Customizing the Body

The Art and Culture of Tattooing

Clinton R. Sanders and D. Angus Vail
Book Cover

PB: $29.95
EAN: 978-1-59213-888-3
Publication: Apr 08

HC: $81.50
EAN: 978-1-59213-887-6
Publication: Apr 08

Ebook: $29.95
EAN: 978-1-59213-889-0
Publication: Apr 08

240 pages
5.5 x 8.25
5 figures 12 halftones

Tattoos as art, work, decoration and defiance


"After looking at the sizeable collection of tattoo memorabilia, I entered the tattoo studio adjacent to the museum and, like many first-time visitors to tattoo establishments, impulsively decided to join the ranks of the tattooed. After choosing a small scarab design from the wall ‘flash,’ I submitted to the unexpectedly painful tattoo experience." So began sociologist Clinton Sanders’ seven-year involvement in the world of tattoo culture.

Customizing the Body discusses tattooing as a highly social act—as a manipulation of self-image, as a symbolically meaningful form of body alteration in contemporary society. A tattoo changes "how the person experiences his or her self and, in turn, how he or she will be defined and treated by others." Tattoos continue to be a mark of alienation from the mainstream, but they also have an affiliative effect, identifying one as a member of a select group. Common wisdom associates tattoos with life-long regret, but Sanders introduces passionate collectors—those who cannot resist the desire to "get more ink"—and tattooees who are very content with modest coverage. "(In the future) when I’m sitting around and bored with my life and I wonder if I was ever young once and did exciting things, I can look at the tattoo and remember."

Sanders’ immersion in this hidden social world—his years of hanging out in tattoo parlors and participating in conventions of enthusiasts—enable him to draw compelling portraits of tattoo collectors and artists. His interviews and observations reveal the ways in which artists are drawn into the work, their concerns in building their careers, and the nature of commercial exchange in tattoo studios. He juxtaposes an institutional view of art with the work done by highly skilled tattoo artists who are dedicated to erasing the negative stereotypes of their production and earning recognition for this marginally accepted form of body decoration.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Body Alteration, Artistic Production, and the Social World of Tattooing
2. Becoming and Being a Tattooed Person
3. The Tattooist: Tattooing as a Career and an Occupation
4. The Tattoo Relationship: Risk and Social Control in the Studio
5. Conclusion: Tattooing and the Social Definition of Art
Methodological Appendix

About the Author(s)

Clinton R. Sanders is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.