While driving the 40-minute trek to Sioux City from the University of South Dakota, assistant professor Dave Lane wondered if he had made the right decision to organize a field visit to a tattoo parlor. It happened last week when Lane, who holds a doctorate in sociology, was driving a van full of nine college students who practically said less than three words on the way to Maya Modification.
Students were told to design a research method and observe what they saw and experienced at the Pearl Street tattoo shop as part of an assignment for their honors course titled "Marks of Civilization: A Cultural Examination of Tattooing." The class – made up of 15 students – is the first of its kind at USD and focuses on the historical, sociological and cultural aspects of body ink.
“This course is really challenging students to think of tattoos not solely as things that people wear, but the outcome of a very intricate and collective process,” Lane explained. “Tattoos just aren’t things that some isolated person made. There’s a whole world where people create tattooing.”
Someone had to make the ink, for instance, while another person had to sell and distribute the ink. The subjects getting a tattoo had to be exposed to the art, discover a design and choose the shop in which to buy the tattoo -- the long process goes on and on, becoming even more complex.
Which means the students had a lot of work to do during their field visit. Dean Overton, a tattoo artist at Maya Modification, said it was fun to see people come into the store with an interest in tattooing other than from an artistic point of view.
“They were really interested in it from a business standpoint and very intellectual about the pathway a person would follow to pursue it,” said Overton. “They really wanted an in-depth study.”
Eva Nieto, owner of Maya Modification, gave the class a tour of the shop and allowed students to watch tattooing sessions.
She said they asked her questions about the shop itself, her background in tattooing and piercing, as well as other details about the profession. In turn, she asked them questions about Lane’s class and their experience -- or inexperience -- with the world of tattooing.
“It’s awesome that he’s giving a newfound respect to the tattooing industry,” said Nieto. “It’s nice to be able to really get down to the culture and history of what we do for a living.”
Nieto remembered speaking with a student who said her father was a dermatologist and opposed the idea of her taking the class. The student’s name was Mickey McGrann, a medical biology major.
“Both of my parents were adamant that my brothers and I should never get a tattoo, so I avoided them [tattoos] completely,” said McGrann, who decided to learn more about the history of tattooing given her father’s experience with their removal.
“After taking the class, I realized that not only was tattooing a type of modification, but so was piercing, cutting your hair, changing your clothes or wearing makeup.
"So if someone is against changing [their] appearance, it would seem that they have already done what they were so against many times over with other modifications. Also, I can respect tattooing as an industry that involves craftsmanship, artistry and people of many qualifications.”
Going to Maya Modification allowed McGrann and the rest of the class to “interact first-hand with people within the industry.” Especially since many of the students in Lane’s class may not have spent a lot of time in tattoo shops.
“Teaching sociology is already hard enough,” said Lane. “You teach people about what they know and the kinds of things they experience every day. Having a field visit gives them a very meaningful experience. They can attach some of these concepts and theories.”
So why study these topics specifically with tattooing? Many reasons, really. One that’s most apparent is Lane’s love of tattooing. The third-year USD professor has many tattoos of his own. Both his arms are covered in Asian-style artwork. His left arm features a collection of what Lane calls “Maryland stuff” -- waves, orchids and crustaceans -- while his right arm bears the image of Li Kui, a fictional character from the 14th century Chinese novel “Water Margin,” as he fights off a tiger.
In class, Lane said he will often wear long-sleeved shirts to cover his tattoos, though he’s unaware if USD has any rules regarding his ink.
“There might be,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “We’ve got a great liberal arts philosophy here, and part of the inspiration of this course is we could challenge people to think differently about the world.”
Another reason Lane decided to create his honors course may have derived from his time spent as a student at the University of Delaware. It was there he created a dissertation on tattoos -- tattoo work, in particular.
“A lot of things on tattooing, especially academic literature, they are reproducing the same ideas: people’s tattoos and their meanings,” said Lane. “We see that again, again and again. I didn’t want to read any more about why people have tattoos. All of a sudden, it hit me. Most people don’t actually talk about the process -- making and distributing tattoos.”
That's exactly what the class was intended for, and then some. So when it finally came time to introduce his students to the tattoo shop for the field study, Lane was overjoyed.
“I was just thrilled being there because not very many people are going to have the opportunity to take a class to do something they absolutely love,” he said. “I do hope at the end of [the class] they realize tattooing is a little more complex.”