The Inked Academic Body

Paraphrased “Henry V” as tattoo; photo by beau-foto

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.

In a university culture, where faculty are often reduced to numbers—grant dollars, student credit hours, teaching-evaluation scores, publication numbers—tattoos offer a space to disentangle our individual selves from the bureaucratic and corporate university.

The tattooed academic body also violates the mores and values of education, where the bodies of teachers and students are imagined as vessels, one containing knowledge to be poured into the other. Learning is imagined as a simple exchange, based in the mind. The tattooed body challenges the myth of the professor as an untarnished vehicle of knowledge. The inked academic embraces a role that is more performative, more political, more human.

It is no wonder that students gravitate toward our tattoos, which become part of our pedagogy, an important way to break down the gulf between teacher and learner. In my own experience, students use tattoos as conversation starters, revealing a willingness to enter a dialogue and connect. Tattoos themselves become a vehicle of learning.

Yet I also realize that, as a white male, my transgressive ink means something entirely different than it does for my colleagues of color, GLBT professors, or for white women. Teaching is not simply about knowledge and pedagogy, but what our bodies signify within society at large, and those messages are wrapped up in the logics of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. Tattoos may be trying to change those messages, and America may be becoming a tattoo nation. But our shared ink only goes so far in transcending our differences

Monica R. Miller, a visiting assistant professor at Lewis and Clark College, described her ink to me as “a conversation and dilemma very much wrapped up in a politics of respectability, ‘deviance,’ gender nonconformity, heteronormativity, and even class tensions.” As a black woman, she says, she has often been made to feel an outsider. In university culture, her ink reinforces stereotypes for some people. “I have certainly felt like an outcast in academic circles because of it.”

Over the summer I attended a family reunion, only to have a family member whom I had never met ask me, “They let professors have tattoos these days?” While many of us have ink, nobody lets us do it. Our body, our ink, and our control. If you’ve got a problem with that, meet me at the tattoo parlor so we can discuss it while I’m getting another one.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.


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