Introduction of the book "The Illustrated Woman"
by William DeMichele
When I was 21, I got my first tattoo. It was on my first trip to the west coast, first trip on the road, the first time I truly felt free. It was also the first time I truly felt lost. It was the 70's and I was hitchhiking across America. When I hit San Francisco, the first thing I saw was Lyle Tuttle's shop. After a lot of thought, I knew it was the right time for a tattoo. A small simple brand on my butt of two fish, the sign of Pisces. The process, the implications of a tattoo and the tattoo I got, all symbolized how I felt at that time. It was a personal decision; I showed no one and no one asked. Somehow it felt right, it made me feel a little prouder. I felt more like a renegade. Little did I know that, almost twenty years later, tattooing would be changing my life again.
I don't know where I saw my first tattoo. They were kind of just always around. When I was young, my favorite author was Ray Bradbury and I loved reading The Illustrated Man. The idea of stories being told on your skin was a very mystical experience to me. When I was a teenager I walked into my first tattoo parlor. I remember seeing all the designs neatly framed on the wall. Each design had a small number and a price tag on it and there was a buzzing sound coming from the back room. Every once in a while, I would stop in and just look at the designs until the guy there would kick me out. Being in this large room, looking at all that "flash" gave me a certain feeling. I don't know what it was, but it was the same feeling I got when I went to the side show that came to town once a year.
I have never been one to ask the usual questions about tattoos, but since I got my latest tattoos (that cover both my calves and are more visible) and started showing my photographs in art exhibits, my pictures and I have heard them all. "Does it hurt?", "Are they real?", "Are they permanent?". These are the standards. "How could they?" and "Who would do such a thing?", along with all the presumptions of character, have been the eye openers for me. Suddenly, I realized my photographs are about "visual prejudice." It's funny how people give themselves away by the way they talk in front of a photograph. It's the kind of talk that is muttered under the breath or behind ones back. Suddenly, I found myself as spokesperson for the tattooed, defending their integrity as well as my own. This experience has had an effect on my pictures and this book.
I realized that women have long been subject to the pressures of physical appearance. The tattooed woman has taken this stigma and has used it to facilitate her art. Even though tattooing has gained acceptance or at least a tolerance as of late, when a woman gets tattooed she immediately gets more attention than a man. The general public is compelled to be more opinionated about a woman with body art.
A woman's reason for tattoos and body adornment varies from accentuating her body with designs to personal images that give inner strength and pleasure. But all the images and symbols that are worn on the skin of The Illustrated Woman tell a personal story. Some stories are obvious, like portraits of their children or loved ones. Others are more personal and the tattoo may mean nothing to the viewer. The most intriguing story told to me is about a woman who had her parents' names tattooed on her using their ashes after an unfortunate accident. To most people, the most fascinating aspect of tattooing is the permanence, which makes the tattoo a symbol of commitment and fortitude.
I consider the photographs in this book to be portraits. And although some of these images may differ from your definition of portrait, through this style I have tried to strip away all the cues of time and location to allow the subject to speak aloud of her statement. To let each person reveal her story not only with her tattoos, but with her body language, her expressions, her pose. I wanted to capture the attitude and presence of each person. I avoided using any overt photographic techniques or dictating the pose of the subject. These simple images of the female form are stronger than any manipulated photo technique. After starting this project, I realized how important it was that each photograph also have a dignity about it. A pride and sureness that would overcome, or at least confront, the prejudice of any viewer.
I decided to do a book of my photographs after seeing what was out there in the way of books and magazines. It seemed that most tattoo books show detailed pictures of tattoos. I personally felt that a better approach to showing tattoos would be to minimize the close-up shots and show more of the relationship of tattoos to the body. In this way, the full aesthetic is better appreciated. I believe the body, as a whole, is the canvas for any size tattoo. And the whole should be seen, or at least implied, to appreciate the full art of tattooing.
On this note, I must say it was often difficult to crop or choose some of the images over others. I am very aware that I am a photographer and not a tattoo artist. I had to constantly consider and weigh the aesthetics of the image with the content of the photograph. Several times I chose more than one photograph to show a person; some poses are cropped close or show no head (often by request of the subject) and there are a few men shown at the side of their woman. I regret not being able to show everyone I photographed, but I am happy to say that the final layout includes over a hundred different women representing the work of almost a hundred and fifty artists from around the world.
Over the past five years while working on this project I have met many people, and have made many new friends. Many of the women in this book were photographed more than once, over a period of time. I find these composites of change very interesting; it proves tattoos, while permanent, can change just like the people who wear them. Many of the women have told me that I am the only one to photograph them nude. Some were uncomfortable being photographed at all. I would like to thank them all for their trust, honesty and commitment to my project. The women I have photographed fit no particular stereotype. Their socioeconomic backgrounds are diverse. Their occupations range from nurses, doctors, executives and secretaries to mothers, students and laborers.
The "colored people" who look at this book, well, they understand. But, this portfolio of photographs is also for the non-inked. I would like this book to be an experience that educates, as well as amazes. To stimulate thought and conversation. To let the viewer know that tattooing is an art form that exists widely throughout the world. And that tattooing contains all the credibility, aesthetic, talent and fortitude that any art medium subscribes to.
The past five years have been a real eye opener and a growing experience for me, I hope these images can do the same for you.