I lived in Las Vegas during my junior year of college, on the wrong side of the legal drinking age. The local tattoo shop was dangerously close to campus, on the same strip as an In-N-Out Burger, Long John Silver’s, and Carl’s Jr. which combined into a unified wave of grease that hit your nose the second you cleared past the smokers standing outside my dorm entrance. One night I accompanied my suitemate to the tattoo shop. Since I already had two small ankle tattoos, I was basically an expert and tagged along for support and advice. While she chatted with a tattoo artist about her appointment, I perused the flash art mounted on the walls. They were kept in flippable frames, the same kind that used to hold *NSync and Limp Bizkit posters at the Sam Goody where I worked in the summer.
It was then that I came across a drawing of a cluster of pink flowers with a backdrop of surf spray. I thought it was pretty. I liked the invocation of the ocean, which reminded me of my young childhood in southern California. Also, it seemed like the perfect size and shape for a lower back tattoo, which I had just begun to notice was a Thing. It was the year 1999, the cusp of the aughts, when jean waistbands lowered while thong lines rose like sine waves in a 90-degree phase shift. Britney Spears and Sisqo’s “Thong Song” were at peak popularity, and lower back tattoos were climbing towards their zenith.
At that time, I had yet to hear the phrase “tramp stamp.” I didn’t know much about “good” vs. “bad” tattoos, as it was 12 or so years before the glut of tattoo reality shows judged by various Chili Peppers and Fall-Out Boys. To me, they were just simply tattoos: symbols of personality or individuality, artwork to accentuate or complement body parts, like jewelry but permanent. I made an appointment to get the flower-and-surf-spray design on my lower back, because, why not? It was literally the appropriate time to party like it was 1999 (my generation’s #YOLO).
The tattoo took one hour; I sat backwards on a chair and watched back-to-back Friends reruns on the shop TV as the artist permanently etched small pink flowers onto my skin. Afterwards, my suitemate and I walked back to the dorm and showed off our new body art to our friends. I loved my new tattoo.
Time passed. Sisqo faded from the charts. I can’t remember when exactly the use of the phrase “tramp stamp” began to surge, but by 2005, when Vince Vaughn said the line “Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a bullseye” in the film Wedding Crashers, I had heard it plenty. Trends come and go and pick up associations along the way. And it wasn’t altogether surprising that a trend common among young women was given sexual connotation by the general public. My age group popularized belly rings, pierced tongues, and babydoll dresses; this wasn’t our first rodeo. Anytime the derogatory phrase was tossed around, I shrugged it off, putting on my tough face. Who cares what you think?
Until one day, I was talking with an old friend. The topic of lower back tattoos came up, and I made an offhand reference to having one. “Aww, you’re better than that!” he said. For the first time, I took the connotation personally. The term “tramp stamp” is just another way to slut shame women for their choices, to take a girl who chose to live out loud and put her ‘in her place,’ to remind her that the visual markings of her body tell the world what she is without actually listening to what she’s saying.
For awhile, I considered covering my flowers with another tattoo. I thought that maybe if it looked less like flash art straight from the wall, it would be perceived as something more creative, more artistic. More in line with the custom tattoos I got later in my life. I emailed photos to a local, well-regarded tattoo artist and bounced some ideas off of him. He said he could cover it up with another design, no problem. But after the consultation, I never made the tattoo appointment. The thought of covering it completely had gotten me reminiscing to that time in my life and who I was at that age. It was a marker for my twentieth year, when I moved away from Chicago on my own, to my Vegas life where my world was sun-bleached during the day and neon at night. It was the year that I first tried living away from my tight-knit family and figured out the person I wanted to be, much of it through awkward trial and error. To completely cover that up made me feel kind of sad, and I realized that I wanted to keep my tattoo the way it is. Like everything else I’ve experienced in life, it was a part of me. Once I made my decision, everyone else’s opinions melted away into the background.
That’s when I decided it was time for me to take back my tramp stamp. Strong women reject slut shaming and all of its gendered trappings. I choose the way I see my own body and my choices. And each night when I crawl into bed, the thing that matters most is that I’m comfortable in my own skin and with the choices I’ve made for myself. We can choose how much power we want words to hold over us. What does the word ‘tramp’ mean, anyways? It could be an old-timey word for slut. Or, it could be someone on the run towards something better. And I have Bruce Springsteen on my side, because tramps like us, baby we born to run.