Iffy women and existential ink: a dual-focus phenomenological and Foucauldian discourse analysis of how women with extensive tattoo histories have experienced the resurgence of tattoo culture known as the tattoo renaissance

  • Suzanne Black

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Tattooing is an ancient practice which, in traditional tribal societies, was used to signify a person’s position within the group. In the present day, although the rituals and meanings differ, tattoos remain a powerful marker of personal identity. Much contemporary research into tattooing draws on the experiences of younger generations, who have taken up the practice in large numbers and who have grown up during a period in which tattooed skin is increasingly normal in Western culture. Older women’s experiences and life stories in relation to tattooing are thus unheard. This absence is particularly important given that these women can offer an account of what it was like to live through a social change that impacts how their bodies can be understood. To address this important gap, the experiences of older women with a long history of tattooing were examined via 27 semi-structured interviews with women who have a history of a long engagement with tattoos and whose experiences span the changing cultural status of tattoos over the last four to five decades. A novel, dual-focus methodology combining interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) sequentially with Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA) was performed on this substantial and rich qualitative data set. The IPA involved a deep engagement with these women’s experiences; the superordinate themes arising from the IPA were then analysed using FDA, where themes were treated as objects constructed in discourse. Combined, this analysis enabled the location of the individual sense-making in its broader socio-discursive context. The findings are presented in four chapters, with the first three focusing on the lived experiences of tattooed women. “Making marks and marking meaning” describes how meaning is central to the act of being tattooed. This meaningfulness is deeply complex, spanning identity, aesthetics and play, all working to make meaning for the woman concerned. “An existential act” explores how tattooing was used to work on producing and affirming the self as well as to heal and nurture the self in the context of patriarchal gender relations. This shows how tattoos can help women to gain body confidence, self-love and trauma recovery. “A cultural negotiation” shows how these women’s experiences have been shaped by the social context in which careful management of others was – and continues to be – required, despite the cultural change which means that their tattoos are now more acceptable. The fourth chapter located these experiences within the discursive environment, revealing that the women’s talk was underpinned by discourses of humanistic psychology, feminism and gender norms, and creating a range of subject positions within which they positioned themselves as strong and independent women. This thesis contributes to several areas. Most obviously, it expands the tattooing literature, showing how women engage with tattoos meaningfully at different levels for signifying identity, as an artistic endeavour and highlighting a new research direction regarding the importance of frivolous tattoos. The way in which women use tattoos to negotiate patriarchy, challenge norms of femininity and enact agency contributes to gender research. Additionally, the research offers a voice to older women and contributes to identity literature by demonstrating how identity can develop and change through the lifespan as it intersects with significant cultural change. The cultural change is also revealing in terms of offering a case study of negotiating and experiencing changes when the social world shifts around you. Finally, the dual-focus methodology offers a new way of combining qualitative methods to explore lived experience within its wider, discursive context.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorAlison Mackiewicz (Supervisor) & Saffron Passam (Supervisor)


  • tattoos older women dual-focus
  • phenomenological
  • Faucauldian
  • discourse
  • IPA
  • FDA
  • tattoo renaissance
  • identity through cultural change

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