28 July 2015

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.

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