I Have a Tramp Stamp

by Molly Simms


In 1999, I was living in Tokyo, doing a study abroad program and having the time of my and several other people’s lives. During the day I stuffed myself into subway cars to explore foreign neighborhoods, and I walked the streets at night, drinking bottled cocktails (Jeebus bless you Japan, for your lax open-container laws and inventive portable booze options) and taking photos of all the odd or amazing things I saw, which was pretty much everything. I had two partners-in-sometimes-literal-crime in my program, and the three of us ladies attacked the city like we’d been told we only had a few months left to live.

Toward the end of our school year, we decided we’d all get tattoos to commemorate our time in the city, and we found an artist on the Web who looked promising. He told us to show up to his apartment at midnight, and we opened the door to his studio to see a gaunt Japanese man with bleached waist-length hair, teeth molded/filed into fangs, and those contacts that give you cat eyes. Why not, we all simultaneously telepathically communicated to each other, and took turns in his chair. It took eight hours for him to finish all three of our tattoos, and we curled up and napped on his futon when not under the needle. We walked out blinking into the morning sun, delirious and laughing, with our arms hooked together like the intro of Laverne & Shirley.

As my tattoo location, I’d chosen one side of my lower back—a spot I figured was cover-uppable in a fancy dress, wouldn’t stretch much as I aged, and was unlikely to affect any stuffy political career I might have (LOL). “That’s really pretty,” my friends and family said without irony or judgment, when I showed them months later. And about a year afterward, it began. “That’s a tramp stamp,” a drunk guy said when he caught me bending over to pull a beer out of a cooler and my tattoo peeked out above the waist of my jeans. “It’s a tattoo that sluts get.” My face got hot and red, and I said something quick and harsh before scurrying off to a different corner of the room. It only got worse from there; whenever tattoos came up in conversation, I’d avoid saying where mine was located, to try to stave off hearing that rhyming phrase.

Internet etymologists place the origin of the term “tramp stamp” to about 2000, and the rocket scientists who post on Urban Dictionary provided this helpful definition: “A horribly cliché, or common tattoo that makes girls look like dumb bitches. Found on the lower back, and usually a butterfly…sometimes a happy flower of some sort.” It’s another in the long, long list of hyperspecific words the world uses to describe and critique the various parts of women’s bodies. Do you have a FUPA, cankles, turkey neck, mosquito-bite tits, a muffin top, or bingo wings? That’s fine, as long as you maintain that thigh gap and keep a concave stomach so your “summer body” is on point. And while I don’t want to over-politicize the culture of the tramp stamp, my stomach turns into a roiling pit of acid-rage when I hear someone use the term. But the deed is done—I don’t have the money, patience, or pain tolerance for laser removal. And even if I did, I wouldn’t have it removed, on principle; it’d be me running scared from people rude or stupid enough to use the words “tramp stamp” in the first place, people whose approval I could not care less about.

Do I regret my tattoo? Absolutely not, like I don’t regret the bicycle tricks I did as an 8 year-old that left scars on my shins, or the concerts where I stood next to the speakers, definitely ensuring that I’ll be partially deaf by age 65. Though I’ll probably be avoiding rude comments about it for the rest of my days, that ink is a memento from one of the happiest, most carefree times of my life. When I was buying a new bikini recently, I made sure to get a low-waisted bottom—I want to make sure the whole tattoo shows, nice and clear. 

Image from the horrific FixMeaSandwich.com

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