'Tattooed and Tenacious' Reveals Badass Legacy of Female Tattoo Artists

When History San José recruited Sarah Grossman to show her work in the Tattooed and Tenacious: Inked Women in California’s History exhibition along with a handful of other South Bay female tattoo artists, she jumped at the opportunity.

“We’re not floozies, or a criminal underbelly of women," says Grossman, who is the only female tattoo artist at San Jose’s Polished Tattooing. "All of us are working artists and fully capable of designing a custom masterpiece."

Tattooing is a male-dominated scene today. But as the Tattooed and Tenacious exhibition shows, women have always been a part of tattooing. Native California women who tattooed one another as a rite of passage centuries ago practiced the art form, as did 20th century circus side show performers like Betty Broadbent and Lady Viola. Their heavily-tattooed bodies drew crowds, and they were accomplished tattoo artists too.

Unlike their male counterparts, women in the craft are often highly sexualized. “When I got into the industry, my goal was to really just prove myself on the merit of my work and my work ethic,” says Grossman. While many clients are attracted to Grossman's signature floral and nature-inspired tattoos, she says she equally loves drawing skulls and daggers.

Grossman, 31, studied medical and science illustration in art school. Eight years ago she instead decided to become a tattoo artist. Her fascination with tattoos dates back to her primary school years when she was first introduced to the cult classic film The Illustrated Man, adapted from Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories of the name same. The narrative centers on a young drifter who encounters a former carnival worker. He becomes transfixed by the old man's tattoos, discovering a long gaze into the elaborate illustrations reveals the future.

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Grossman was hooked. “Tattooing is a way for someone to externalize the internal, to claim their own feelings, memories and dreams,” says the artist, who has sat through more than 100 hours of ink sessions to tattoo her own body. “To own that on the exterior of your body becomes a very personal display.”

The Tattooed and Tenacious exhibition is on view through December 31, 2016, at History San José. Listen to a radio report about the history of women and tattoos by Rachael Myrow.