Wearing Your Art On Your Sleeve (by Liam Farrell, Terp Magazine)

Recently, UMd Alumni magazine The Shell profiled sociology doctoral candidate, rising cultural theorist, and all-around nice guy Dave Paul Strohecker and his work on tattoo culture. The article’s author, Liam Farrell, has given us permission to reprint the article here.

David Paul Strohecker, a Maryland doctoral student, knows there is a common nickname for his heavily tattooed hands and the ink on his neck and the side of his head: “the everlasting job-stoppers.”

Yet his research into America’s tattoo culture is showing that acceptance of employees with body art is growing and, perhaps, may one day attract no more notice than wearing jeans on Fridays.

“You can draw parallels to any subculture which has become ‘fashion,'” he says.

Strohecker’s academic area is “deviance”—he gives a book definition of “actions, beliefs or even conditions that are morally discrediting and likely to result in negative actions”—and he has specialized in tattooing and its growing approval in the culture at large. A 2010 report from the Pew Research Center estimated nearly 40 percent of Americans in the millennial generation (ages 18–29) have a tattoo, versus about 32 percent of Generation X (ages 30-45) and 15 percent of baby boomers (ages 46–64).

Strohecker has been keeping apprised of companies like Urban Outfitters that don’t care if workers have tattoos, and watches for mainstream businesses like Starbucks that may want them covered up but can be lax in enforcement from store to store. He says local businesses such as coffee shops and bars often try to build cachet by hiring workers who are adventurous in appearance.

“Employers are starting to realize having interesting people work for them is in their interest,” he says. “They are trying to tap into the youth who are really into that.”

He believes that 2005 marked a turning point for tattoo culture, as reality shows like A&E’s “Inked” and TLC’s “Miami Ink” started opening a window into the inner workings and artistry of tattoo parlors. What followed has been the sort of adoption and growing pains that many rebellious trends experience when they become mainstream, from teen pop stars getting tattoos to the old school lashing out at newcomers.

Of course, that’s not to say tattoo progress is always linear. The army, despite the military’s history of popularizing tattoos after coming home from World War II, recently announced a policy to ban tattoos below the knee and the elbow.

“It’s funny,” Strohecker says, “because that’s the population that brought tattooing to America.”

He started getting his tattoos about nine years ago, when he was an 18-year-old college student in Texas. Strohecker had been around friends with tattoos and studying society’s divisions in race, ethnicity and gender, so getting his own ink was a way he could challenge stereotypes and explore culture’s edges.

His first tattoo, a reference to a Bible verse on his wrist, soon had plenty of company. Today, only isolated areas such as his palms, throat and top of the head are left unmarked, with copious jewelry and ear gauges to accessorize the skin art.

“I’ve kind of fallen into something that has been a big part of my life,” Strohecker says. “It seemed perfect to study tattooing.”

 Liam Farrell is a contributing writer and editor for Terp Magazine and the university’s Office of Marketing and Communications. We thank him for the opportunity to publish his work here.

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