, obviously, complete if there wasn’t a chapter on the contemporary tattooed ladies ‘here and now’ and the last chapter, The Legacy, describes the enormous changes that happened during the last few decades and how much our culture and our perception of tattoos differ from the ‘old times’ and how much they are influenced by the achievements of the first tattooed ladies. The focus is put on burlesque and modern sideshow and, again, the author’s point is very nicely illustrated. Oddly enough, though, there is nothing about Die Katzen who is one of the heaviest tattooed women in the world and who had her share in the sideshow ‘industry.’

The book is very nicely edited and published – it’s a hardcover, with a good index and sources included. As mentioned before, many rare pictures and interesting points made by the author make it a very interesting addition to any book collection on the subject.

Amelia Klem Osterud, The Tattooed Lady. A History, Speck Press 2009

About Ania Reeds

fit, modified, open-minded, well-read, always eager to learn. Don't judge me by your standards!

3 responses to “book review: the tattooed lady

  1. Steph

    Looks like yet another book to add to my “need to read list”

  2. bastian

    Another one of your brilliant reviews – thanks for bringing that to us!
    (and I can’t wait reading what you’d have to say about “my” book :))

  3. Pingback: memories and hopes for the future « Aniareads Weblog

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