(Page 2 of 4)
A Tagline for the Spine
On Urbandictionary.com, where people upload the latest slang, some synonyms for “tramp stamp” listed include:
“California license plate.”
A blog search also generated:
“Lick me label.”
In Margot Mifflin’s book Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, artist Jill Jordan calls these lower back adornments “chick spots.” The British use “slag tags;” the German word “arschgeweih” translates to “ass antlers.” Of the 29 Urban Dictionary “tramp stamp” definitions, most concur that “any tattoo above a woman’s ass crack” counts. A large percentage of the tattoos contain either tribal designs with thick, swirly, black bars in a v-shape or wide bands of interlocking flowers. All resemble thong underwear perpetually sticking out of a woman’s jeans. Frequently, the tattoo-possessors accentuate their backsides with low-riders and midriff-baring tanks.
But in a more innocent decade, “tramp stamp” did not even refer to tattoos. The St. Petersburg Times of Tampa Bay, Fla. first employed the words in 1992 as an idiom for food stamps. The next time the expression appeared in a major publication – seven years later – The Toronto Star published a feature on commemorative Charlie Chaplin postage (the actor played his signature character, “The Tramp,” in numerous films).
In May 2004, many Americans heard “tramp stamp” for the first time on Saturday Night Live. When Lindsay Lohan hosted, the episode included a commercial parody for “Turlington’s Tramp Stamp Tattoo Remover.” The pretend serum for moms with backs reading “Juicy” and “Pretty Lady” served as a tongue-in-cheek precaution for party girls like Lohan. Probably remembering this sketch, some guys joke that in 20 years, “gramp stamps” will replace “tramp stamps.”
All of the women in this piece got their tattoos prior to 2004, back when society attached no particular stigma to them. Then the media onslaught began. The film Wedding Crashers, released worldwide in summer 2005, brought international consciousness to the “tramp stamp’s” modern meaning. Vince Vaughn’s character does not use the exact words, but he does remark, “Tattoo on her lower back? Might as well be a bull’s eye.” Wedding Crashers earned more then any R-rated comedy in the U.S. that year, almost $210 million.
Within months, witty writers from Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and the United States all mentioned “tramp stamp,” describing tattoos across the bottom of women’s backs. Not just in trashy tabloids, either. In August 2006, The Washington Post style section bemoaned MTV’s continued standard of programming in the article, “25 Years Down the Tube.” Staff writer Hank Stuever wrote about the show Next, “…stay tuned as MTV takes you on bus with five 19-or-20-year-old women, all with tramp stamp tattoos on their tailbones, as they find themselves ‘Next’-ed by a finicky, shirtless, over-muscled dipwad.”
That same week, in The Observer of London, Tim Lott marveled at recent additions to the common lexicon, such as “under boob,” “trout pout,” “toe-cleavage” and “tramp stamp.” Lott blames Madonna, who, “almost single-handedly re-erogenous the female body,” and “redefined the female body as empowering rather than exploitative.”
For a February 2007 episode of her talk show, “Promiscuous Girls,” Tyra Banks invited a panel of five women to talk about their sexual pasts. One male audience member said all it took to identify the “easy girls” was their “tramp stamps.”
“The tramp stamp?” Banks squawked. “What is a tramp stamp? You guys know I have never heard of a tramp stamp. Is it real?” Then all five women onstage turned around to reveal their tattoos.
The term found its way back into The St. Petersburg Times as the subject of a “He Said/She Said” debate between two columnists, David Norrie and Shannon Van Sickler. On November 9, 2007, the paper printed “The curse of the dreaded Tramp Stamp,” which generated more reader responses than any column in the eighteen months since Norrie and Van Sickler’s started writing their point/counterpoint feature.
In the article, Norrie confesses that “tramp stamp” is “one of his favorite phrases all-time.” In a recent phone interview, Norrie said he finds the label hilarious because, “It’s such an almost-insulting remark for something so many people have.”
Norrie believes that women with “tramp stamps” are not necessarily sluts, but they do typically fulfill a stereotype. “They’re not the quiet girls, they’re boisterous—doing a couple of shots, downing a couple of pitchers, maybe running around nude,” he said.
