The Tattooed Academic

I’ve been in the United States now for 26 years, going on 27. That span of time has seen a lot of changes, large and small. A large one: a wholesale revision of mainstream American attitudes towards LGBTQ civil rights. A small one: when I got here the only beer you could buy was the style I think of as “lawnmower lager.” On a hot day after vigorous yard work, served as near as possible to frozen, it tastes great. Under most other circumstances, it disappoints. And that was the only beer you could get, unless you bought an import. And then Pete’s Wicked Ale appeared, and that seemed to kick off a domestic craft brewing revolution that means you can now find esoterica like Belgian framboise lambic pretty much anywhere. And the same kind of change has been enacted more generally in American cuisine, to the point now that we’ve started rediscovering the humble virtues of the food and drink we’ve spent the last couple of decades running away from. Pabst Blue Ribbon has gone from being what your Dad drinks to being an arch joke to being what you drink ironically to being what you drink with a veneration for American vernacular food culture.

And speaking of Frank Booth, how about tattoos. When I came to the U.S. in 1987, tattoos were associated — in my mind, at least, and in the minds of nervous bougies like me — as belonging to the kind of scary lowlife who populate that iconic moment of Blue Velvet. I didn’t know anyone who had a tattoo, or at least anyone who showed it off, until around 1990 or so, when I was slightly shocked (but also curious and sort of psyched) to see a cellist I worked with roll up his sleeve and show off a simple, unstylized outline of a Hill cello he had tattooed on his right bicep. This was a surprise — not only that someone I had filed in one category (non-tattoo) was actually in the other, but that he was sporting a tattoo that wasn’t about being badass or threatening. It didn’t have skulls and flames and snakes and what-all; it was a monument only to my friend’s enthusiasm for Hill cellos.

In retrospect, this innocently geeky tatt was a sign of things to come. One small but telling thing that has changed completely in the last quarter-century has been the mainstreaming of tattoos. I think I first really noticed this when I moved to Austin about a decade ago. When I would take my kids to the Barton Springs Pool, I would see other young parents piling out of minivans and poking Cheerios into the mouths of fretful babies and doing normal parental things, but sleeved up and sometimes with just about every visible square inch of skin below the neck covered in tatts. And it started to occur to me then that the social meaning of tattoos had changed. There were still lots of situations where you would get the stinkeye for having one — obviously, since there still are now — and to be sure a lot of the tattoos appearing incongruously on the bodies of these solidly domesticated and vaguely middle-aged Austinites were still of the skulls-snakes-flames variety, but still, something had changed. With the new phenomenon of the cool geek came the phenomenon of the geek tattoo. And that’s where we are now.

But in the early 1990s, tattoos were generally assumed to be the domain of bikers, barflies, vets, and rockers, and this assumption informs David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Much of Infinite Jest takes place in a drug recovery center, where addicts from various backgrounds deal with the fallout from the bad choices they made during their years enslaved by various Substances. And in one passage, Wallace makes the tattoo a metonym for all those bad, act-in-haste-repent-in-leisure choices:

Because the whole thing about tattoos is that they’re permanent, of course, irrevocable once gotten–which of course the irrevocability of a tattoo is what jacks up the adrenaline of the intoxicated decision to sit down in the chair and actually get it (the tattoo)–but the chilling thing about the intoxication is that it seems to make you consider only the adrenaline of the moment itself, not the irrevocability that produces the adrenaline. It’s like the intoxication keeps your tattoo-type person from being able to project his imagination past the adrenaline of the impulse and even consider the permanent consequences that are producing the buzz of excitement.

Now, this passage is told from the perspective of Tiny Ewell, an alcoholic lawyer who is himself untattooed but becomes obsessed with the tattoos of his fellow recovery center residents. So the assumption here that “your tattoo-type person” is by nature impulsive and self-destructive is perhaps only Ewell’s, but I suspect it also pretty much reflects Wallace’s own point of view. It was, after all, pretty much the usual opinion of intellectual middle-class types in the mid 1990s.

Not that Wallace doesn’t have a point. The whole thing with tattoos is that they’re permanent, while the motivation to get them (whether impulsive or well-thought-out) almost certainly is not. A recent NYT chin-stroker makes this point, as does your Mom and at least half your friends. From this point of view, the basic reality of tattoos is permanence. This becomes particularly obvious in the comical-sad litany of misbegotten tattoos in Infinite Jest: tattoos of the names of girls who left, enthusiasms that waned, gods that failed, and mad whims that are sometimes cannot even be recalled. So you’re stuck with a swastika on your chest or something possibly even scarier, and what are you gonna do? DFW takes several pages to consider the question, but it all pretty much comes down to resignation and covering up. And yes, I wouldn’t want to be in this situation, and probably you wouldn’t either.

