When Tattoos Become Political Statements

When Tattoos Become Political Statements
Credit: Sarah Harvey

“The personal is political.” It’s a sentiment you hear a lot lately, though it’s always been true. It’s difficult to divorce our personal needs from what we need from a government and while traditionally these personal needs are kept to oneself, or in a voting booth, today, people want more than ever to make their political beliefs known so much that they’re having them tattooed on their bodies. Most of the political-leaning tattoos we’ve seen are not as blatant as having “Democrat” or “Labor” or “Socialist” tattooed on one’s body. Rather, they are statements of values and ones that guide their politics.

In the United States, shortly before the 2016 election that named Donald Trump the 45th president, a small tattoo shop in New Hampshire called Clay Dragon Tattoo Studio was bombarded with requests for tattoos celebrating this bizarre moment in the country’s history. When asked by a reporter how its owner, Bob Holmes, would respond to a request for a Donald Trump tattoo, he said he’d do it for free. In the year that followed, Holmes completed 78 Trump tattoos, free of charge, in a town that gave the President over 50% of its support. Though many would argue they don’t need a tattoo to remind them that a reality TV star was made President, the tattoos were an unspoken sign of where someone stood within a deeply divided political landscape.

On February 7 2017, nearly three weeks after Trump was sworn in, a vote was cast to prevent Elizabeth Warren, a US Senator for Massachusetts, from reading a letter by Dr Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta Scott King. From this moment, the line “nevertheless, she persisted” was born after she continued speaking over the objections of some of her colleagues. The phrase was meant to be disparaging of Warren’s relentless oration but it was quickly adopted as a feminist rallying cry — one that dozens of people permanently added to their bodies with tattoos.

Women like Jourdan, who asked to be identified only by her first name, were emboldened by this line. A week after the words were spoken, Jourdan had them tattooed on her arm — and donated the cost of the tattoo to the American Civil Liberties Union. She had wanted a reminder to keep fighting, even when the future looked bleak. For her, the line was more than a moment in time. “It’s just the entire history of being a woman condensed into one line… Despite oppression, despite sexism and male violence and whatever else the world has heaped on women, we persist, and we push forward, and we keep fighting.”

For decades, women lacked a political voice, which is why so many have chosen to have themselves heard with a tattoo. One person, who wished to remain anonymous, uses tattoos as a reminder when dealing with trauma. In the summer of 2017, they got a red and black rose tattoo, representing what they explained as the beauty of anti-fascism.

“The month after I got it I went to oppose the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Having this symbol of resistance on my body made me feel proud and confident. The day was tragic and traumatic, but seeing the way we can and do show up for one another was important, and I’m reminded of that in my rose.” Since that day, where another woman lost her life, their tattoo has grounded them as a symbol of healing and community. But because the rose isn’t blatant in its politics, they’ve had challenging conversations around its meaning. Family members have questioned their belief in anti-fascism and communism, as well as what happens if their beliefs change, but mostly people remind her of how beautiful the rose is.

But politics is not restricted to political party or gender. Stephen Wade is a community organizer whose work focuses on sustainable agriculture and urban planning. His politics is food, so he worked with tattoo artist Evan Paul Williams to have an O’Henry peach, Black Republican cherries, and D’Avignon radishes tattooed in the style of the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection. Aside from being beautiful pieces, he views them as a “living library of specific cultivars,” that will create dialogue around climate change and agricultural policy. “They are an effective medium for storytelling and an entryway into discussing direct, personal impacts of… broader policies.”

These tattoos are meant to spark conversations about legislation, encouraging us to look beyond ourselves. Writer Lucy Tiven had the words “fear no more, says the heart” tattooed when she was 18. The line, borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who borrowed it from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, is not political on its head. However, Tiven believes that what a person chooses to care about and on what basis, like her attachment to Woolf and feeling seen in her anxiety, is the most political statement one can make.

Tattoos will always make a statement and, one could argue, every statement can be political. Some, like a tattoo of Donald Trump or even Richard Nixon, need no explanation, while others require a bit more context. And, in that time spent understanding someone’s political tattoo they are, hopefully, taking time to understand the person. Ultimately, any statement of values is meant to stir a dialogue from which we can evolve in our understanding of others. As Woolf paraphrased: fear not.

Related: The Complicated Relationship Between Culture and Tattoos

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