Burlesque and Tattoos
There’s no denying that I’m heavily tattooed. By the time I chose to have my fourth tattoo I’d simultaneously resolved that my passion for tattoos was something I wanted to take pride in. Rather than opting for ‘safe’ tattoos that can be easily hidden away under clothes, I had a monster of a chestpiece permanently pushed into my flesh. That was just over five years ago. In relative terms my chestpiece is still new, but so far, no regrets.
My tattoos have become a part of my daily life, often attracting attention from people who deal with the public on a daily basis. I think these employees feel energised when they engage with me – me being someone who doesn’t look the same as everyone else. Hot spots for tattoo conversations are supermarket check-out assistants (‘Is that a microphone?’), airport security staff (‘Does your tattoo go all over your body?’), male shop assistants trying to chat me up (‘I’m about to get my second tattoo and I know what I want, but I don’t know where on my body to put it…’), and the occasional manual labourer (‘That’s beautiful artwork’).
I live inside my skin every day – for me my tattoos are entirely normal. For others, they’re strange and intriguing. I think it’s this unfamiliarity and otherliness that leads people to anticipate that my tattoos absolutely dictate what I can/can’t do on stage. For me, they’re as much a part of me as the hair that I style or the face that I make-up and, accordingly, I feel they only dictate my actions as much as any other bodily element. That is to say, they certainly bare influence on the acts I make, but they’re not the centre-point.
Taking this a step further, I understand that one can make a ‘chicken and egg’ argument – do my tattoos influence what I do on stage, or is what I do on stage influenced by my tattoos? I’d argue that perspective is redudant. The point is, I want to be tattooed and I want to be on a burlesque stage. Both are dictated by me. At the bottom line, neither is dictated by the other – they’re both branches off the same root. Me.
Of course my tattoos and my stagecraft influence each other, but every decision I make bears influence on other decisions I make – it’s the nature of being. It’s silly to isolate tattoos and stagecraft, relating them only to one another. My stagecraft is also influenced by my dance training, my (childhood) dance training was influenced by the decisions of my parents (in terms of them pursuing careers that provided suitable finances to afford my dance classes and in terms of them believing that my dance training was worth (in multiple senses) the monetary investment), and the list goes on.
I started performing burlesque with a huge self-consciousness regarding my tattoos. I was wary of putting bookers off from hiring me because they knew I would be displaying what could be perceived as controversial, personal, and emotionally provocative tattoos. Accordingly, I created an act with a corresponding make-up set that put me in full body camouflage make-up. I felt that this demonstrated flexibility to bookers and an empathetic understanding of how an audience’s reception of an act is dependent upon and guided by the performer’s presentation.
The thing is, whenever I was backstage and plastering myself in high-pigment body foundation, I would receive more questions from fellow performers about why I was covering my tattoos than about the tattoos themselves. This took me utterly by surprise. People would say:
Your tattoos are so beautiful! Why are you covering them up?
Call me naïve, but to this day I believe that the performers making such comments were all being entirely genuine. As a result, I stopped covering my tattoos for the aforementioned act. In my opinion it hasn’t affected an audience’s ability to engage with the act on a basic, human, emotional level. Also, giving up the make-up has saved me a lot of time and money in make-up, body scrub and shower time!
For the first two and a half years of my career I did all that I could to sideline my tattoos. I saw them as very personal posessions that didn’t really belong on stage. I saw them as markers of what I personally believed in, and therefore any character I attempted to create ran a huge risk of being tainted by these displays of my own persona. I stuck to making acts with characters that didn’t take themselves too seriously, using a tongue-in-cheek attitude to mask the sincerity and honesty inherent in my tattoos. I favoured high-octane silliness and wild grins in order to distract the audience’s attention from questioning what role my tattoos played within the emotional tool-set of my character.
This was all going well and good until I joined the cast of a variety show. Almost all of the cast had much more stage experience than me, and many of them had also spent years studying at circus school, clown school or music school. Their opinions on my stagecraft were all valid, and all mattered.
I’d created my Winter act for this show – an act that I’d felt was quite risky. I was anxious that my choice to use Tori Amos as my soundtrack would result in audience members claiming that I wasn’t doing the music justice and I envisaged screams of: ‘You just don’t interfere with Tori Amos’. In order to counteract this, I’d planned to let the lyrical content of the song guide the act, and I’d use some snowflake-shaped fans in the act to show a bit of originality (doesn’t everyone go through a phase of evaluating what original alterntives to feather fans they can create?). Honestly, I don’t think I put much thought into the act beyond that.
“I realised that I was doing myself an injustice by sidelining my tattoos. They are an intrinsic part of who I am and, beyond that, they’re a tool I can use. I don’t have to create on-stage characters that are ‘other’ to myself – I can create characters that present an element of me, characters that are me…”
After the act had been given enough time to grow some roots, I was happy to hear a wonderfully positive audience response to this act. Yet I was taken aback when a cast member told me that he thought the act was particularly strong because it was ‘honest’. By this, he meant that the narrative and emotion of the act clearly resonanted with me personally, and it was this honesty within my self/character that invited such a strong connection from the audience.
That was when it became clear to me that ‘character’ does not necessarily mean ‘other’. Similarly, I was enlightened by the knowledge that my tattoos aren’t necessarily read as personal-property by an audience, but that they’re often seen in the same way as any other costume. Just as ‘character’ can be an avenue of selfhood, ‘costuming/presentation’ can include the body itself.
