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.