Pretty in Ink

A Spokane filmmaker documents the world of heavily tattooed women.

"This is a portrait of me as a zombie eating a bowl of brains," says a shy, 20-something woman in Beverly Yuen Thompson’s documentary Covered, as she whips off her jacket to reveal that her entire chest is inked with skulls and what she describes as markings of the apocalypse.

The words “pure evil” are written across her knuckles, but because she’s wearing a bright red bow on top of her bobbed black hair, this woman looks more like Minnie Mouse than a social deviant.

In Covered, Thompson, who studied at Eastern Washington University and worked on the film for four years before its April 2010 release, looks at how women with tattoos negotiate social sanctions.

“As a lady, you’re supposed to keep your tattoos small, cute and hidden,” says Thompson. “And although all tattoos are stigmatized, it’s still considered a masculine thing to do. When women transgress these gender boundaries, that’s where the stigmas are formed.”

In the film, she interviews women from the Lilac City Roller Girls, female tattoo artists in Spokane, and nationally renowned tattoo artists. Part video collage, part personal essay with Thompson herself, the film explores gender roles in the workplace and physical representations of gender and beauty.

“I’m a heavily tattooed person and as I got more tattoos I found that it affected my life in a stronger way,” Thompson says. “I wanted to know if that was a similar story for other women.”

Thompson got what she describes as a “boyfriend tattoo” (which has since been covered up) when she was 17 years old. At 18, she got the word “feminist” tattooed on her forearm. Today her arms, torso and entire back are painted with Indian princesses, lotus flowers and portraits of her father.

But Thompson, who is now a visual sociologist and professor at Siena College in Albany, New York, says all of this is often covered by long sleeves and “academic” black garb, because she says she fears losing professional respect or even tenure.

And this documentary was her coming-out party. “In women’s studies we often talk about being very honest in your research and in relation to the topic while you’re working and interviewing people,” she says. “Are you an insider or outsider? I wanted to show that I’m an insider and this is also my story.”

Amid the constant buzz of needles, Thompson interviews women within the comforts of their living rooms, during painful confrontations with their families, at tattoo conventions and tattoo parlors.

Women adorned with black-and-white portraits of Dolly Parton, Day of the Dead skulls, butterflies, and roses say that men like to touch the tattoos. Strangers stare. Some perceive their markings as being slutty.

Thompson also speaks with well-known female artists Vyvyn Lazonga, Lyle Tuttle and Patty Kelley, who have being tattooing for more than 30 years and whose own tattoos blur into greenish-blue swirls of flowers and leathery skin. Getting into the business was difficult, they say — gaining respect as women, even more difficult.

Although the film lacks cinematic dazzle (many of the interviews are conducted in what looks like a mall kiosk), there is simplicity and beauty in the tattoos themselves.

Which is perhaps what allows Covered’s message to be controversial without being aggressive.

“Tattoos somehow convey these messages and the impact appears to be greater for women,” Thompson says.

“People always say it’s crazy for a pretty girl to do that to herself, because tattoos aren’t the beauty norm, and women are supposed to try and be beautiful.”

Try telling Minnie Mouse and her shroud of skulls that she’s not beautiful.

Covered screening, followed by a panel discussion • Tues, May 24, at 11:30 am • Free • Spokane Falls Community College, SUB Lounge •