Branded as Scholars

Peter Monaghan, The Chronicle of Higher Education

January 3, 2010

Do you love your research so much that you’d have a symbol of it tattooed onto your body? Among academics, scientists seem to be the most often inked, but plenty of scholars in the arts and humanities have tattoos, too. Perhaps you have one that relates to your work?

Kip Fulbeck
U. of California at Santa Barbara

Lawrence K. (Kip) Fulbeck, a professor of art, has written a book about tattoo art, Permanence: Tattoo Portraits (Chronicle Books, 2008). Even though he considers himself less interested in having tattoos than in tattoo culture and art, and tattoos’ role in the formation of personal and racial identity, he has plenty of tats himself.

His body is the canvas for the work of three leading exponents, Horitomo and Horiyoshi III, from Japan, and Horitaka, the only American apprentice of Horiyoshi. “I’ve only had real masters work on me,” he says. “I went to Japan and had it done the old-school way.” That means, rather than using an electric tattooing drill, the artist works by hand, with needles, for many hours at a time—”horribly painful,” attests Mr. Fulbeck. In keeping with the Japanese tradition, he had to write and respectfully ask the masters to honor him with their art.

Does his body, now quite heavily tattooed, shock campus colleagues? Not that much, given that he also rides a skateboard to class and is known for being an avid surfer, guitar player, motorcycle rider, ocean lifeguard, pug enthusiast, and world-ranked masters swimmer.

Still, he knows when not to push his luck: “My mom has never seen my back piece, by Horitomo. … But she’s Chinese, from China, and she still thinks of tattoos as something criminals have. I’m 44 years old, and I still wear long sleeves when I go home to see her.”