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.
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.
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.
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.
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
recommended reading about credit/sourcing online:
recommended reading about tattooed ladies: