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A tattoo scholar from ISU explores the other end of the needle

A tattoo artist at work
A tattoo artist at work
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A new book by an Illinois State University professor explores the labor and culture of tattoo artists.

David Lane wrote "The Other End of the Needle: Continuity and Change Among Tattoo Workers" after spending most of his life surrounded by tattooists and their work.

“I grew up with punk rock and skateboarding, so I saw a lot of tattooed bodies as a kid,” Lane said.

 David Lane
Illinois State University
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David Lane, assistant professor of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University.

It was pretty much inevitable, Lane said, that he would end up getting tattoos himself. Through the years, he spent a lot of time in tattoo shops, both getting inked and learning about the work. He was struck by a camaraderie between shops that should, by capitalist standards, be considered business rivals. Instead, artists would stop into each other’s shops to share tips and tools to further one another’s work.

When it came time for his dissertation, Lane, who is an associate professor of Criminal Justice Sciences, said he was encouraged by his adviser to pursue the topic of tattooing.

“As I looked into the academic scholarship, everything was about people’s tattoos and their meanings,” he said. While Lane found that area of study interesting, he also considered it a bit “played out.” It occurred to Lane that nobody was really talking about the artists behind the tattoos and their ways of doing business. So, he decided to draw on his years-long experience of hanging out in tattoo shops to take a closer look at what goes on behind the needle.

The business of tattooing operates very differently from other industries, Lane says. One of the ways in which that’s most evident is the way tattoo artists get their start.

“You don’t go to college to get this job. There’s a different process and pathway to entering it, and it doesn’t resonate with the credentialism and formal education that other jobs tend to have in the, sort of, modern capitalist state,” he said.

While other occupations build credibility through formal certifications and associations, tattooing has avoided that, Lane said.

“And it’s this weird conundrum. How do they survive? Because they theoretically shouldn’t.”

Rather than through formal organizations, tattooists are united to varying degrees through a shared sense of values. It’s something they tend to “naturally hone in on,” Lane said, rather than anything that’s taught. That phenomenon may be partly explained by how a person learns to tattoo in the first place. Artists generally won’t teach just anyone their craft. They identify worthy apprentices based on a person’s dedication to learning not just the mechanics of tattooing, but the history and traditions surrounding it.

And because apprenticeship involves years of working closely with a practitioner, artists typically won’t teach people they don’t enjoy spending time with. That criterion may help ensure that the traditions are passed down through relatively likeminded individuals.

Still, Lane said, as time goes on, the “old guard” in tattooing is losing some of its control.

“Newer people are moving into this occupation without following those pathways,” he said. As tattoos become evermore popular, more people are drawn to the profession – many for the money. But Lane said the older networks are still steadfast in their ways and likely to outlast any changes brought to the culture by newcomers.

Part of what’s driving an influx of new practitioners are the proliferation of reality shows centered around tattoo shops. “Tattooists, generally, were pretty angry about those shows,” Lane said, mostly because – like a lot of reality shows – they just weren’t that realistic. “They obviously emphasized the dramatic narratives of who’s a hero and who’s a villain,” Lane said. In reality, tattoo shops are “pretty mellow,” he said. “People don’t want to go to work and fight with their coworkers.”

Lane said the artist who’s been doing a lot of his tattoos lately typically only ever allows one person into the shop at a time. “And this was pre-COVID. He’s just burning some incense, listening to music, tattooing. Doing things at his own pace. So, the logic of time versus money that we see in contemporary capitalism isn’t there.”

It may be tempting to think that tattooists, in accordance with the outré nature of the work, intentionally operate outside traditional modes of capitalism. But Lane said much like the unspoken agreements that govern their way of doing business, tattooists aren’t actively resisting anything.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a resistance so much as they’re resilient in that they carved out a niche to avoid some of those threats to other occupations,” he said.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.