On being the most tattooed person in the (academic) room

A series of vignettes about being a baby academic with tattoos.

I have lost count of how many tattoos I have.

I have forgotten how much money I have spent on my body.

Most of the time I do not remember they are there – they are part of me. Every time I get a new tattoo, I wonder, how did I function before this? It is as if I am a puzzle with pieces lost, and each hour spent in a studio, with tiny needles penetrating my skin and nostrils swirling with the scent of Dettol recovers something missing, bringing me closer to my final form.

They are on my shoulders, arms, back, ribs, thighs, and knees. They cannot be hidden, unless I try hard to do so.

I will always remember one afternoon five years ago. It was sunny, warm. I must have been wearing a short skirt, not that it matters. I walked into the Toowoomba CBD (I didn’t have a car then), joyous, with a bounce in my step. Like so many other times, I was interrupted, by someone who assumed they had a right to my body.


It was a man, of course. He yelled at me, jeered at me with a scrunched mouth and leering eyes as I walked past. I was shaken. I was younger, smaller (in size and confidence), unsafe. The sense of entitlement made me ill. These things, these tattoos on me are too often seen as a licence to touch, to comment, and to question without consent.

This moment passed quickly, as I turned to the nearest storefront and opened the door to my destination for the day. A tattoo studio. The irony is not lost on me, and in fact, it slightly mutes the terror and caution that still lingers.

Sorry pal, I was on my way to spend $150 per hour to get someone to draw on me a little more.

When I did my fieldwork, I spent a month working in a stone fruit orchard. I picked figs. I graded and packed persimmons. In the packing shed, I worked alongside a number of working holidaymakers. A French couple – Marie and Elliot. A young Italian man. A South Korean woman, around the same age as me. Her name was Susie.

We had lunch together every day, and sat in a makeshift demountable building turned staff room. After eating lunch, we walked into the sunshine, and slid our backs down the outer wall of the demountable. Susie was leaving that afternoon, she was going back home after months of hard work. I had only been working at the farm for a few weeks, and didn’t know any of the other workers very well, but nevertheless, Susie asked if the Marie and I would like to take a selfie with her. We laughed, and got up from the concrete to pose more easily. I was the tallest, so I bent my knees, making my shorts rise up to reveal the tattoos on my thighs. There were less of them, then.

Susie saw, and giggled at me.

‘Too many!’

I shook my head and said ‘no, there’s not enough!’

A bell rang, indicating that it was time to return to sorting fruit.

It was a lovely, peaceful day, filled with sweet moments, and unexpected connections.

I am a sessional lecturer. I have an office in a large building at a university. I regularly attend conferences and present my research. I teach an introductory anthropology course each week, eagerly trying to make undergraduates fall in love with the discipline in the same way I did.

Sometimes when I teach, I hide my body, and obscure the heart on my sleeve (and the hearts elsewhere).

I don’t know why.

Recently I gave a lecture on the anthropology of the visual – specifically, what do we consider art? In the tutorial, I encouraged students to reflect on the topic through a provocation – whether tattoos can be considered art. We spoke about enduring cultural traditions of body modification: the Māori tā moko, scarification, and piercing. I felt in good company. It was late in the semester, and starting to get cold. If the weather allowed, I would have worn something with short sleeves, finally falling prey to my occasional flair for the dramatic, revealing tattoos on each arm down to the elbow.

I don’t know why I didn’t: my students (my students! What a luxury, a privilege!) were engaged, excited, and energised by the prospect of discussing a topic they knew in anthropological terms. The lecture hall was also heated, the tutorial rooms were enclosed and warm.

I think I have seen one other anthropologist at a conference with the same number of tattoos as me. I made subtle eyes at them, trying to wordlessly project that we were both members of the same secret club. That we were outnumbered, but it was okay. They didn’t see – but it didn’t matter anyway. I think I had a scarf wrapped around my shoulders, and I was too drained, too mentally exhausted to make coherent conversation on the final day of the conference anyway.

Sometimes I know why I hide myself. Some of my tattoos are deeply personal, and I do not owe anyone their stories. Some are just aesthetically pleasing. I do not need to give anyone those reasons either, and sometimes, I resent the possibility of having to answer such personal questions even before someone has spoken them out loud.

I do not fear whether my tattoos will be viewed as unprofessional, because they are on my body, and I am ambitious, eager, and trying my best to make my way in this academic world.

But my body is my own – it is mine to decide how much of it, and in turn, how much of myself, that I want to reveal. In my personal life I am guarded out of habit. I do not share easily. I like to think that tattoos give me control of my own body, but at times, it feels as if that control is lost; when strange men on the streets yell at me, when I am asked to share what parts of my life I have chosen to place on my skin forever, and why. Other times are tender, and full of kindness – like Susie’s request for a selfie, or the need to seek out unspoken common ground with the only other tattooed anthropologist in the room.

I’m reminded of a favourite dichotomous turn of phrase that I like to use in academic writing: revealing and concealing, or folding and unfolding, if you will. At different moments, I will choose to unfold parts of myself, or fold inwards and silence, hide, and conceal…if this control over my body is unceremoniously revoked, without my consent?

There will be hell to pay.

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