a tale of tattoos, zebras, and the importance of context

i’ve had this image saved on the three computers i’ve owned over the course of the past decade. i’ve posted it to livejournal communities, shown it to hairdressers before i knew what “fingerwaves” were, invented stories and lifetimes for her, imagined the details of her tattoos. in the end, all i really knew about her is what my (very tattooed) friend ursula told me in a livejournal comment:

the first pic with the zebra, that girl is a circus freak show girl haha, back in the 20’s and 30’s girls with tattoos were pretty rare…

i always admired this mystery zebra-loving stranger for that, and wouldn’t have thought of it that way if someone had not pointed it out to me. sometimes i daydream of having a tattoo of a tattooed lady on me, and when i do, i still see her face, her cupid’s bows lips. to put it succinctly, this image has been pretty fundamental in helping shape my aesthetics and my imagination from the time i was in my late teens until today.

something that has struck me more recently, however, is how despite the fact that i am seemingly obsessed with this image, it’s ultimately one i know nothing about. absolutely nothing factual, or true, or verifiable – vague inclinations and assumptions at best. does that intrigue me somewhat more than if i knew her name, or at least had a better idea of where and when the photograph was taken?  more than anything, though, it frustrates me. it frustrates me because it’s hardly the only image i’ve had these questions about. it frustrates me because it is indicative of an online culture of circulating and re-circulating images, and stripping them of their original context.

screencap of a tineye.com search

while i’m critical of it, i’m part of that very same system. i’ve been using the internet, creating and taking content, for more than a decade. i saw this image for the first time probably about 7 or 8 years ago… but where? i saw it somewhere online and “right clicked, save as” to my desktop. of course, we’ve all done that far too many times over the years to possibly remember where we saved it from, even if there was information about the photographer/photographed.

who is she? who took the photo? is it a closeup of a larger photograph? who scanned it and shared it online? these are just some of the questions that are increasingly difficult to answer in the digital age. it’s not as though i came across the photo while browsing in an art book, and could easily solve these riddles by reading a caption or the anotated bibliography.

screencap of the weheartit front page and pinterest front page on may 5th, 2012

the propagation of visual “pinboards” and “inspiration sites” make it effortless for images to be stripped of their context, history, and original sources. never mind crediting the person who originally shared the image online; we can’t even find the person who created the image to begin with. i’ve spent far too much time thinking about how my post-secondary education (especially as a history student) emphasized not only the importance but the necessity of citing your sources, ensuring the people who made those statements or created those images were credited in as much detail as possible. professors and academic advisors drilled it into my brain that one could not simply use an image without ensuring you listed the date, artist, format, etc. they even explained the importance of why: ensuring artists or authors were recognized or even paid for their work, to share knowledge not just images, and so on and so forth.

but with more people using the internet more often than ever before, online culture moving increasingly away from a model which centers images in relation to their creator, towards an orgiastic internet free-for-all.

this all comes back to my tattooed zebra-friendly lady. when this image came across my tumblr dashboard via tangledupinlace in february 2012, i reblogged it saying pretty much what i’ve just told you: “i love this image, i wish i could find out more.” moments after i lamented this, k (lookuplookup on tumblr, who runs a great music blog side ponytail) sent me a message with a guess of who my mystery lady might be. could it be?

May Vandermark (Ada Mae Vandermark Patton) was a tattooed lady from Scranton, Pennsylvania. She came to New York in 1924 to work as a stenographer. It is rumored that she saw a person with a tattoo of a butterfly on their shoulder while swimming and decided she had to have one as well. She got a tattoo of a butterfly on both shoulders. She met Miss Pictoria, or Victoria James, who convinced Vandermark to become a tattooed lady. Vandermark began getting tattooed by Charles Wagner, who gave her a special price of $150 for a full body suit. She started doing Coney Island shows with the name Miss Artorio and eventually worked with the Ringling show in the 1920s

the satisfaction! after years of wondering, finally i have some answers! ironically, the very same internet tools that stripped this image of its original context made it possible for me to plea with the many internet friends i have to work together and share our knowledge. huzzah! the only other photo i’ve been able to find of her was found via bme zine, shown above. since then, i’ve come across a handful of other vague stories regarding may vandermark, including the two or three names she used. i’ve added amelia klem osterud’s book, the tattooed lady: a history to my must-read list.

