To cover or flaunt? URI graduate student explores whether women hide or show their tattoos as they walk down the aisle

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 19, 2014 – Shopping for a wedding dress can be a stressful journey, but imagine trying to buy one when “Let’s party!” is tattooed down your back – in Sanskrit, no less.

So many decisions to make: Should you buy a dress that hides the product of a reckless night during the rebellious teenage years or get a gown that exposes every inch of ink?

Sarah Yang, a graduate student in textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island, explored those questions for her master’s thesis and found that most “tattooed brides” wear their skin art proudly.

“Many women get tattoos to express themselves in a very bold way,” said Yang. “Why should they hide that individuality on such an important day in their lives?”

Theses are expected to be original work, and there is little doubt Yang’s 102-page paper falls into that category. She came up with the idea because she is fascinated by wedding dresses and tattoos.

Her right arm is sleeved in a wrist-to shoulder tattoo that pays tribute to Call of Duty, her favorite video game. Wolverine, Gambit, Beast, Cyclops, Storm and Rogue – all characters from the X-Men comic series – grace her upper left arm. A Mrs. Pac-Man tattoo peeks out behind her ear; her car, a blue and pink Subaru STI, is parked on her right foot; and a “Made in Taiwan” tattoo is stamped on the back of her neck.

“I love my tattoos,” said Yang, who came to Rhode Island when she was 1. “They show my passions and my history.”

The 26-year-old West Greenwich resident interviewed a dozen Rhode Island and Massachusetts women who met specific requirements: at least one tattoo; married or engaged in the last 18 months; and American citizens.

In short, her research found that 10 women were happy to flaunt their tattoos, while two were skittish about baring all. Her conclusion is that tattoos, for the most part, do not keep a bride from wearing the dress of her dreams.

More Americans are getting tattoos, especially women. Historically, tattoos were markings that designated affiliation, for men and women, to a clan or tribe. Eventually, circus performers, sailors and soldiers – mostly men, of course – started to visit tattoo parlors.

“Tattoos were once thought to be masculine,” Yang said. “Women who had tattoos were considered sexual objects. Men would pay to see women with tattoos at traveling shows.”

During the 1960s, tattoos went from being “freakish” to embraced during the so-called Tattoo Renaissance, when the rich got tattoos to “impress” and the working class to “express,” Yang said.

Today, few squirm over the sight of an arm or leg swathed in colorful flowers, dragons, birds or butterflies. Yang said many women are getting tattoos as a way to express their sexuality and feminism. With improvements in technique and design, tattoos are also considered works of art.

Still, a bride with tattoos can come under pressure to conform at such a sacred time in a public setting. Maybe her parents want her to cover up; maybe her tattoos have morphed into an ugly blob of ink. To complicate things, most wedding dresses today are strapless.

In her study, Yang talked to one woman who plans to buy a dress with sheer cap sleeves to draw less attention to tattoos on her shoulder. One woman regretted her tattoo and covered up; another bride felt pressured to hide her tattoos because of family objections.

“My family is very traditional,” she told Yang. “I think they would go crazy if I did show them.”

But many women chose dresses that accentuated their tattoos. “I definitely wanted to show off my leg tattoo so I shortened the dress,” one woman said. Another woman added V-shaped straps to accommodate a tree of life tattoo on her back.

“The straps framed my tattoo really nice,” the woman said. “I also had a birdcage veil because I knew I didn’t want to have a long veil that would go over my tattoo.”

Another woman wore shoes and ankle jewelry that complemented star tattoos on her foot, despite misgivings by a parent. “Some people didn’t want me to show my tattoos, like my mom,” the woman said. “She just hates tattoos.”

To expand the project, Yang said more tattooed brides should be interviewed throughout the country. Still, her findings are intriguing and could be a jumping off point for further study.

“Data from the South may be different,” she said. “Their expectations and wedding ideals may be more conservative than Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We’re more open minded in New England.”

As for Yang, she intends to boldly display Mrs. Pac-Man and her other tattoos when the wedding bells ring. “I wouldn’t feel like myself if I covered them up. They’re a part of me, especially my car. I love my Subaru.”

Pictured above Sarah Yang, 26, of West Greenwich, who received her master’s degree in textiles, fashion merchandising and design this month at the University of Rhode Island. Her thesis explored whether women show or hide their tattoos as they walk down the aisle. She is looking for a job in fashion merchandising. Photo by Michael Salerno Photography

V-shaped straps on a wedding dress accentuate a tree of life tattoo on a bride’s back. Photo by John Seakwood Photography

A bride proudly shows off a wrist tattoo on her wedding day. Photo by Annyshkas Photography