30 July 2015

Researching a Project and Using Note Cards

don't do much of my own research-based writing, because I teach at a community college. Community colleges don't require research of their professors--even those who are full time. We just teach a lot more--even with a few lit courses and department chair duties mixed in, I teach at least six sections of composition per year. It's a lot of work. 

That being said, I would rather teach students to write solid, well-developed research papers than teach them to write "better" poetry or to appreciate shitty-but-classic novels. Teaching composition is just what I do well, and there's coincidentally less bullshit involved.

As my tattooed-lady project unfolds and I discover more sources, I have decided to start taking photos of my note-taking and research organization. That's really why I mention my teaching--I want to be able to eventually show students that I teach them the same techniques I use myself. We'll see if that makes any difference when I use examples from my own research work in class.

Below is a current shot of my coffee table. (No worries--most of those index cards are still blank.) Everything in pink (highlighting, post-its, and notecards) is general sideshow information that will become part of the first chapter/essay/whatever of introduction and context. I use post-it notes to flag the pages where notecard info is located. Obviously, I own that book. 

At this point, I have read/re-read at least eight books. I have note cards pulled from (and annotations complete in) four of them, and I'm working through the fifth book today. Three more books are waiting in a stack on my dining-room table. There they are. I'll talk more about them later. 

I have about a dozen articles bookmarked on my laptop as well, and I just ordered three more probably-crappy, self-published tattoo "history" books today (with what might be the last spare bit of credit-card balance I have). I also need to go to campus to pull a few texts from the library and make photocopies from them. The stack of sources below have already been put through the wringer. 

On a side note, it's starting to look like I might need to go to Winston-Salem, NC and San Fransisco this coming winter--and both trips will hinge on whether or not the owners of private tattoo museums will open displays to let me see the back sides of certain photographs. The prospect of that--asking and being turned down--is working on my anxiety big time. 

So, for now--note cards. Color-coded and organized. Print sources only, and no travel. Breathe in, breathe out.

28 July 2015

Alexia of Australia, or "Alexia, the Most Beautifully Tattooed Girl"

Alexia's real name was Hilder Alexandria, and she was tattooed by Bill Furness and Melbourne's R. M. Reynolds. Easily discernable from other tattooed females of her time, Alexia wore a more feminine and decorative style of tattoos than many of her American counterparts, who still wore tattoos heavy in patriotic and religious themes. Alexia was known for her unique collar, an uninterrupted chain of roses.

The photograph above is T-961 of the Bernard Kobel collection.

In the photo of Alexia's sideshow banner below, Melbourne tattooist R. M. Reynolds is at work. Of particular interest to me is the brief costume Alexia was advertised as wearing in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This suggests, perhaps, that Alexia was not just a tattooed attraction, but also part of a dancing troupe or burlesque review. While I'm only speculating about Alexia's individual story, it is true that most women who traveled as tattooed attractions were usually only tattooed on the skin that "showed"--and Alexia's torso tattoo-work is extensive. Many women with tattoo-work that extended to the breasts and stomach were employed, at least some of the time, as topless attractions. This might have been as burlesque dancers, or as blow-off acts.

This photo is available via the State Library of Victoria online [although the permalink function in their archive was not working when I wrote this].

Finding "The Tattooed Lady" and Writing Her Multiple Lives

I haven't written on my blog in over a year . . . and I overhauled it a little bit this past weekend, so that I can start posting some of the more difficult-to-uncover information that I'm finding as I research this writing project.

I was awarded a paid sabbatical from UCC for the spring term of 2015, and I have also taken the summer off. So, I have had a total of five months to work on my proposed project; however, the project wasn't cooperating at all. I planned a collection of poetry that would focus on women who thrive in the margins of society--I planned to research several womens' lives, focusing on vaudville acts, circus attractions, and other traveling performers. Not persona poems, but odes, or elegies, or both. And, I have written parts of several poems, but I had a lot of trouble translating what I wanted to do into an intelligible or organized project.

Regardless of my creative stumbling blocks, I continued with research--visiting the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI as a first step. After a few days in their library and archives, I found that there were far more American tattooed women working in the early 20th Century than any one book really covers. Several articles and books mention that there were an estimated 300 tattooed attractions working in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, but only a few publications go further than that. Two contemporary books, one each from Margot Mifflin and Amelia Klem Osterud, offer insight into the lives of a number of tattooed women, but even if they covered ALL tattooed women of ALL time, their two books certainly do not seem like enough scholarship dedicated to covering this rich and virtually untapped well of women's history.

And, as I continued to read, I realized that even the very few contemporary books and articles on tattoo history all contain inconsistencies in information. With the number of inconsistencies in original newspaper articles, with embellishments in oral histories, with the advent of the online researcher's nemesis, Pinterest, and with the nature of legend, some tattooed women are repeatedly misidentified and their personality traits and histories have cross-contaminated in some instances, as if only a few tattooed ladies ever existed, and it never really mattered if their stories were 100% accurate and independent from each other's.

So, I started finding names to go with some photos of anonymous tattooed women, and I began researching each new name, cross-referencing with the Internet, my collection of photos, and available articles and books. As I compiled more "new" information, I realized that I really needed to tell the stories of these women when possible, even if only snippets of their lives are on record. At the very least, I feel they need their names back.

And, honestly, there is a sheer delight that comes with finding out a morsel of fact that NO ONE has ever noted before. I've found several pieces of information that were just *waiting* for someone to stumble onto them. It really seems like there just aren't enough writers or historians digging around in all the male-dominated tattoo histories to find and collect the women's stories. Yikes! I can't believe this is the case in 2015!

The sabbatical project, then, is morphing into a nonfiction collection of essays on these women and my quest to "find" them. There is also substantial information to suggest that several of these women were not the glamorous traveling showgirls they were painted as . . . but many of them were also burlesque dancers or strippers to make ends meet. Most of them worked in tandem with their tattooist husbands, and the women's tattoos were just a way for their mates to earn more money on the road. Theirs was not an easy life, and I think it's crucial that the fables are tempered with the real histories of these women, where available.

I am still reading and researching and organizing my findings . . . but I'm thrilled with the idea of writing these essays! I'm even more excited that they might be a book. I really struggled with wanting to write about tattooed women--I'm not sure it comes across as a gimmick, since I have a fairly large collection of tattoos. Maybe it would seem odder if I wasn't tattooed, but it doesn't automatically mean I'm qualified to write nonfiction . . . but I've decided that I can't deny my desire to try.

I already am realizing that not all the answers are out there. Some of this history has vanished forever. I just want to try and do my part to keep any more of this history from slipping away. Regardless of these women's individual motives, they were pioneers in body politics, long before anyone even knew what that meant. And, even if these women were more interested in making a living than making a statement, it does not diminish what they have come to stand for in the eyes of many younger women.

I am also going to try to use this blog more regularly, to share some of my findings--smaller stories, bits and pieces that aren't likely to be enough to foster an entire essay, and maybe some photos of tattooed women for whom I still don't have names.  I hope that some of my blog posts will also help to quell a little of the misinformation that is continually spread via the Internet. I'll do my best to be accurate, and to correct my mistakes as they are identified.