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Amelia Klem Osterud: Interviewing a Tattooed Lady

By on March 16, 2012

Amelia Klem Osterud’s 2009 book “The Tattooed Lady: A History” delves into the lives of several unique and daring women who displayed themselves and their body art for carnival crowds all over the U.S. during a time when women were expected to cover as much of themselves as humanly possible.

Since the publication of said book, Amelia has written several magazine articles on the subject, and lectures on the topic of tattooing whenever possible. I myself love body art despite the fact I’m far too indecisive and chicken-shit to get any myself. Amelia and I discuss the history of tattooing, cliches about the tattooed, awful tattoos, and other things involving tattoos. Did I write the word tattoo often enough?

JNC: You’ve written a book called “The Tattooed Lady.” You yourself are covered in some wonderful artwork. Where did your passion for body art come from?

AKO: I have a background in art (I actually have an undergraduate degree in painting) and have always loved images, art, and design- though for me that has always included decoration, pattern, and design. I see tattoos as an extension of that love of pattern and decoration, and I’ve always been drawn to them. I honestly don’t ever remember being specifically interested in tattooing (no ah-ha moment) but the interest was certainly there. I got tattooed before ever even considering the history- it was about the decoration of the body and the imagery. Tattooing allowed me to wear color and pattern all the time (though now I have to dress carefully so I don’t clash with myself.) My interest in tattooing certainly does involve self-expression through body decoration, but honestly, it’s primarily the pattern and decoration.

Interestingly, I do know when my interest in the history of tattooing started- I was having coffee with a friend in Milwaukee, and she mentioned that she was reading a book about tattoo history in Europe (a really great book called “Written on the Body”) for a history class at UW-M that she was taking, and it suddenly dawned on me that tattooing must have a history. (I was an undergrad art major, not a history major, clearly.)

Tattooed Lady Amelia Klem OsterudUp until that point, it was all about the design and the art, pure and simple. After that, though, it was like a switch was thrown, and there was this connection between my love of art and decoration on the body, combined with the beauty of where that tradition came from. Tattooing has such a rich and varied history, since it was practiced by many cultures around the world throughout time. There’s something about that knowledge of the history of tattooing & tattoos that makes me feel very connected- and I think that’s something that most historians really value- the connection to their subject.

JNC: For a lot of people tattoos are an illustrated history of their lives. What was your first tattoo, and what was the meaning behind it?

AKO: My first tattoo was purely visual. It’s a Celtic armband (I saw one newspaper article that referred to armband tattoos as “the nose job of the 90s,” which might be true.) I will say freely that I am absolutely not Irish or Celtic, in any way. It’s a band of triskels- which are acutally pre-Celtic- which symbolizes water and everlasting life. Triskels are round shapes containing three interlocked spirals, or in the original Italian or Greek are three interlocked legs. Honestly, though, I liked the pattern. The weirder thing about my first tattoo, though, is that when I got it in 1995, tattooing was illegal in the City of Milwaukee and I had to drive to Madison to get it. I certainly now have some tattoos that have specific meanings, but the first one really didn’t.

JNC: We live in a world where tattoos still have lots of negative stereotypes. A certain portion of the population still believes only druggies, degenerates, and criminals get tats. Do you see this notion disappearing now that more and more people are getting work done?

AKO: I think the stereotype is disappearing, but not maybe as fast as I’d like. Tattooing is such a complex thing in most cultures, and certainly in Europe & the US it’s been strongly associated with some pretty bad characters for some time. Part of my interest into tattoo history is an interest into where that stereotype comes from, and while many people make the argument that the stigma comes from sailors having tattoos, it seems not really to be so.

The stereotype (and specifically the language used in denigrating tattooing and the tattooed, especially women) comes from a really great “scientist” named Cesare Lombroso, who developed the fascist field of racial profiling. In the 1880s/1890s, Lombroso developed a complex set of criteria based on facial characteristics that would reveal if someone was a criminal or not, or likely to become a criminal. He published an article in Popular Science in 1896 called The Savage Art of Tattooing where he outlined this study he’d done that proved that only criminals and prostitutes had tattoos. Problem was, he only studied criminals and prostitutes. So then you start to see that same language used by authors and newspapers over the next hundred years or so… and you can blame Lombroso.

