In the old song, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” could give you a tour of the world and a history lesson to boot with the pictures inked across her body. In Meryl DePasquale’s riff off the old Groucho Marx ditty, the tattooed lady gives us an historical tour through the world of tattooed ladies—their innerworkings and the ways in which they are perceived. There’s nothing surprising among the stories of women’s bodies as consumable or as for sale, but through the lens of the inherently sexual, penetrative and proprietary nature of tattoos, DePasquale’s tales disrupt our familiarity with these stories. As readers, we step up to the sideshow tent and look deep inside.
Movement through time exposes a slight evolution in Western society’s relationship to tattoos, and less of one in our relationship to women. Over time, the tattooed lady is cautionary tale and conquered territory, a billboard, set dressing (literally swallowed into the floor!), and encyclopedia. The subjects’ sexuality and oddity are met with reverence; like Lydia in the song, not only is the subject desired, but she might also help you learn a thing or two. Regardless of how her representations may have changed over time, however, she is only what you make of her. She is for you. What will you do with her?
DePasquale steps into her and swaps out the vintage pinup look for an earthy, intellectual one. She decorates her insides. She tattoos a poem on Lydia’s internal organs. It might still be a decoration. It might still traverse a landscape covered in proxy falluses (needles, the horns of tattooed unicorns), but it’s a means of displaying the tattooed lady’s need to exist. It complicates the idea of display, drawing and redrawing the lines between the body and the tattoo. Asking which, if either, can be owned.
S. Whitney Holmes