‘It’s my mother’s voice,” says the Quaker Bridge Mall salesclerk about the blue wavy lines of a voice print tattooed on her wrist. “She’s saying my name.”
It’s just one of numerous and similar interactions I have had with women of all ages regarding the tattoos on their wrists — and another level of art in life.
My awareness of this silent body language started several years ago when I spotted an empty box on the wrist of a young woman handing me a restaurant menu. It was right over the vein.
When I asked about it, she put her finger in the square’s center and said, “I’m a photographer. It reminds me every that day I need to fill the empty frame.”
Then there was the Trader Joe’s cashier with her mother’s signature encircling her wrist, and another with a handwritten personal slogan written to remind her to stay positive, and then there were others who bore images of a bird or flower to represent a deceased mother, a dead sister, or a close bond to a “sister.”
Occasionally a man is mentioned: a dead father or, in the case of another restaurant worker, the name of her grandfather on her wrist where she can both see it and raise it to her heart. Yet women remembering women seems the rule.
And while these women differ in size, shape, age, and race, the collective intent is generally the same: to use the wrist to remember someone or something significant.
With the practice of tattooing become more acceptable over the past decade or so, this may sound like a new phenomenon. Yet it is actually something rooted in ancient European practices. It’s a point made in the Princeton University Press book “Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History.”
Oxford University professor Jane Caplan edited and contributed to the collection of academic essays, published in 2000. The reason, she says, was to give attention to the “barely researched” and “widely misunderstood” practice of tattoos in Europe.
While the word “tattoo” is connected to the South Seas Islands (it refers to tapping ink onto the body) and 18th-century European exploration, Caplan shows how ancient European practices still inform cultural associations — both negative and positive.
As the book notes, “Tattooing is a universal and age-old phenomenon with many functions, including decorative; religious; magical; punitive; and as an indication of identity, status, occupation, or ownership. Although the decorative function is by far the most prevalent, all the other still have their place.”
The essays also trace Western civilization’s ambivalence to tattooing and how it continues to affect perception today.
For example, one use of the practice was to denote occupation or ownership. That included slaves, prisoners, servants, and other groups relegated to lower class society.
The ancient Greek word for such body marks was “stigma.” The word has since morphed into a reference for something negative, a blot or mark of infamy.
Yet the word also has another connotation: stigmata or the appearance of divine markings on hands and feet of mystics like St. Francis of Assisi. And Caplan’s book shows how members of different religious sects — pagan and Christian — tattooed themselves with signs of devotion or dedication.
When I ask Caplan about contemporary women employing a socially stigmatized practice to devote themselves to a spiritual force, she says despite her notoriety within the tattoo community she is “basically a historian rather than a sociologist” and doesn’t claim any special knowledge about contemporary tattooing. So she recommended several writers and academic studies.
That leads me to several women researchers who showed a trend in American women over the age of 30 using tattoos to, in the words of one researcher, “reclaim their bodies, heal emotional and physical wounds, to empower themselves, and to redefine the conventional definition of beauty.” One researcher argued that women were choosing to get tattoos because they represented something permanent in a transient world.
In “The Tattoo Book” author Amy Krakow argues the practice of women marking themselves had a new cultural significance: “Tattoos are an art form both spiritual and secular. Cultural anthropologists believe that tattoos actually serve society by bringing ritual to cultures that lack communal rites. That’s just one of the reasons why tattooing is so popular in America today. Our culture suffers from a decided lack of traditions, combined with a latent desire for both spiritual and secular rites that bind people to each other or to a larger group.”
But what about the wrist tattoos? The various studies connected the practice as a sub-genre of contemporary tattoos, the memorial tattoo.
As several women using wrist memorials told a researcher, the choice was related to the tattoo being close to the heart (like a wedding ring on the left hand), easily concealed or shown as desired, and always available for the wearer to see and remember.
As I noticed many of the women I have encountered with wrist tattoos have few or no other tattoos, one researcher found that “the more tattoos a person has, the less meaning the actual tattoo has” to the wearer.
In order to get some hands-on experience, I used social media to get the word out to the region’s tattoo community that I wanted to talk to an experienced and dedicated tattoo artist. One of the recurring names was Mike Clugsten of Brand New Tattoo & Gallery in Ewing.