The Tattooed Lady: A History

i’ve also spent a bit of time thinking about my fascination with circus babes. part of what i’ve always loved about that first photograph, without a name or history attached at all, was how she was stepping outside the boundaries of what was deemed beautiful or socially acceptable at the time – at least visually. to put it succinctly, i have a very special place in my heart for those who presented an alternative version of femininity at a time when women were trying to find not only visual but material ways to reject the prescriptive gender, class, and sexuality boundaries imposed on them. that said, it’s absolutely essential to look at these things aspects critically (many people – especially people of colour and people with disabilities- were forced into almost endentured slavery type situations in circuses and sideshows like the ones may vandermark was featured in) and not simply romanticize the beautiful parts.

an illustration of may vandermark stylized with more tattoos by nicoz balboa

Tattooed Lady by Nicoz Balboa

unsurprisingly, i’m far from the only person to have been inspired by this image of may vandermark. many artists, like nicoz balboa, have paid homage to this woman who seems so strong, so compelling simply based on the one photograph we’ve seen of her and her zebra friend. as much as i feel disappointed that it took me so many years to try and find out more about this image and this woman, it is wonderful that my internet friends were able to help me find her name.

really, the best thing you can do if you find yourself in similar situations is prevent these problems from happening in the first place. nip it in the bud. when you sign up for the latest greatest image sharing service, get informed. learn how to use it. post images or quotes linking back to the original source where you found them. add simple captions with the name of the photographer, the year, and the medium if possible. when you come across images that don’t have any credit, you can ask your fellow internauts to help you find out. ask, who made this?

some of the most often referred tips i get when lamenting how difficult it is to find credit or sources for random images is to use this website. tineye reverse image search is designed to deal with this specific conundrum, and is pretty trusty. it’s how i found the highest-quality version of this may vandermark, in fact.

but what is most important is to keep this in mind: let’s make an effort to be informed of the narratives surrounding the images we put out there. here’s how Hila Shachar puts it in this interesting post:

Maybe it’s a good idea to start approaching images from a photo-journalism perspective where images form a significant part of a wider narrative, and where there is a distinct relationship between images and words, history and the present. I’m afraid that if we don’t do this, all these “inspiration” pin-boards and blogs will just end up being one big vacuum of nothingness.

yes, my story with may vandermark is specifically talking about context and credit in regards to an older photograph. but as shachar points out, it happens even with the most famous of historical figures and can be a great disservice not only to the consumer of the image, but to the person in it.

as our internet culture rapidly changes and we hop on the bandwagon of the next great image sharing website, let us temper our enthusiasm with a smidge of responsibility. let’s foster an internet space where facts and information remain key, not optional. where independent artists are recognized and rewarded for their work. where the hard work librarians and archivists have been doing for decades is not undone in a single click.

Knock Out (flapper boxer tattoo design) by Quyen Dinh

Knock Out (flapper boxer tattoo design) by Quyen Dinh

recommended reading about credit/sourcing online:

recommended reading about tattooed ladies:


Filed under digital/online culture, personal, politics

16 responses to “a tale of tattoos, zebras, and the importance of context

  1. courtney/superblue

    oh this post makes my librarian heart go pitter-patter. thank you for recognizing the important work of contextualizing, naming, crediting, etc. in this crazy digital age. i think that people often think of documentation as an annoying punishment when posting/borrowing images (or words, or whatever) when really it is just the opposite for people who question, who ponder the lives of others instead of simply consuming images that they find alluring. the answers to all your questions were obviously very rewarding to you and probably to others as well. so thank you thank you thank you for yet another wonderful post.

  2. Firstly, I LOVE this post. Everything about it. I think my education as an art/art history student has had a big impact on my thoughts about the importance of crediting images, too. It’s why I get frustrated when I see, say, a painting with the artist’s last name and a year (or, even worse, a c. decade) when, after a little investigation, it’s very easy to find the full date, title, etc., for the work. And movie stills with no credit? Do the people know which movie it is & don’t want anyone who isn’t ‘cool’ enough to know what it is already to watch it or do they just not care?
    Context is just so important. I saw an image captioned as being of Salvador Dali & Yves Saint Laurent and went through thousands of notes & only two other people recognised that it was NOT YSL with Dali but an entirely different person, yet there were so many notes from people who apparently view Yves as a hero, but didn’t know what he looked like.
    I have way too many thoughts/feelings/questions about improperly credited things (& also realise I’m part of that culture, too)…I love playing ‘internet detective’ but there are so many instances in which I shouldn’t have to.
    I’d also like to say how much I love tattooed ladies, too. And circus babes in general (but as you said it’s important to be critical of how many people were treated and obviously animals as well but I think that gets talked about a lot more than the way people were treated…) I’m completely in love with the picture by Nicoz Balboa!!!

