How did a young, black-metal fan with stretched ear lobes and a fascination with corpse-simulating face paint score the prestigious “Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity” at UCSD?
Dr. Todd Honma, the recipient of the honor for his work on body modification, says he doesn’t know—it took him fully by surprise. However, the fact the selection committee contacted him indicates a shift in academic acceptance of tattoos and piercing as a legitimate subject of study. Honma’s work examines and analyzes what tattoo aesthetics reveal about race, class and sexuality in southern California, particularly among Asian and Asian-American communities. He took a few minutes to answer questions via email:
CityBeat: What kind of tattoo aesthetics are we seeing emerge, specifically in the San Diego region?
Todd Honma: Tattooing has a long history associated with port cities, maritime culture, sailors and the military, and San Diego is part of that history. Location is really important in terms of how certain types of aesthetic forms develop. For example, southern California is particularly well known for fine-line, black-and-grey style of tattooing, especially with the strong Chicano / Latino influence in this region. southern California is also considered the birthplace of what is often called “modetribal” or “neo tribal” tattooing, which was inspired by indigenous forms of tattooing in the Pacific. Japanese aesthetics has also played a huge role in how tattooing has developed in California, in terms of design, use of background, body coverage, etc.
Is tattooing a culture in itself, or the means of expressing culture?
Certainly, tattooing is a type of cultural practice and can function as an expression of what that particular culture thinks is important. At the same time, I’m sure there are people who consider tattooing, as you say, “a culture in itself,” meaning that it forms a whole way of life around which people organize their daily existence and forms the basis for how they behave, what they believe and how they relate to the world and those around them. Here in the U.S., you can just go to a tattoo convention and see how that works. Also, I think more and more, we are seeing tattooing being elevated to the realm of capital ‘C’ “Culture”—being recognized, and I guess you can say “legitimized,” by its inclusion into institutions like museums, archives and even universities.
What’s your most recent tattoo?
I got my full left sleeve done in 2009-2010 by Marcus Pacheco, who is an amazing artist based up in Oakland…. The entire process took one full year to complete, which, up to now, is the longest amount of time I’ve spent on one piece. But I think one of the things that often gets overlooked when people talk about tattooing is just how intimate of a process it can be. You’re basically trusting the artist with your body and allowing yourself to be rather vulnerable ’cuz you’re under the needle for hours on end under someone else’s control. Y’know, people often talk about how addicting tattoos can be, and it’s usually about wanting to feel the rush that you get from enduring the needle. But I also think it’s about wanting to maintain the relationships that go along with tattooing.