It’s October and we’re officially in the nosebleed section of the cuffing season, a period when singles desire to be ‘cuffed’ or tied down by a serious relationship. After scouting and drafting potential candidates, we’re finally on schedule for the tryouts phase of the season filled with first dates. So how about you ditch pumpkin spice lattes this year and let your biceps do the talking instead? Get those babetastic arms out to play, fellow cuffers—because biceps bracelets are back in town, migrating further up north with each comeback.
Also known as an armlet, arm cuff and arm ring, a bicep bracelet is a bold piece of jewellery encircling the upper arm. They are similar to bangles but are shaped and sized to fit snugly on one’s bicep in particular. Now, if you were someone who merely flipped through your history textbooks back in school like me, chances are you would’ve spotted the ornament first on Gal Gadot following her debut as Wonder Woman in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
If you can’t recall Gadot’s toned biceps, Princess Jasmine’s delicate golden snake cuff might ring a bell—although she only wore it with her red dress. More recent incorporations of the bracelet into pop culture include the television series Game of Thrones, where Khaleesi (played by Emilia Clarke) conveniently sported a dainty dragon one in multiple episodes.
Trickling down to the personal wardrobes of A-listers, bicep bracelets were all the rage in the 2000s—popularised by the likes of Aaliyah, Rihanna, Nicole Kidman and Keira Knightley. According to Vogue, the trend was a tamer take on the era’s upper arm tattoo craze that gripped the fashion world.
Years later, the statement piece is now making a comeback—dotting Spring 2022 runways for starters. In New York, American fashion label Tory Burch featured two elegant yet strong silver spirals at the show. In Milan, the piece of jewellery accessorised Blumarine’s collection with a swirl of rhinestones that spelt the brand name as it encircled the arm. At Fendi, bicep bracelets came as geometric bands with its iconic F monogram, while Prada channelled the trend in thick bands with a buckle—both scrunched over shirts and bare flesh.
Historically, bicep bracelets were commonly worn by men in pairs—one on each arm representing strength and courage. The cuffs were typically crafted from rigid materials like shell, ivory and bronze with an open back, allowing the bands to hug arms with the right pressure. A noteworthy aspect of the ornament, however, is that it has appeared in different cultural contexts in the past.
Ancient Egyptians initially crafted armlets from flint, before moving onto gold and precious gemstones like lapis lazuli. They also wore them in pairs adorned with hieroglyphics. Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra are also depicted with thick golden pairs of the upper arm candy. In ancient Greece, soldiers donned leather and metal arm cuffs as part of their battle armor. This form was later incorporated into the uniform design for Roman soldiers.
For Mayans, bicep bracelets signified their status in the society—with the ornaments considered part of the staple attire of the royalty. The bracelets also allowed Vikings to showcase their wealth with motifs including boars, bears, dragons, and snakes.
In China, arm cuffs made of gold and jade are often worn to ward off evil and bad luck. Sri Lankan history also noted similar purposes but are only worn by brides to ward off ill luck before their marriage. In Thailand, Muay Thai fighters still wear bracelets made from woven cloth to connect the wearer to their own spiritual and traditional beliefs. It is also forbidden to step over them as it would represent a desecration of these beliefs as a whole.
Taking the extensive history of bicep bracelets into consideration, it’s safe to say that they’ve evolved from being an ornament into a timeless symbol of empowerment. In short, it’s not only about the type of jewellery you wear but where you wear them. With the trend making a comeback on runways and stars like David Beckham trying to resurrect it into menswear, it’s only a matter of time before the younger generation of consumers jump on—crafting their own Y2K inspired ones for a true gen Z flex.
“Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a bulls-eye,” commented Jeremy Grey (played by Vince Vaughn) in the 2005 blockbuster hit Wedding Crashers. Sipping champagne with his partner John Beckwith (Owen Wilson), the pair of womanisers immediately label a lady with the tattoo as an “easy target” to pick up at a wedding. In comes a sleuth of trashy and sexist jokes—calling lower back tattoos “ass antlers,” “STD magnets” and everything in between—until its comeback among a certain demographic.
