An inkling of change: Faculty talk about their tattoos

By Lily Alexander

Spotted. As Professor Shroat pulls up her sleeve, sophomore Theresa Piela ’14 notices the small ink etchings on Shroat’s arm. Two dates in a bold black Serif font peek out as she illustrates her point with a dramatic gesture. Psychology Professor Megan Shroat is one of many professors across campus whose intricate body art hides beneath layers of sweater vests, slacks and other professional garb. From dragons to flowers to phrases in Elvish writing, these tattoos are often concealed from students’ sight. But from in-class activities to informal conversations with students, young professors at Mac are increasingly bringing once-stigmatized tattoos into the classroom as a form of learning and accepted self-expression. A changing image For the Millennial generation, defined by a recent Pew Center study as teens and those in their twenties making the passage into adulthood, body art of all kinds, from tattoos to piercings, has become commonplace. According to the study, nearly four in 10 have a tattoo, and one in four have a piercing in some place other than their earlobe. Despite growing acceptance among younger generations, tattoos are often still associated with rebellious teenagers or buff members of a bike gang. Yet according to visiting International Studies professor Dana Schumacher-Schmidt, body art is common in the professional world as well, particularly among young adults entering academia. “For people my age going into the academic profession, it is so common to have piercings and tattoos,” Schumacher-Schmidt said. “I was with a group of English PhD students who were all going into jobs in academia, and we realized that everyone in the room had a piercing or tattoo.” Shroat, who has five tattoos including a large dragon on her back and her sons’ birth dates on her wrist, says that many of these initial stereotypes of people with tattoos are starting to dissipate with a growing culture of acceptance. “Tattoos are no longer something that people get in prison, and you don’t have to be in Hell’s Angels to get one,” Shroat said. An innate desire Although professors get tattoos for a variety of reasons, Biology professor Kristi Curry-Rogers said that there is an innate desire among humans to get tattoos. “In an interesting evolutionary sense, individuality is a hallmark of humans—we love to decorate ourselves and self-identify,” Curry-Rogers said. “There are tattoos preserved in the oldest human skin samples on record!” This self-identification through body art takes a range of forms for different Mac professors. For Schumacher-Schmidt, her most recent tattoo—a crossed wooden spoon and whisk framed with the phrase “Come N Get It”—was a way to reflect her passion for cooking and baking. “I see Anthony Bourdain and all of these cool chefs with awesome tattoos of large knives,” Schumacher said with a smile. “I liked the idea of a wooden spoon and a whisk crossed because it was a blend of toughness—my weapons—but it’s about cupcakes and cookies, so it’s also something sweet.” For others, tattoos serve more of a commemorative purpose. MAX Center writing tutor Jake Mohan got a tattoo to remember his father, who passed away in 2003. Mohan says that his father was a Russian professor, so the tattoo on his upper arm depicts a passage from the Russian novel, “The Master and Margarita,” with the symbol of a black cat that figures prominently in the book. Many professors say they got their first tattoo on a whim when they were younger but have continued to get others to celebrate different stages and milestones in their lives. Schumacher-Schmidt got her first tattoo, a lotus flower on the small of her back, when she was 16 as a form of self-expression and setting herself apart from her peers. Although the tattoo itself had little meaning at the time, when she looks back on it now it reminds her of a significant time in her life. Today, she is considering getting her next tattoo of a quote from a poem used in her dissertation. “I’m thinking I want to get one when I finish my dissertation to commemorate the pain and labor and cap off my experience,” Schumacher-Schmidt said. Still other people get tattoos for reasons larger than their own personal lives. Curry-Rogers said that a recent example is the public art installation known as “Ext-inked” in the UK. “People were tattooed with the scientific illustrations of organisms that are near extinction, with the idea that the permanence of the tattoos will ‘give us a way to remember them when they’re gone,'” Curry-Rogers says. According to the exhibit’s website, the exhibition was a way to celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday through tattooing over 100 volunteers to create “an army of ambassadors for threatened birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, mammals, plants and fungi.” “Rocking their designs” Although most professors choose to get their tattoos in more