In pop culture lore, the history of modern American tattooing started in the 1920s with Sailor Jerry, a man who worked hard to bring some respectability to the often-bawdy art form he'd fallen in love with in the Navy. It's too often forgotten that old school tattoos were just as beloved by women.
Back in the 19th century, permanent body art had a female fan base that crossed social boundaries. Upper class women enjoyed discreet tattoos as far back as the 1880s, while working class tattooed ladies (including the likes of Nora Hildebrandt, La Belle Irene and Betty Broadbent) were most commonly seen in circus sideshows.
Throughout this spring and summer, the Camron-Stanford house at Lake Merritt is using photos, historical testimonies and even a mannequin painted by contemporary female tattoo artists to uncover and explore the rich history of tattooed women in California. This includes the Native American girls for whom tattoos were a rite of passage, up to present day women, who are statistically more likely to be tattooed than men.
Curated by Amy Cohen, the Tattooed and Tenacious: Inked Women in California History collection comes to Oakland after popular runs at the Hayward Area Historical Society in 2015 and at History San Jose in 2016. –Rae Alexandra