(Though even in the roughest cases there is some hope.)

But. It seems to me that it is at least as likely that what tattoos really signify is not permanence but impermanence. When I look back over my life, I can find very few things I have consistently loved, believed in, or stood for. I can hardly think of a single thing I felt strongly about in 1990 that I would care to have on my skin now. As much as people go on about their identity as Christians, Trekkies, vegans, or whatever, I always feel that such talk usually makes a false assumption about the stability of any human identity. So given this, my first question would be, what kind of tattoo would be impermanence-proof? I used to think that this would be the really interesting thing about tattoos: they challenge you with a really tough question. But since I can never think of a foolproof answer, I’m not so sure. So now I’m thinking the real question re. tattoos is, how do you square yourself with the impermanence of your identity? From this point of view, the very fact that we ask of tattoos what they likely can’t deliver is the most interesting thing about them. Seen this way, a tattoo is like a stick in a stream. Sometimes the water looks still — maybe you can’t tell if it’s running or not — but if you poke a stick into it you can tell it’s moving. Maybe the value of a tattoo is in part that you probably will grow past the point where it made sense to get it. The value of the image is less what it says about who you really than how it expresses some past version of yourself. The tattoo’s intrinsic aesthetic value (if any) is compounded with something subtler — a kind of curatorship of the self. Maybe the likelihood of obsolescence is a feature, not a bug.

Or whatever. So theorizes someone who (like Tiny Ewell) doesn’t have any tattoos himself but just bugs his friends to show him theirs. A few fellow academics have been kind enough to share photos and descriptions of their tatts, all of which are gloriously cool and original and seem as likely as any to stand the test of time. The one that got me thinking of this whole line of thought belongs to Brad Osborn, a music theorist at KU whose tatt will be immediately identifiable to music theory nerds:

perspectives tatt

Robin James, a philosopher and sound artist at UNC Charlotte, has a full sleeve:


Robin has a thoughtful approach to conceiving and planning a tattoo, and to me it really paid off. She writes,

I just wanted a visually interesting tattoo–something more “design-y” than representational, something that looked good from a distance (you can still see the pattern/design). The two images are Sputnik 1 & Voyager 1. I picked those because I’m a longtime scifi/space opera fan, so that sort of imagery is really appealing to me, as is the mid-century design of those ships. I guess I also picked them b/c they’re historically significant, but mainly I picked them b/c they look good on my arm.

Phil Gentry, a musicology prof. at U. of Delaware and longtime musicoloblogger probably well-known to most of the Dial M readership, has a tattoo of a score by John Cage:


Phil writes,

My standard joke is that I got it so that when other John Cage scholars challenge me, I can whip it out and question their commitment to the subject. In reality, I got it in graduate school for sappy sentimental reasons–it’s one of Cage’s “62 mesostics re: merce cunningham,” which is to say, closest thing to a love song Cage wrote.

Those are the academic tattoos that colleagues have shared with me, but in the interests of fueling my creepy obsession with other people’s skin art, I strongly encourage my tattooed readers to send me pictures of their own. It’s a new reader challenge! Haven’t had one of those since like 2008 or something. Drop me a note at my uni email: fordp at indiana dot edu

A few more geeky academic/artsy/intellectual tatts before you go. One I wish I’d thought of is Jonathan Lethem’s tattoo of the Ubik aerosol can from the cover of one of Philip K. Dick’s trippiest and best novels:

lethem ubik tattoo

You can’t really see it; this is the design:


Another writer, Carey Harrison, has the entire first page of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia tattooed on his back:

adorno tatt

Librarians, for some reason, seem particularly prone to getting tattoos, and as librarians tend to be awesome, so too are their tatts. My favorite is a card from some alternative-universe tarot deck — Arcanum XXII, “The Librarian”:

librarian tatt

If you do a Google image search of “music tattoos,” you get a pretty mixed bag. A lot of music tatts land in what my wife calls “piano scarf” territory. (You know, like those music-novelty gifts bedecked with treble clefs and noteheads that your aunt gives you for your birthday because she knows you’re a musician.) But as Phil’s tatt shows, avant-garde graphic notation offers real scope for a distinctive and visually-interesting design. Here’s one last tatt — a score to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports:


I don’t think I’ve exhausted this topic yet.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to The Tattooed Academic

  1. ctriebel says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! I have three “nerd” tattoos. The first is a replica of a painting by Bauhaus painter Moholy-Nagy, and the others are original designs based on a similar style of overlapping colours. I’ve certainly enjoyed them!