When I arrive at the strip mall studio, I am greeted by Alicia, Clugsten’s wife. She is a slight, blond tattoo artist with art on her hands and arms.
She asks me to wait in the gallery reception area where bright light from Parkway Avenue shines through the store windows and onto the two-dozen artworks by the shop’s artist.
Clugsten, a broad man in his mid-40s and showing tattoos on his neck and arms, appears and leads me into one of the bright and clean studio rooms. It reminds me of a doctor’s office.
“The wrist’s a popular spot and a popular spot for females,” says Clugsten, sitting across from me as he does a client. “I don’t know what it is about. But it is something important.”
He says one visual wrist theme that comes up is the duplication of handwritten signatures. While parents or grandparents are popular, so are others. “I had a girl come in and she wanted some handwriting done and it was her best friend who had passed away and had written a note. That last signature on the note was really important.”
Other wrist tattoos include words or images, words of self-encouragement (“Don’t sink!”), and semicolons.
Clugsten says the punctuation mark “is for people who suffer from depression. The semicolon means to be continued or more to come.” He then mentions Project Semicolon, a national suicide prevention project using the slogan, “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”
The shop owner says he too has noticed a trend of more women than men asking for wrist tattoos and bears out one study with a graph comparing tattoos by sex. While backs, arms, and legs were almost equally the body canvas of choice, wrists went decidedly to women.
Clugsten muses on some possibilities for the phenomenon and mentions storytelling. He says while men tend to hide their feelings women put the statement in a place that promotes discussion. “It is an easy way to tell and remind yourself of your story,” he says.
The process of getting a wrist tattoo is easy but comes with some considerations.
One is fear. Clugsten says some patrons are afraid the tattoo needle will pierce the vein and inject ink. He counters that argument by saying a trained and experience artist knows how to work in that area. Another is pain. While all tattooing stings, the wrist has less skin and is more sensitive. But since the tattoo will be small, the duration is short. Together they bring up another mystery: women are more willing than men to endure both.
Then there is cost, from $80 (shop minimum) to $120, depending on the design.
Staff artists can help patrons select some classic works or incorporate designs.
Noting that technology has been advancing artistic capability, Clugsten says, “We can tattoo anything visually generated. If we got a printout of the soundwaves, we could duplicate that on skin. And there is a company that is taking the image of soundwaves and duplicating it in sound. It’s like if I took my mother’s voice and she says, ‘I love you,’ and they’re creating an app that would replicate the sound. The technology is out, but they’re trying to perfect it.”
Clugsten is a Trenton native whose steelworker dad moved his stay-at-home wife and six kids to Hamilton, where the tattoo artist still lives. He says people look at him with suspicion. But as a raised Catholic who still has a sense of spirit, he says he has met priests who have no problem with his tattoos or line of work. “One of the things that goes in religion is God accepts everyone.”
He has felt the stigma versus stigmata effect. One time was when he opened the shop five years ago and Ewing Township government reacted by introducing an ordinance to “confine the location of strip joints, adult book and video stores, along with tattoo parlors,” noted the Ewing Observer.
Despite a Pew Research Center finding that 40 percent of the population ages 26 to 40 has at least one tattoo, the lumping of a tattoo shop with the adult entertainment industry showed that the old prejudice against tattoo as an art form was still alive.
Nationally known Trenton-based artist Mel Leipzig, whose son is a professional tattoo artist and who has painted a series of tattoo artists at work, weighed in at the time, saying, “It’s an unfair judgment to lump tattoo places in with adult book stores.”
The 82-year-old artist called the township move “prejudicial against young people. My daughter has tattoos. My niece has them. It’s a big thing now with the younger generation. It’s a major way of identifying yourself as a person.”
Then add all the women with the wrist tattoos, like the ones Clugsten says ask for “little reminders to themselves to be positive, to stay positive, and to be true.”
Like the server at the Pete’s Steakhouse who has the names of her children on her wrists because they remind her why she gets up and works each day. Or the niece of a friend whose wrists bears a tree and the date of her father’s death.
Or like Alicia Clugsten, who shows me the name of her deceased friend, Rachel, written on her wrists. No need to ask her why. Her eyes say it all.