Lower back tattoos are exactly what they sound like, irrespective of the stigma they have garnered over time. Placed in the middle of one’s lower back, the tattoos are typically oblong in shape, following the slope of one’s back on either side of their spine. The designs are also symmetrical—offering a balanced look. Popularised in the late 1990s and early 2000s, lower back tattoos owe their booming success to the influence of female celebrities including Britney Spears, Aaliyah, Christina Ricci, Pamela Anderson, Angelina Jolie and Victoria Beckham. Heck, even Barbie had a lower back tattoo by 2009.
Apart from celebrity-boosted fame, the tattoo’s mainstream adaptation is also credited to the popularity of low-rise jeans—worn at the hips rather than the natural waist—and crop tops in the late 90s. Although the lower back is not always the widest area of the human back, it offers an abundant canvas for large designs where horizontal designs can be pulled off easily. The location is also less likely to stretch and distort due to minor weight fluctuations, ruling out all chances of the design warping over time. The concealed nature of the location in formal settings further adds to its appeal among potential recipients.
At the same time, however, the location and visibility of these tattoos have aided its stereotypical association with one’s sexuality. In the eyes of many, the curve of a woman’s back represents the eternal suggestion of bending over—a visual symbol of promiscuity and eventual submission. Tattoos in the area were thereby dubbed ‘tramp stamps’ alongside its lesser-known counterparts ‘slag tag’ and ‘after sex bullseye’.
“A tattoo above a woman’s ass crack,” reads the top definition for the term ‘tramp stamp’ on Urban Dictionary. Some entries on the platform even go as far as labelling lower back tattoos as a “surefire way” of pointing out women one should avoid dating. “A tramp stamp’s sole purpose is to provide a type of ID or banner for everyone to see that indeed this woman is trashy and not the kind to bring home to meet the family,” an entry reads. While another adds how the tattoo is trending among “girls who do not realise it stems from porn stars wanting to show a money shot.”
“The larger the tramp stamp, the more promiscuous the female,” goes the common lore on the internet. In an effort to put this statement to test, psychiatrist Nicolas Guéguen of Université Bretagne-Sud surveyed tattooed and pierced women in France. In the study, published in Psychology Today, Guéguen rounded up women to lounge solo on beaches in the same exact bikini, reading a book or magazine—some with a lower back tattoo of a butterfly and others without.
The results shockingly revealed how women with the tattoo placement are more likely to be hit on by men and viewed as promiscuous. It also uncovered that men believed women with the specific tattoo to be “less athletic, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent and less artistic.” This is also the reason why tattooed Barbies raised parental brows wherever they were taken.
Concerns were not only raised about the potential influence of tattoos on children—fostering an affinity towards body modifications later on in their lives—but also about giving them the “wrong idea” about tattoos in general when it came to lower backs as a location. Frankly, the only wrong idea the kids would’ve gotten is that a lower back tattoo can be removed with a penny and some determination, but that was besides the point at the time.
Close to 24 million views on TikTok, lower back tattoos are undoubtedly making a comeback—particularly among gen Zers, who are now on a quest to redeem the tattoo placement of all its pejorative notions. Lower back tattoos no longer bear the same stigma, they are instead perceived as an empowering icon in a sex positive era. And those committed to its redemption are donning their three-ply masks and strolling down to tattoo artists like Jaz Paulino, who admitted to giving a lower back tattoo to a client merely a few days ago.
“Coincidentally, my client had a lower back tattoo from the era in which it was very trendy but got it removed recently,” Paulino said, adding how she’s now working on a new design that starts at the coveted location and works its way up towards the center of her client’s back. “She did it this way cleverly, so that she wouldn’t be limited or obligated to go in a direction she didn’t want to with the design.”
When asked about the motivations nudging clients to get a lower back tattoo, the artist highlighted variations over the years—starting with low-rise jeans, which gave people the confidence to get tattoos that would be more visible when dancing, for example. “Nowadays, I feel like the lower back tattoos I do are on clients who always thought the look was cool and now they want them—bringing back the trend—or those who already have them and want to cover them up with something new.” Paulino also credited the Y2K revival for its recent boom. “I myself am a 90s baby, so I see a lot of our trends from then making a comeback through the eyes of gen Z. I’m glad lower back tattoos are part of this, I’ve always been a fan.”
As far as preferred designs go, the artist has witnessed people getting everything between tribal, floral, text and animal prints. “The ideas are limitless,” Paulino added. She also deemed lower backs to be a great placement for a tattoo on anyone, having one herself and loving it. “It’s like a ‘peek-a-boo’ tattoo, super cute.”
In my chat with Paulino about the references lower back tattoos have gathered over time, the artist looked at a wider phenomenon which plays a crucial role in its ‘derogatory’ status. “The term ‘tramp stamp’ reminds me of how people have perceived tattooed folks in general in the past,” Paulino explained. “It’s not so much the case anymore considering how accepted tattoos have become. But if I was around during those times with all the work I have on my body, I would have been deemed a ‘criminal’ or a ‘promiscuous girl with no future’.”
According to the artist, this is no different than the judgement our society has given women in the past for having lower back tattoos—when they probably got them for a variety of personal preferences and reasons.
On a quest to break down the experience and get first-hand views on the tattoo placement, I arrived at the doors of Nicci, who admitted to getting a lower back tattoo 15 years ago. “It was actually my first tattoo,” Nicci said. “I went to a shop the week of my birthday and picked a piece of flash based on the shape and the fact that I wanted to be able to cover it up.” Considering these factors, the two options open to Nicci were either the top of her back or the bottom. She went along with the tattoo artist’s suggestion of the latter.
“It wasn’t very painful. If I remember right I would say a 3 or a 4,” Nicci mentioned, when asked about her experience. The pain factor for the recipient was considerably low, given the fact that it was her first tattoo. “I was lucky because there was someone getting a giant back piece done right in front of me—so I got to watch that while I was getting tattooed.” In terms of the aftercare, Nicci reminisced how the artist put saran wrap on it. On the second day or so, she proceeded to take it off and started using Aquaphor.
When asked about the general feedback to her lower back tattoo, Nicci admitted that the whole ‘tramp stamp’ controversy didn’t bother her because most people or strangers didn’t even know she had one. However, she did get a few comments at the pool once. “Someone said I had a ‘nice target’, which was gross,” Nicci said. As for the people close to her, the feedback was more than wholesome. “My grandma was actually the first person to see it and she told me it was cute. Other people that I told or showed it to told me it was an interesting choice—that it was kind of manly and maybe I should add something to make it a bit more feminine.” Nicci also added how her best friend has been urging her to put a bow on it for years now. “But I have always loved it the way it is,” she continued.
So is there a ‘male equivalent’ of the derogatory references lower back tattoos have amassed or is the tattoo placement termed ‘tramp stamps’ only when it’s on women? According to Paulino, a lot of what women do gets sexualised, including but not limited to tattoo subjects and placements. “As for a male equivalent to a lower back tattoo, I think that a fuckboy is a fuckboy with or without tattoos—anywhere on the bod.”
In terms of separating the negative connotations and reclaiming the concept of ‘tramp stamps’ in 2021, the artist suggests giving the tattoo placement a new name altogether. “Let’s call them ‘tail tats’, ‘permanent pelv-ink’ (pelvis ink), or ‘lower back snack’. I’m spit-ballin’ at this point but hey, you heard it from me first!”
Nicci, on the other hand, thinks we’ve already made it to the other side—as the connotations have not stopped women from getting them. If they had, however, it would have given the entire idea even more autonomy. “As a woman, if someone sees it and makes a stupid comment, it just lets me know that I should probably steer clear of that person—because if they are willing to judge me based on a tattoo placement, I don’t want to be around someone who thinks like that,” she continued.
So if you still have your ears perked, here’s what Nicci has to say to all of you who are on the fence of getting a lower back tattoo. “Do it! I have never regretted it and love it so much.” The only thing you need to consider first is your design, in case you want something bigger on your back down the line. “Make sure it will flow or at least avoid getting in the way of the future one.”
‘Tramp stamps’ may just mature into ‘gramp stamps’ by 2050—an intact badge we would still hope to sport alongside the iconic comeback of exposed thongs. Until then, grab Paulino’s hand and chant: “the only way to go is up, with a lower back snack.”