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Blood and Lightning: The Embodied Production of a Tattooer


I became a working tattooer via apprenticeship in a tattoo shop near downtown Oakland, California. Besides tattooing more than 400 strangers, I took abundant field notes, and spoke with roughly 50 tattooers, apprentices, and counter people during my first years tattooing. This dissertation is an auto-ethnographic account of that experience, and it primarily explains the embodied¬¬ production of tattooers— or how the process of becoming a tattooer can shape a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and moral life. Tattooers, I suggest, come to embody what tattooing means and what it takes through repetitive encounters with its challenges and rewards.

The project contributes to scholarship of body labor and that of tattooing. It offers at least three contributions to research on body labor: (1) It theorizes the temporalities of body labor; (2) It explores a masculine and masculinizing form of body labor; (3) It offers a pragmatist explanation of embodiment in relation to labor. It also contributes to research on tattooing that, even when aimed at tattooers, has yet to explain their embodiment. It is the first major sociological work to explore tattooing from within direct experience of becoming a tattooer.

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