“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.”
Punk is all about being anti-establishment, anti-conformist and, basically, doing your own thing in your own way. It’s hard to imagine the punk movement without tattoos. Tattoos are the bedrock of punk culture and, arguably, there’s nothing more punk than the do-it-yourself tattooing technique, stick and poke.
This doesn’t mean to say that tattoos are limited to punk culture. In fact, take a look back in history: tattoo culture has been entrenched within the traditions of countless cultures across the globe—transcending the confines of ethic and societal boundaries. From underground Russian prison tattoos to traditional Japanese Tebtori, all the way up to the present day Western backpackers getting their elephant tattoo on their ‘life-changing’ gap year in Thailand.
And despite my parents’ disgust at the culture—tattoos have always been around, and aren’t going anywhere soon. For this article, however, we’ll focus on stick-and-pokes, a style of hand-poked tattooing that transcends the need for a gun or studio. Here’s everything you need to know about the DIY tattooing technique that’s rapidly growing in popularity.
The history of handmade tattoos is extensive and dates back over 5,000 years. Contrary to typical tattoos, stick and pokes don’t require any electrical tools and little experience of traditional tattooing. Theoretically, this makes them an affordable, accessible activity to do from the comfort of your own home. This is likely the reason why stick and poke tattooing saw a boom during the COVID-19 pandemic—when tattoo parlours are shut, people look for alternative ways to make art on their skin.
Sounds great, right? It’s making me tempted to pick up a needle right now and dot something on my skin, but where do I start? Well, the most common method of stick and poke tattooing involves attaching a tattoo-grad needle to a holding contraption, which allows ink to be easily applied to the skin. The style lends itself particularly to intricate dot work or trippy geometric patterns. However, the technique is by no means limited to these styles, as its DIY nature means you can let your creative juices flow.
Now, as tempting as it might be to rush into stick and poke tattooing, it’s important to make sure you have taken the necessary steps to assure you can make your art safely—it is forever, after all. The most crucial step is to ensure you have the correct toolkit. It goes without saying, make sure you have the correct tattoo needles and ink before undertaking your stick and poke journey.
More importantly, ensure you have the correct medical supplies to counteract the inevitable minor injuries that come with tattooing. It’s crucial that you invest in the right aftercare supplies, which will help your tattoo heal nicely. Yeah, it might not be as punk as getting it done on a random night using just a needle and ink but trust me, when your tattoo recovers properly and doesn’t devolve into an infected messy ink-blob—you’ll thank me later.
Although stick and poke is a relatively simple process, it’s important to make sure you’re prepared both mentally and physically for the task. It’s easy to forget but your skin is in fact an organ (and the largest in the body), so be prepared for your immune system to freak out a bit when injecting your body with ink. To make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible, ensure you’re hydrated and abstain from any alcohol and drug use—in other words, I’d avoid getting your tat the morning after your Friday night bender. If you can’t say no to the sesh and end up drinking the night before, just keep in mind that alcohol thins your blood, meaning your tattoo will probably bleed more than normal. The same applies to getting a piercing.
First, start out by laying down a clean, disinfected workspace. If necessary, shave the area you plan to ink with a razor and put on some latex gloves. Then, using an alcoholic pad, clean the area you wish to tattoo. To avoid ending up on an ‘ink-shaming’ Facebook group, I strongly advise planning out your design using a stencil. Once the stencil gel has dried onto your skin, you’re almost ready to get started.
Place your desired ink into a sterile container, I personally prefer the classic black ink style but don’t be scared to experiment with different colours. It is your body after all—don’t let a stranger on the internet tell you how you want your body to look. Start by dipping the desired sized needle into the ink so to coat it above the cluster of needle tips, this will create an ink reserve, allowing you to ink your skin with less frequent dips in the ink.
Exercise this part with extreme caution: start by slowly and gently pressing the needle tip into the skin, allowing the ink to be deposited within the skin’s layers. Make sure not to press the needle too deeply, you want the needle to make the layers of skin but not go completely through the skin itself. It’s best to go steady with this, start out lightly and assess from there whether the ink stays in your skin once you wipe the excess away from the surface. Don’t be alarmed if there’s a noticeable tug as you take the needle out, that’s normal. A little bit of blood is normal too, but only minimal, your skin will also ooze a translucent plasma, similar to when you have a minor cut or scrape.
Repeat these steps at your own pace by following the stencilled line—it’s better to do a good job slowly than permanently mess up by rushing. It’s a strange process at first, especially if you’ve never had a tattoo before, but don’t worry it gets easier with practice. It’s also important to listen to your body and take a break if need be—the ink will always be there to work with once you’re ready to start again.
Once you’ve worked your way around the stencil, you should start to see your desired artwork take shape—exciting, right? Once you’ve finished, wipe the tattooed area with warm soapy water and then an alcoholic pad, this part might sting a little but it beats a nasty infection. Finally, apply either a soaker pad or a waterproof tattoo aftercare bandage to the area. After five hours or so, you can take off the soaker pad and thoroughly wash the area again with warm soapy water. If you’ve gone for a waterproof bandage, it will come off by itself after your second or third shower. Make sure to apply aftercare balm to ensure your tattoo recovers successfully. Avoid scented creams which contain alcohol and might irritate your skin and try to go for a dry skin-oriented product. My personal recommendation would be Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula.
And voilà—just like that, you’re all done! Now you’ve joined the thousands, if not millions, of people who have taken body art, quite literally, into their own hands. Whether it’s a meaningful design or just an inside joke you wanted to immortalise, the important thing is that you’ve rightfully exercised your right to do whatever the hell you want with your body. I hope this article has helped you mark your skin in a safe and responsible way. Happy inking!