In Defense of the Tramp Stamp

nicole richie and other celebrities with lower back tattoos, or tramp stamps

I recently got into an argument with a friend about tramp stamps. The conversation started as light-hearted dinner fodder when I expressed that even though I got two tattoos earlier this year, I wouldn’t mind getting another two before the year closes out. “Just don’t come back with a tramp stamp—they’re so tacky,” she chided. I laughed at first because, yes, we all believe that the tramp stamp of the early 2000s is tacky and insinuates suggestive things about the women who get them. But three mango mojitos and a belly full of garlic noodles later, I was feeling super analytical. “Why is that?” I wondered.

So, I asked a few people who succumbed to the lower back tattoo frenzy of the early aughts how they felt about their so-called tramp stamps. Their answers were unanimous: regret. But why? If you hate your lower back tattoo because you got it thinking it meant “peace” in Chinese, but it actually means “pie,” then yes, you should absolutely have some deep regrets. If, however, it’s a timestamp of when you and your college BFFs were into lilies, and you got it to cement your bond, then I urge you to re-examine your feelings.

See, lower back tattoos, I feel, are just that—tattoos on your lower back. I doubt that the first woman who went into a parlor to get one went in with the intention to be as provocative or as erotic as is the perception now. I think she was just like me—a lover of permanent ink who doesn’t necessarily want big tattoos that are visible for all to see. And let’s be clear, the reason why we could see all those tattoos on celebrities such as Nicole Richie, Britney Spears, Alyssa Milano and Eva Longoria back then, was because low-rise jeans were the trend of the moment. They were not necessarily meant to be visible. Perhaps the lower back tattoo is just collateral damage from the horrendous fashion trends of the time.

In fact, that’s how the tramp stamp became popular. Every millennial remembers going to the grocery store and looking through copies of People or Life & Style (maybe even swindling a copy from the dentist’s office). Tabloid culture was at its peak, and it was normal for middle-aged paparazzi men to follow these 20-something-year-olds around, snapping pictures of them in their least flattering moments and painting them as “bad girls” or “party girls.” (I vividly remember a picture of Britney Spears coming out of a car with no panties on splashed across multiple tabloids.) They’d be photographed bent over while picking up groceries or in bikinis on the beach. The narrative was never “creepy men stalk and take inappropriate photos of young pop stars.” It was spun to make it seems as though these girls were showing skin because they wanted attention. And since society demeaned women like that, the lower back tattoo also became stigmatized, almost emerging as a scarlet letter of our generation.

When millennials look back at their high school or college pictures, they do so with a spirit of wistful nostalgia. They laugh at their bad fashion choices, questionable hairstyles and unfortunate dorm room posters. It’s done with an air forgiveness of youthful naivete. But lower back tattoos just aren’t given that same grace. And I can see why. In Wikipedia’s definition of a lower back tattoo, the site states that it’s also known as a “slag tag.” One colorful definition on Urban Dictionary says the tat is a “horrible cliché that made girls look like dumb b*****s.” So, of course, no one is standing by their decision to get one. Who wants to admit that they were once a “slag” or “dumb b***h?”

Obviously, none of this lives at the forefront of our minds, but it’s clearly engraved in our psyches, and it’s the reason why my bestie would be so adamant against me getting one. When I badgered her for a reason why she thought tramp stamps were tacky, she didn’t go into a deep psychological analysis. She just didn’t want me to be looked at “a certain way” because of a miscellaneous tattoo. And that’s the point of giving something as simple as a tattoo such a horrible name right? The shame becomes etched in our subconscious.

What’s even more upsetting to me is that there are plenty of male celebrities with lower back tattoos—David Beckham, Shemar Moore, Ben Affleck, Antonio Sabato Jr.—who are contemporaries to the women mentioned prior. They too were at the pinnacle of culture during that same era, yet they never carried any of the stigma. To this day, there is no “tramp stamp” equivalent for men. There’s no chest, leg or arm tattoo that has as demeaning and degrading a nickname as “tramp stamp.” Even the famous ribcage tattoo which was popularized by both genders is colloquially now known as a “skank flank,” once again putting the shame on women.

All this is to say: There is nothing inherently wrong with lower back tattoos. They are as normal as any tattoo you can get anywhere else. The real issue, to me, seems to be what we were taught they represent—a bad girl who is out of control. So, if you have one and hate it because it’s just badly designed, fine. But, if the negative feelings towards your tattoo are because of its placement and you think that somehow having one says something about you, then I strongly urge you to reconsider. As for me, I never thought of getting one before, and maybe that in and of itself says something. But, as a staunch contrarian, I might just get one as a big “F U” to society.

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Stephanie Sengwe

Resident Hufflepuff, Beyonce historian, self-proclaimed tea sommelier

Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...
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