  2. Goodness, I am really getting lost in the forest of this great blog. A few of the things that come back to me again and again about this topic (1) there’s often notice (sometimes with disappointment or derision) that the outlaw practice has been domesticated or some such, but (2) body modification has a long, long history before the Harley’s handlebars ever came into view. (There is the Maori practice. Also Easter Island? Tahiti? I desire to learn more about this . . .) So the notion that one is pretentiously slumming (you did not say that, but it comes up) is problematic, as is the mire of cultural ownership or assumption about what anyone is “up to” when they mark themselves. (3) I notice some alternative punk-meditation types etc. refrain from talking about tattoos, it being thought uncool, so this is perhaps part of the anxiety over domestication. (Inverse: “meme” is now a vernacular term? And “meta”?)

    I got my first tattoo urgently—though I had been thinking about it for some time—as I prepared for breast cancer surgery. I wanted to have a talisman with me in surgery and of course could not have jewelry etc. Due to the surgery, I can never again put a needle in that arm, so it also marked that (and the t-artist wanted to touch it up, oh well). It also had to do with a more “chosen” body modification (though I also chose the surgery) and with having pain while awake, whereas I would be out for the surgery. And, it indeed is a marker of impermanence, as you say, Jonathan. The design comes from spiritual practice, and in certain contexts, a group will all recognize it, but outside of such, only two or three people have in 7 years. When at “spiritual camp,” someone asks “Is it just for the weekend, or is it permanent?”—I say, “Only as permanent as I am.” If I live to be old enough to see tattoo no. 2 on my upper arm (which I was advised against in re: women ageing, ahem . . .) I will be fortunate. (And there is no.3, so far.) So, it’s not a decoration or a whim.

    Due to my own “out status,” I have learned that there are many academics who have tattoos that do not show. I did have a meeting with a Dean where I sensed, but could not know, that my ink was detrimental to the outcome (or at least might have affected his mindset in some way).

    Af friend turned me on to Mark C. Taylor’s “Hiding” around that time, and I also found Ashley Montagu’s “Touch” of interest. The CBC has quite an interesting show on body-mod which is more intelligent than most US radio . . .

    Speaking of ink, I shall retire—after another quick note.

  3. Seen this one? My freshers contend that it is faked via Photoshop . . .

  4. philphord says:

    Hi Iamnotmakingitup,

    Actually it’s Phil, not Jonathan, who wrote this. (Now that I think of it, I am wondering what Jonathan thinks of tattoos. He’s never told me.)

    I certainly agree that there is a strange sense of ownership that complete strangers seem to assert (or at least want to assert) on other people’s bodies. I find it hard to think of the reflexive charge of “pretentious slumming” re. tattoos as anything other than an attempt at vicarious control. But what *are* the motivations of getting a tattoo? I think they are very strong and yet often hard to put into words, even by people who are used to putting things in words. Philip Swallow, a former English prof who became a noted tattoo artist in the old days, and who is the subject of the biography “Secret Historian”, wrote an interesting memoir of his tattoo work and came up with a number of explanations, convincing in themselves but leaving the impression that there is much more to be said about the topic. Swallow noted that almost no-one who came in for a tattoo could really articulate their motivation (aside from sailors who were doing it as a matter of course); I suspect that this kind of body modification speaks a language that goes deeper than words. Thank you for providing your own story here. Thanks also for the reading tips. Do you recall the name of the CBC doc?

    BTW, that tatt appeared in Kyle Gann’s book on 4’33”, and I got the impression that he knew the person who got it. So I doubt it was photoshop. (And why would someone photoshop something so easily achieved in real life?)

  5. Thanks, Phil—yes, I noticed your “handle” after I wrote. And, ah, I know the Gann book—but forgot the image was in there. The CBC show is on body modification more generally. (I really like the “Ideas” program—speaking of public discourse on intellectual matters—and found this dug in some rather than just scraping the surface (!). I wish they did more on musicology . . . )

    (I’m thinking wordsmiths, soundsmiths, immateriality, imprinting . . .) Thanks again for showing me there are more of us than I thought. Yay! And drat—

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