Is lower-back ink sexy or slutty?
With all due respect to tramping and stamping in other contexts, I can’t help but be intrigued by the fuss over the tattoo on the lower back—the kind that sits right above the waistline of a pair of jeans.
The so-called tramp stamp is considered alternately sexy or vulgar, depending on who’s looking at it. Sometimes it’s seen as scandalous: Dancing With the Stars contestant Melissa Rycroft’s back tattoo was covered with tacky, sequined stickers on the show so people wouldn’t see it. There are aggressive Facebook groups with titles like “‘Is that a bedsore, Grandma?’ ‘No, sweetie, it’s my tramp stamp’” and “Tramp Stamps are the mark of the Beast.”
Why the special term? And why the fuss?
Tracy Messina, a resident of Queen Village whose squid tattoo straddles the tramp stamp region, suggests that lower back tattoos have become pick-up lines in their own right, riding the waves of today’s fashion trends.
“I think it has a lot to do with low-rise pants,” says Messina. “It’s a good opportunity for women to flirt and be coy about it.”
Charles D. Brank, CEO of the tattoo magazine Prick, says, “It went from being something that crude men tagged on as a catchy phrase for what the tattoo is, to something that women almost embrace at this point.”
Websites like Trampstampnation.net project pride in body ink and encourage members to sign up and post their personal tramp-stamp photos. There’s even a shout-out to “those of us that might be a little conservative” to join the website and live vicariously through proud tramp-stamp owners.
But for Fishtown resident Jen Spencer, the tattoo’s slang name brought up a different emotion: horror.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god. My dad is gonna hear that name and he knows I have a lower back tattoo,’” says Spencer, who wasn’t aware of the term “tramp stamp” until after she got inked there.
While in cases like Spencer’s, tattoo terminology might cause a harmless misunderstanding, there is such a thing as trying to strike gold a little too young. Mattel came under fire in early March of this year for releasing a Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie doll that came with more than 40 temporary tattoos. Yet that’s nothing compared to Dolltattoos.com, which customizes tattoos for Barbie and Ken. And yes, the site has 15 varieties of classic “tramp stamp” designs, labeled as such.
Jessica Sweeney of Chalfont got her lower back tattoo when she was 17, but has some reservations about whether she would allow her child to get a tattoo that young.
“I don’t know if I would do it again, honestly,” Sweeney says. “But at the same time it represents that time in my life, so I can accept it.”
Maybe there is some legitimacy to the arguments of concerned parents whose little girls can’t quite figure out their multiplication tables yet but have somehow managed to tattoo a butterfly on their backs. After all, a back tattoo on that smooth, wide slope of undisturbed epidermis can be quite suggestive.
“I’ve seen women that have tattooed instructions there,” says Brank. “You know—‘Property of ... ’ with somebody’s name there.”
For Messina, her sea creature tattoo—inspired by the Clive Barker book Arabat—was a matter of artistic convenience rather than sex appeal. Since the tentacles of her squid spread out horizontally, the lower back seemed like the most logical place to get it.
Whatever the choice, most tattoo artists have seen it all, and when it comes to tramp stamps, they’re not out to judge.
“I think there are a lot of worse things that girls can do these days when it comes to tattoos,” says Don “MF” Juan, a tattoo artist at Philadelphia Eddie’s Tattoo Haven. And having an understanding artist can make all the difference.
“I tend to judge other people’s tattoos because they don’t do enough research about it and don’t think about it enough,” says Messina, who has gotten seven of her eight tattoos done by the same tattoo artist. “I don’t think anybody should just walk into the nearest tattoo parlor without knowing the person.”
Yet Spencer, who got her tattoo on a whim after quitting a job she hated, describes the experience as “liberating” and doesn’t regret her quick decision. Under the orchid tattoo on her back, Spencer chose to include the Chinese characters that symbolize “free spirit.”