NewBlackMan: Permanent Markers: Race & The Cultural Politics of Tattoos


Permanent Markers: Race & The Cultural Politics of Tattoos

by Lisa Guerrero and David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

We’re sports fans. We enjoy most sports, but basketball is really our true love. And typically during this time of year love is in the air. However, with the owners continuing to deny us our NBA (I want my, I want my NBA), we are forced to fill the void with something besides more football. Lucky for us, we’re also what’s known in the postmodern lexicon as “foodies,” so we have been distracting our lovelorn, NBA-deprived hearts with cooking shows. From the more competitive shows like Top Chef to the voyeuristic and instructional options on Food Network, we have found ourselves watching a lot more cooking shows than normal.

Besides becoming formidable cooks in our own right, our increased viewing of food television programming has brought to light interesting connections between the masters of the hard wood and the masters of the hard boil. Both are bound together by the shared creativity found in the kitchen and on the court, the competitive spirits, and the emphasis on spontaneity, but it is the prevalence of tattoos in both worlds that offers a particularly rich perspective on the popular discursive signs placed on racialized bodies, the continued absence of class in the framing of our understanding of pop culture, and the curiously linked, yet distinct place of the baller and the chef in the American consciousness of the 21st century.

In her 2010 story in LA Weekly: “Chefs with Tattoos: A colorful rebellion against kitchen rules,” Amy Scattergood says “Cooks turn to tattoos as a preferred expression of individualism, a form of rebellion against kitchen environments that demand conformity. For chefs, as for prisoners, soldiers, and NBA point guards, a tattoo is a mark that can be worn with the uniform.” And interesting list of tattoo aficionados, indeed; all in various ways are linked, albeit differentially, to notions of containment and discipline. Setting this differential aside for a moment, it is interesting to consider the sociocultural code of transgression mapped onto the very literal “markers” of tattoos. Focusing specifically on the popular trending of tattoo art in the late-20th century into the 21st century, the intersecting meanings of rebellion, creativity, and individualism are framed through selective lenses depending on who is “rebelling” or asserting their “individuality,” and against or for whom.

Chefs don’t typically invoke fear in the imagination of the public at large. Though the contemporary cliché surrounding the “chef narrative” is that they are the “new rock stars,” it is largely a romanticized version of professional chefs stoked by the ever-increasing fascination with commodified foodie culture, and is reified by a performative rebellion that isn’t linked to any substantive notions of danger (unless you count being afraid of a chef spitting in your food). Some trace this “bad boy” chef image to the emergence and popularity of Anthony Bourdain, whose own performative rebel persona, replete with foul mouth, cranky disposition, heavy drinking, and daredevil attitude toward food cultures, is actually elaborate window dressing for an articulate, thoughtful, passionate and skilled professional.

But the “bad boy” chef who is rude, rule-breaking, and crass, of which Bourdain is the originator, is a much hotter commodity than the staid notion of chefs as proper, regimented, and classy. And tattoos serve as a shorthand for this image. When you see a sleeve of tats peeking out from the crisp chef’s jacket the popular translation is that the food is somehow more adventurous, more desirable, more creative because there’s a dash of transgression in it. As Brendan Collins, chef-owner of Waterloo & City is quoted by Scattergood as saying: “We’re all degenerates at heart. If I hadn’t found cooking, I’d probably be in prison.” But of course, he’s not. He’s actually a classically-trained chef who, at 34, owns his own restaurant in Southern California. A real gangster.

This brings us back to the idea of the differential relationship to containment and discipline of various tattooed populations, and the two main reasons why the commodified image of the tattooed rebel chef is problematic. First, though it is true that many of today’s most popular and celebrated chefs have working class, hard-scrabble backgrounds, the elite training most (though not all) have, and the elite echelons they have reached professionally setting the palates of mainly monied classes, puts their tattooed markings in a very different light than those of prisoners, soldiers, and NBA point guards, just for example. For the chefs, it becomes a little like dress-up. Meanwhile, their rebel personas render invisible the class and labor realities of the line cooks, apprentices, and other kitchen staff who provide the central foundation for the success of the head chefs.

Continue reading @NewBlackMan: Permanent Markers: Race & The Cultural Politics of Tattoos.

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