While Norrie, 35, clarifies that he’s not opposed to dating girls with “tramp stamps,” he does wonder about their pasts. “I’m not going to judge them,” Norrie said. To be fair, though, Norrie is not exactly in a position to criticize. He got his first tattoo with his then-girlfriend when they were 16 – “We both have male/female signs on our butts.”
Around the time Norrie and his girlfriend discovered that meaning of “love hurts,” more and more people found themselves wandering into their neighborhood tattoo parlors. Dr. Therisa Green, author of The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo and Ink: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo, says that in the 1990s tattoos on women in general became more popular, coinciding with the rise of body art among models and actresses. Chuck Donoghue, an artist who splits his time between Fun City Tattoo Studios in the East Village and Daredevil Tattoo in the Lower East Side, says lower back designs caught on as part of a “herd mentality.”
Appropriately, the increasing demand for thong-like tattoos occurred when pop culture began to focus more on women’s behinds. Suddenly, the ideal woman had more than coltish legs, inflated breasts and a pinched waist—she needed J. Lo’s butt. At the 2000 Grammys, Jennifer Lopez wore a tissue-thin green Versace dress that established her as a media fixation. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that both the number of buttocks augmentation and lift surgeries improved considerably. Between 1999 and 2000, singers Juvenile, Mystical, and Sisqó contributed to America’s music industry with their respective hit singles, “Back That Azz Up,” “Shake Ya Ass” and “The Thong Song.” The three-year-old company Juicy Couture continued to sell millions of jewel-toned, velour track-suits with “Juicy” etched across the back of the pants—to the delight and detriment of many.
As tattoo artists supplied a growing number of these tattoos, they were not supplying the “tramp stamp” lingo. In fact, none of the tattoo artists interviewed knew the phrase. “I don’t feel like there’s a stigma there,” Dr. Green said. “In the industry, tattoos are tattoos.”
Maybe, for people who produce hundreds each year. Along with the stomach, ribs, butt, and skin behind the knee, backs are especially painful areas to get tattooed. Still, women keep asking for decoration there, even though they’re more likely then ever to know the infamous “tramp stamp” philosophy. Chris “Crash” Midkiff, editor-in-chief at Tattoo Artist Magazine, believes that the bad reputation is a “sad development,” since lower back tattoos are specifically designed to flatter a women’s curves.
Far from the clusters of walk-in tattoo parlors on St. Mark’s Place or Sixth Avenue in Lower Manhattan, Paul Booth owns Last Rites Tattoo Theater. To get there, customers depart from Penn Station, pass Madison Square Garden and walk down 33rd Street until they fear falling off the island (between 10th and 11th Avenues). After riding the elevator to the third floor of a nondescript building, those in the market for one-of-a-kind designs enter what could be the dungeon of Ozzy Osbourne’s mansion.
Red velvet curtains are tied against faux blood-spattered walls. Giant hooks hang from the ceiling amongst cobweb-laden skeletons. The chandelier resembles a torture device. A rusty chainsaw peeks out from under a fun-house mirror. At the center of the chamber, an ivory statue of a woman cries black tears.
Morbidly obese with a huge nose ring and gumball-sized gauges in his ears, Booth smokes a cigarette as he contemplates the “tramp stamp,” a new word in his vocabulary. Reclining in his leather chair, his dreadlocks skim the floor. Even his knuckles are custom-inked. He calls the women with such tattoos “price-shoppers,” who select their designs from a wall of choices based on cost without considering lifelong appeal. “It’s not necessarily their fault if they don’t know any better,” Booth said. “I tend to think of them as tattoo victims, like fashion victims.”
There is a sense that women who get “tramp stamps” are just participants in a tired trend. The Ironic T-shirt Corporation capitalizes on this new cliché with a unisex top picturing a woman branded with “Conformist” across her back. Since so many tattoo artists offer the signature designs at affordable prices, the women who get them can come across as unoriginal and cheap. This combined with the sexual stigma makes “lower back tattoo” equal “trailer trash” to many men (some of whom carry press passes). If the tattoo artists did not think up “tramp stamp,” the expression likely comes from the male code objectifying the opposite sex.