Research Takes Student Into Fine Points of Tattooing

Story posted May 10, 2010

<skye lawrence
Skye Lawrence

When anthropology major Skye Lawrence '10 hasn't been taking classes or participating in a host of campus activities, you might just catch her hanging out at a tattoo studio.

Under the guidance of A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences Susan Bell, Lawrence has been making a study of tattooing culture as part of an in-depth honors project, one that gave her a chance to put her field study skills to the test. Once accepted by the department, it will get some permanent ink as part of the collection of the Bowdoin Library's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections.


Inside An Honors Project


"Making Tattoos: Constructing Identity, Networks, and Social Structures Among Artists and Collectors"


What is the premise of your Honors Project?
I was looking at the social structures of two different tattoo studios in Maine: one in Portland, one in Brunswick. I wanted to see if artists and clients feel connections to each other and how those can be defined. Do tattoos create greater body consciousness for artists and/or clients, and if so how? The body of the analysis is my fieldwork, some literature research, my interviews. It's so cool that it's what I've found, not what I've had to read.

What were some of your findings?
The style of art and operations at the studios were very different. The Portland shop is fine-art custom design where people make appointments months in advance and clients co-create the image with the artist. Whereas, the Brunswick studio is more of a street shop; people sometimes come in on a whim. Yet they both have fairly similar social structures.

What are some of the qualities of their particular social structure?
I compiled the image of a network with a connection of webs. Each studio functions as a focal point in that network, and each artist is a center in the web. Spreading out from the artists are their clients, who also may connect. But people in one studio don't feel connection with another studio, because they have unique styles and views on the art. The clients don't come in every day, but the connection is still maintained through touchups, or new tattoos, or even Facebook. The idea of the tattoo as a sub-cultural practice that was prevalent in the 1980s doesn't apply anymore.

So it sounds like there is an element of personal identity that maybe bonds the artists and clients?
Yes, it's a permanent exchange and requires such trust between clients and artists. It's really identity co-production. The artists define themselves by the shop they're in, by the artist they apprenticed with, the clients they have, and their relationships with other artists in the shop. The same thing goes for clients. By getting a tattoo of something meaningful, something they think is representative of them, they are putting an image of themselves out there to be judged.

Has your research influenced the way you perceive tattoos?
Definitely. Before I did any of this I had my judgment of tattooed people. I was a little freaked out by them. And now I find that these people have some of the most interesting stories about their tattoos, about their lives; they value their art. When my research was first approved, I went to a tattoo convention. I'm not tattooed and don't look like the "type." To walk around a room of tattooed people and have everyone else judging my body, by not being tattooed, it was insight into that experience and bodily awareness.


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