discreet places so that they can cover them up, many say that they are proud of their body designs. “To hide my tattoos would be akin to concealing an aspect of my character,” said history professor Andrea Cremer. This pride translates into the classroom as well, where Mac professors that sport tattoos say that their body art has little influence on their interactions with students, besides inciting an occasional conversation or signaling their youth. “I think it sometimes makes students feel more comfortable with me because it makes me seem closer in age to them than some other faculty members … or seem like I’m more laid back,” said Psychology professor Rachel Lucas-Thompson. Piela, who has had several professors with tattoos while at Mac, agreed that she sees these professors as more laid-back, daring and creative. “When I see super intelligent and respected professors rocking their designs, it makes me so happy,” Piela said. Although Lucas-Thompson said that most of her tattoos are naturally covered up during interviews, she has never faced any negative reactions from colleagues or students at Macalester. Still, she acknowledged that academia is a uniquely accepting discipline and that there can be more stigma in other work environments. Lucas-Thompson, who also has a nose piercing, said when she previously worked for a dentist’s office, one of the other dentists made her wear a smaller nose piercing and a face mask anytime she was with a patient, even when she was speaking. After humoring her for a period, though, she eventually stopped wearing the mask. “I figured if my conservative 80-year-old aunt said she liked it because it made me look like a princess, by boss could just deal with it!” Lucas-Thompson says. Of course, older family members are not always as accepting as Lucas-Thompson’s. Mohan said he has received a lot of startled reactions from his family members, including his mother. “She wasn’t happy and she’s still not happy,” Mohan says. “She would say, ‘It’s a shame,’ and I think she’s resigned herself to that.” Some parents have warmed up to the tattoos over time, but the tattoo culture is still something foreign and hard to comprehend for many people of older generations. Intersection of art and science Other professors have incorporated tattoos into the classroom environment more directly as a way of supplementing classroom material. Curry-Rogers has assigned a project to her Biodiversity and Evolution class in which students are asked to design tattoos related to the overarching evolution themes of the class. “They have to design their own tattoo, write a description of how their design relates both to their personal intersection with science, and to evolutionary biology at large,” she said. She was originally inspired to do such a project after meeting Carl Zimmer, a writer for the New York Times and author of many books about evolution, who recently started a website called Science Tattoo Emporium. “He noticed how many of his science-obsessed colleagues and friends had tattoos dedicated to their big discoveries, their favorite big ideas, or their favorite organism, molecule, etc. He sent out a request, just asking people to share their science-the
med tattoos, and became an unwitting curator of an online museum of skin art,” Curry-Rogers said. Curry-Rogers has arranged a Skype session between her class and Zimmer to supplement the articles that they often read from his science blog “The Loom.” She hopes the project will be a way to merge students’ lives with what they are learning inside the classroom. “This is the first time I’m doing a project like this, but I thought it would be a fun way for students to do an individual exploration of how science and art intersect,” Curry-Rogers says. “It would give them a chance to really think about the personal connection between what they learn in class and their own lives.” Flaunting their art Although not all Mac professors have taken steps to incorporate body art into classroom material, those professors interviewed agreed that tattoos are becoming more of an accepted form of expression. Although there is still residual disapproval from older generations, Piela said that this increases her admiration for professors willing to express themselves regardless of what others think. “Some people think it’s unprofessional,” Piela said, “which is another reason that it makes me happy when really prestigious and successful people flaunt their tattoos.” Mohan says that some predict that tattoos will fade out of popularity in the next generation, as kids rebel against their tattoo-covered parents. Shroat has seen firsthand these ebbs and flows of trends throughout generations. “My grandparents’ generation was more accepting of tattoos because of the militarism of World War II,” Shroat said. “With each generation, it’s different.” Check out Carl Zimmer’s blog, “Science Tattoo Emporium,” at More information about the “Ext-Inked” project can be found at refresh –>