This story was originally published Jan. 16, 2012

When Lyndsey Hopkins' father was dying of brain cancer a little more than a year ago, she told him about her plan for a "stairway" tattoo up her back, in honor of his favorite band's "Stairway to Heaven."

By then, Thomas Haney was weak, she recalls now, and he couldn't speak easily. But he smiled a little, lifted a thumb in approval and whispered, "Awesome."

Hopkins, a 28-year-old hairstylist and part-time bartender, already had some small Led Zeppelin symbols inked on her back when Haney first grew ill. Her father, who had no tattoos himself, had appreciated that thought, too.

Tattoos of Japanese symbols on her lower calves are in honor of her daughter, Mikhayla. The vines she had initially had tattooed across her back shoulders came after "a wicked bad breakup."

Tattoo artist Rod Eckenberger has been working the stairway into the earlier designs, three hours at a time; 13 hours in, and it's still not quite finished.

Haney had initially not favored his three daughters being tattooed, Hopkins says. Hopkins' mother, a Mormon, disapproves of tattoos; "she doesn't really judge, but it's not her favorite."

Yet the young woman sees a lot of tattoos even among the middle-aged women who patronize her Granger hair salon.

"You kind of feel better after you get one," Hopkins says, struggling to explain the connection. The pain involved "doesn't feel good by any means, but it's not really awful. It's like something really good comes from something really bad."

'Another form of expression'

No one keeps track of who's getting tattoos these days. But anecdotally, more women are using ink to express what's important to them - on their bodies.

Every spring, Terri Russ teaches a class at Saint Mary's College on female beauty.

The assistant communications professor focuses on expression, both verbal and nonverbal, including the cues our outward appearance may give to others.

"It just seems like tattoos are another form of expression," the 46-year-old Russ says. "I don't think we see those taboos anymore."

Russ focuses on younger women, but she says she's been intrigued by interviews with older women on their perceptions, as well. Many of them also have tattoos these days, some in the form of permanent makeup.

A recent female trend has been the more subtle "white" or "lace" tattoos, which are dainty and harder to see.

Clover and Celtic images are fairly common on the Saint Mary's campus, Russ says. In fact, "everybody I know has tattoos."

The fading stigma toward women with tattoos might be compared to how reactions gradually shifted after women began wearing pants.

"You can pretty much go anywhere these days," Russ says, "and you can see tattoos."

But Ashley Goorhouse is surprised by how much stigma is apparently lingering out there, particularly against women.

Goorhouse, a Wakarusa native and a psychology major at Saint Mary's, has been researching the topic for her senior seminar.

Goorhouse has some tattoos herself - more than the typical Saint Mary's student, she thinks - and works part time at a tattoo shop in Elkhart (run by a woman). So her resulting work, titled "Savages, Circus Freaks, & Sluts: Perceptions of Tattooed Women Throughout History," seemed a natural topic.

Goorhouse's tattoos are symbolic to her: flowers relate to the birth month of those close to her; a skull with a cherry blossom means bringing things full circle, life and death.

'It comes across'

Research bears out that women are more likely to gravitate toward certain "girly" patterns, such as portraits, flowers, cartoon figures or small animals. And Goorhouse says women tend toward tattoos on their backs and shoulders rather than other body parts.

"Tattooed women are perceived by others much more negatively than tattooed men," she says.

Men, for example, seem to have no labels on the level of a "tramp stamp," a tattoo placed on a woman's lower back. As a tribute to how culturally ingrained that description is, Goorhouse points to a line from the Vince Vaughn character in "Wedding Crashers" referring to a woman with that type of tattoo: She "may as well have a bull's-eye."

Goorhouse found no association between stereotypes and actual personality traits of those with tattoos, she says. The exception seems to be a true correlation with risk-taking.

But research confirmed that, although perceptions have shifted some, women with tattoos are still generally viewed as more promiscuous, and both men and women with tattoos are regarded as less honest and less reliable.

Goorhouse was not entirely surprised by the notion that some disapproval lingers.

"As a tattooed woman, I have definitely received looks," she says. "I don't think they always mean it; they just look (at one of her tattoos) and it comes across."

She and other women she knows are often asked something along the lines of, "How will you wear a wedding dress?"

Although the research also suggests that more middle-class people are being tattooed, Goorhouse says women with tattoos were still rated as less attractive overall.

And if you're a blonde? Opinions of your character are apparently even more harsh.

Goorhouse finished her paper and showed her semester's work to some professors and colleagues before Christmas, and she'll give a wider presentation later this month.

"I still think there's going to be a judgment on some of them," she says of tattooed women. "There's still a way to go."



Contact Virginia Black: 574-235-6321 vblack@sbtinfo.com facebook.com/tribune.virginiablack