  3. I also loved this post. I hate opening up my computer, and seeing all these amazing inspiration pictures that I feel like I don’t want to show on my blog because I’m unable to credit them. Now, I try to write either the artist’s name, or something I think will help me retrack down the owner of the picture as the pictures name on my computer.
    But I loved that this was an incredibly thoughtful post on our modern age, and indeed the thought of original context being lost bothers me alot. I’m a psychology/linguistics student, but doing psychology stats was an eye opener as to how easily context can be manipulated (Ie when people use statistics to prove something that those stats can in fact not prove).

  4. Jen

    A great post! So often I see pictures someone has sent me from a Reddit post or similar and my first question is always ‘context?’ as, apart from retaining the rights for artists, the context is what makes unsual or interesting photos so fascinating! Jen x

  5. This post is my everything!
    I also want a tattoo-of-a-tattooed-lady but that probably won’t surprise you.

    In the last few months since pinterest/ tumblr have become so huge, google search results are shittier by a lot. I’ve discovered that if you copy the url of an image into the google images searchbar, it will prompt you to “search by image”. it returns likely sources & also “visually similar” images, which are often images that aren’t hosted on tumblr/pinterest. It’s more effective than tineye and without a need to upload anything.

    I find that pinterest is so much better than any other bookmarking system for me… being able to visually see bookmarks & maintain their original links is SO HELPFUL. It’s the reason I use it so IDG why people don’t bother to source things properly… you can’t go back and actually find anything? Why post a photo of a recipe but not link back to the source? You want to just look at food photos?

    Finding things there that are sourced to tumblr (and not even a specific tumblr post) makes me wanna pull my hair out. I’d trade the “social” aspects of pinterest in order to use it as a private archiving system any second, esp. since tumblr search is so broken. now I can’t even search my own tags by typing in the tag url… i give up.

  6. What a fantastic post, I’m honoured to be mentioned within it. This is such an important topic, thanks for writing about it.

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  8. thanks SO MUCH for posting this – i used to be really into the body mod community and this woman is oft-cited as a mod hero but few know any about her actual history! also, let’s rage over how acceptable it is for modded male models to walk on a runway, but female model’s bodies must be completely sterile…hmmm.

  9. MM

    what i love most about context is the many paths of discovery it leads me on!

    do you ever use reverse google image search? it’s solved many a mystery for me (and is more effective than tin eye). http://preview.tinyurl.com/77kqj3c

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  11. Welcome and wonderful post. I’ve just come to your blog and am breathing in the bracing air of a space where feminism and fashion intersect. Pinterest is endlessly fascinating and rewarding but since I have a ‘if you can’t credit it, don’t pin it’ rule I tend find myself down the image search rabbit hole around 1 every 10 pins. Aside from the issue of our responsibility to respect the work of others, gleaning something about the context so often enriches the image. There is a great little Chrome extension you can get that creates a ‘search’ button on every pin so that you can simply click on an offending pin. I find that Tumblr is actually more of a credit disregarding environment than Pinterest. Pinterest seems to be attracting enough sticklers that there is a gritty little fight is being mounted. Always amazes me that when I respectfully propose a correction that it’s seen as so much nitpickery and very rarely welcomed. A friend of mine has had his artwork posted literally thousands of times on Pinterest and if it’s credited one in 80 times I would be surprised. And who else has gritted their teeth at the persistence of the pin credited as a picture of the young Billie Holiday that is so obviously taken in the late 50s/early 60s, when Billie was not only not young, she was sadly quite dead.

    • Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful comment! I think you are right – I have spent far more time on Tumblr (namely since it has been around for much longer than Pinterest) but I must say the crediting and sourcing problem only seems to be getting worse there. Here’s hoping more and more people take these things into consideration!

      • Here’s hoping indeed. If you want to see some bloody gorgeous vintage and even more gorgeous meticulous crediting/contextualising, you might have some pleasure visually perambulating through some of my Pinterest boards – which now include numerous fabulous images discovered on your blog. I sense that the ‘Wild Fashion”, “Glorious Vintage”, “Amazerating”, “Art and Photography” and “Studio Photography of the Curious Kind” boards would be up your alley.

  12. Goodness me, it’s obvious that it’s late here in Sydney. Clearly a badly proofed post of mine – seems that I’ve used up my good writing earlier in the day. I stand by the gist of it, if not by the expression.
    Thanks again for the blog – lots of back reading ahead for me

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