cover image Blood and Lightning: On Becoming a Tattooer

Blood and Lightning: On Becoming a Tattooer

Dustin Kiskaddon. Stanford Univ, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-503-63560-9

Sociologist and tattoo artist Kiskaddon debuts with an enjoyable ethnographic and personal look at the world of tattooing. As a graduate student in search of a topic for his final thesis in 2019, Kiskaddon decided to apprentice at a tattoo parlor in Oakland, Calif. Interviewing scores of tattooers and clients, he explores such generally unspoken proprieties and ethical pitfalls as “feeling and touching rules in tattooing,” “norms of appropriate bodily display,” and how to deal with inflicting purposeful pain. Elsewhere, he describes ongoing debates surrounding shops that refuse to do face tattoos and complex considerations involving race and skin tone. Most compellingly, Kiskaddon recounts the strangeness of entering a subculture governed by both unfamiliar rules and age-old truths (“Tattooers are like... most service workers, generally, in that they have to conjure some emotions and repress others. They summon confidence for their clients and themselves”). Written in an easygoing style, Kiskaddon’s narrative ends up as much a workplace memoir as an anthropological study, where the work being documented is both tattooing and ethnography itself, with frequent references to taking field notes and finding ways to get interviews (paying for a tattoo turns out to be the best way to get a tattoo artist to talk for two hours). It’s a charming and thoughtful slice of life. (Feb.)