Paraphrased “Henry V” as tattoo; photo by beau-foto
The Inked Academic Body
October 25, 2012, 1:26 pm
By David J. Leonard
Look around: As Mary Kosut, an associate professor at Purchase College, has written, “America has become a tattooed nation.” Indeed, our shared ink transcends race, class, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, ideology, and even our sports loyalties. According to a 2012 Harris Poll, 20 percent of Americans have ink; the visibility in today’s world is startling. In kids’ culture—tattooed Barbie—and popular/sports culture and politics, tattoos are almost as mainstream as the iPhone or apple pie.
The ubiquity of ink has made me wonder about prevalence of tattoos among college faculty. Given the stereotypes of tweed jackets and bookworm glasses, and those of tatted bikers and inked basketball players, how much does the tattooed professor violate social expectations?
There is no question that professors are frequently tatted. Within my own department, at least six of us, out of 14 faculty, have ink. (Before we merged with another department, six out of eight had tattoos.) While at a certain level, tattoos represent novelty for us, there is more. As scholars within the field of ethnic studies, we are always the “others.” That is especially true for my colleagues of color, and those GLBT scholars within ethnic studies and the academy at large.
The inked body, already questioned, suspect, even undesirable, represents an effort to reassert power and control. My work is interdisciplinary and often crosses the border of race, religion, and culture. A couple of years back, while attending a Jewish-studies conference, I was questioned about tattoos, reminded over and over again that ink and Jewishness are incompatible. For many, my tatted body made me an outsider. With each comment, I rolled up my sleeves to reveal more of my tatted arms, trying hard to reassert myself.
Although tattoos operate as ritual, as a method of memorializing significant life moments or articulating group membership, they are at their core about reasserting control over one’s body, which—because of the demands of work, consumer culture, and unattainable beauty standards—is increasingly illusive. As we are adorned with logos, assailed by images of how to look and dress, how to style one’s hair, and subjected to messages about what is proper, control over our bodies is a dream continuously deferred. Tattoos challenge that dehumanizing reality.