With anything as polarizing as tattooing, you’re probably still going to see strong views about a tattooed person’s mental fitness for some time to come, but I do think as more and more people get work done, that stigma has got to eventually go away. But it takes time. The newest Harris Poll about tattooing found that one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo (21%), up from 16% & 14% surveyed in 2003 and 2008. If that number continues to climb, more and more people are going to come to the conclusion that “tattoo = social reject” is really nonsense.

JNC: For some people tattooing ends up being a mistake. A good cliche example of this is someone getting their spouse’s name or a band logo somewhere on their body… bad ideas but common. Since you’re well immersed in the tattoo culture what’s some of the tats you’ve seen that made you want to scream “why!?”

AKO: Oh boy. Yeah… honestly, the way I think about it is that everyone has bad ideas all the time. Seriously, all the time. But leaving the house without your umbrella on a day that it’s going to rain, or buying a dress that looks bad on you, or whatever, those aren’t permanent bad decisions. Tattoos, good or bad, are permanent, and laser removal is painful and expensive. Sometimes they can be saved, reworked, fixed. Sometimes they can’t. I even have one that really can’t be fixed, but that’s why you don’t get tattooed at someone’s house for $35. Really. Don’t do it.

Let’s see, how many of your readers can I offend? Names are totally on my shit list. (The only name I have tattooed on me is Grandma.) India ink jailhouse tattoos are bad (they turn green.) The Tasmanian Devil or some other cartoon character… no thanks. I guess I prefer tattoos to be personal- I don’t buy that someone love Bugs Bunny so much that getting a tattoo of him is the way to go. Make it personal. Even if you can’t draw, explain your idea to a tattoo artist who can draw, and have them create you something personal. I think that’s the type of tattoo that doesn’t turn bad. My bad $35 tattoo is one where I actually love the placement, concept, etc., but the execution stinks. Don’t get bargain tattoos. They’re permanent. It’s not a decision to treat lightly.

JNC: Let’s say someone out there’s considering getting some work done for the first time. What’s some advice they could use to choose a good artist?

AKO: The advice I always give, probably because it’s worked for me, is look around. If you see someone who’s tattoo style, placement, whatever, you really like, ask them who did it. Different artists have different styles- figure out what you like, and make sure the artist’s style fits your design well. Look at portfolios of artists, talk to the artist. Make sure that the artist is someone who makes you comfortable. You don’t want to get tattooed by someone who’s a jerk, or hard to work with, or worst, who won’t listen to you. People ask me about my work all the time, I expect it, and I will recommend artists I’ve had work done based on the style the person is looking for.

JNC: Do you have any creative projects you’re working on that you’d like to tell us about?

AKO: Well, I’ve got a few things I’m working on. I’ve been doing a number of articles lately, which is very different than my normal, more academic writing, and pretty fun. I’ve got a couple short tattoo history articles coming out in a beautiful Danish tattoo magazine- Z Tattoo- pretty soon. I’m also doing research into a male tattooed performer from the 19th century, and also slightly distracted by these weird sideshow performers called Circassian Ladies or Moss Haired Girls . Not sure where that last one is going, or if it’s going anywhere soon, it’s still too early to tell.

JNC: For those of you wondering what a Circassian lady is, wikipedia tells me they are women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus and were “thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines.”

Tattooed sideshow performer Lady Viola c. 1920s

Tattooed sideshow performer Lady Viola c. 1920s

To learn more about Amelia, her projects, and where she’ll be appearing, visit her website.

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J. Nathan Couch

About J. Nathan Couch

J. Nathan Couch is an author and paranormal investigator. He is part of the Wisconsin-based Paranormal Investigation and Research Society, and guides ghost walks and bus tours in support of Washington County Paranormal. His new book Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? is available now.

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