I came to see that my Winter act is now constructed inversely to how I’d originally perceived it; it’s very much a story about myself, with the lyrics of the song supplying a scaffolding. I’ve now started to create a visual metaphor with the snowflake fans – lifting their status above that of ‘non-feather-fan-gimmick’. And how do my tattoos fit in with this? I think they support the emotional openness of the act by giving a clear, blunt sign to the audience that I’m being ‘me’ on stage. In some ways it’s easier to evidence selfhood by being different than it is by being conventional. Although, it’s worth me noting that difference always throws up questions regarding the motivations behind a person’s choice to be different.
I find the tattooed female body has historically been tied up with assumptions that pretty women get tattooed because of a desire to rebel against media-birthed beauty norms, because they have a troubled sexuality and/or because they have a tendency toward self-harm/masochism. I try to avoid providing my audience with any supporting evidence for claims that I’ve chosen to get tattoos because I’ve got psychological issues.
Returning to the case in point, I think that the honesty within my Winter act comes, in part, from pairing the inherent the display of my personalised body with the emotional story at my act’s composition (the struggle to rebuild one’s self-confidence after emotional turbulence). This honesty gives the audience space to empathise with my character. So, as it turns out, this act is based on that empathetic exchange between myself and the audience and my tattoos have been built into the structure of that exchange. The act’s not about dressing up in someone else’s poetry, or playing with burlesque conventions. It’s about me, and what I can bring to the artform.
Following this epiphany I realised that I was doing myself an injustice by sidelining my tattoos. They are an intrinsic part of who I am and, beyond that, they’re a tool I can use. I don’t have to create on-stage characters that are ‘other’ to myself – I can create characters that present an element of me, characters that are me.
A year after the initial breakthrough, I chose to start promoting myself with the tagline, ‘Tattooed Elegance’, therefore immediately guiding the audience to see my tattoos in-line with the poise of my movement and the deliciousness of my soundtracks. I’m consciously guiding my audience away from drawing their own conclusions about my tattoos and, instead, inviting them to think of them as I do – personal expressions that are often judged incorrectly. There are the odd occasions when people tell me their attention during my performance was directed toward evaluating my tattoos, but this has always been spoken by people who are also heavily tattooed and are intrigued about who my artist was and whether my tattoos are technically excellent.
I’ve yet to feel a non-tattooed audience member be repulsed by my tattoos: I’ve felt more frequent repulsion from a presentation of a bulge of cellulite between a stocking top and my suspender belt. This isn’t to say that people aren’t put off by my tattoos, but that generally I’m booked to perform in front of audiences that the booker feels will respond positively to a tattooed performer. The fact that I’ve not received negative responses merely demonstrates that I’m promoting/managing myself in a way that means I only ever perform to audiences that will ‘get me’. Sometimes I’m a gamble – sometimes there’s a chance that my tattoos will work as a gimmick and entertain an audience unfamiliar with tattoos, and in these instances, it’s my duty to ensure that the booker’s gamble pays off.
So what of tattoos and the burlesque industry as a whole? It seems there are two lines of thought:
1. Tattoos and burlesque go hand-in-hand. It’s more common for a burlesque performer to have a tattoo than to be au naturale. This arises from the nature of subcultures and the subcultural crossovers within the realm of ‘rock and roll’ (I think burlesque has clear crossovers with rockabilly, vintage, psychobilly, punk and gothic subcultures).
2. ‘True’ showgirls don’t have tattoos. One wouldn’t see tattoos in ballets (remember that ballet has a huge influence on the development of striptease on 19th Century American burlesque stages), and thusly one shouldn’t see them in any other feminine spectacles.
I find that the former opinion is generally spoken in relation to the ‘amateur’ burlesque circuit, and the latter to ‘high end’ burlesque (Parisien revues, expensive restaurants and ‘mainstream’ London burlesque cabaret). Have I lost out on work because of my tattoos? Yes. Have I gained work because of my tattoos? Yes. But I don’t feel that the way in which I present and use my tattoos within a performance bears any more influence upon whether I get a job than my soundtrack, the standard of my costuming or the neatness of my presentation. I think the main influence over hiring me is whether I am capable of entertaining a given audience, and initially, that decision is at the discretion of the booker/promoter. It’s up to me to ensure that
I make my tattoos, and every other aspect of what I present on stage, effective within the context, execution and delivery of my performances to each individual audience. Tattoos can entertain and I’m convinced that if I continue to develop the intelligent framing of my own, there may come a time when the gimmicky nature of being at once tattooed and graceful can sit comfortably on a high end stage…
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(Header image of Beatrix ©2008 Cherry Bomb Rock Photography)
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This has really reinforced my ideas on how my tattoos are received by people.
As someone who is heavily tattooed I’m more than aware how other people react to them. By making a spectacle of yourself and performing you are allowing people to make opinions which they are more likely to voice (positive or negative)
I’m soon to get another large tattoo. I did worry how people would take it, but I can’t imagine not getting more and the strength of my character and performance should outweigh the perception of my tattoos. So hopefully my tattoos won’t disadvantage me anymore than the other choices I make.
Great article! Personally, I think I know more tattooed performers (from small discrete tats to whole sleeves, etc) than non-tattooed.
My own tattoos are very personal to me and represent different phases in my life. As such I do sometimes wonder how appropriate they are – for example I have a Hawaiian hula routine in which, from very early on, my tattoo of a Spartan warrior on horseback is visible – which obviously doesn’t fit the theme. I have only had one comment pointing it out, but I wouldn’t dream of covering it up. I think that performers such as yourself successfully show that no matter what tats you might have, big or small, you can be accepted as a performer.
And I for one make no secret of being totally in love with your tattoos!! 🙂
well said. FINALLY!