Monday, March 17, 2014

Skin Deep: On Being a Tattooed Man in Higher Education

Just a quick interaction…

I was in the middle of my 18th sit—wait, 19th? 20th? No, 18th. 18th sit! I was in the middle of my 18th sit when a conversation that changed my perception of tattoos occurred.

I was chatting with my artist, (who will remain nameless for the sake of privacy and will be referred to by pronouns 'they/their' or simply, 'artist'), when they asked, "What do the people you work with think of tattoos?"

"Oh, it isn't ever really an issue," I said, shrugging nonchalantly.

"I figured that not many people in student affairs would have tattoos."

"Tattoos are becoming more common these days," I said, thinking of many of my colleagues with visible pieces.

"Interesting," they said, eyes widening to focus on a tricky line of my tattoo.

"And the only reason I get away with tattoos is because I'm white dude."

"Yeah—" the artist said, laughingly, then they stopped tattooing when they saw I was serious. "What do you mean?" the artist said as they raised their head to look at me for clarification.

"I'm white. Tattoos are more accepted because I'm already in a position of power, so it's generally less frowned upon to have tattoos."

The artist explained how they hadn't really ever attached race to tattoos in the past.

"Think of when you randomly see a black man, or a Hispanic dude, on the streets with multiple visible tattoos—what's the first thing that comes to mind?"


I was surprised by their word choice because it was almost instantaneous. And this was from someone who tattoos people of color all the time. So I asked the same question but about women.


"Okay, what about a white man?"

"He can afford tattoos."

We launched into a conversation on how white men simply possess the power to have multiple visible tattoos without anyone batting an eye. It was incredible to have such an empowering conversation with someone who is surrounded with this culture on a daily basis. I could tell things were clicking with my artist because it seemed like this was the first time they'd really had a conversation like this during a tattoo session.

*          *          *

A recent study (Diaz, 2011) suggests America has shifted toward an acceptance of tattoo culture, as four-in-ten adults have at least one tattoo; yet, I feel there is still a blatant stigma associated with tattoo culture—explicitly in higher education.

In a field that sings the praises of motivating students to be authentic by constantly saying, "just be yourself!" how often do we stand by this notion in our own personal expression as administrators (and budding administrators—like myself)?

Further, living in a society that already suppresses male emotions, tattoos can be an essential form of personal authenticity and expression. However, the long discourse has been that, in order to move up in the world, men must cover themselves in business attire to be taken seriously among other administrative men. This is unacceptable because forcing men—across race, class, and sexual orientation; including women—to dress a certain way to be accepted perpetuates systematic oppression of authenticity.

How am I to be truly successful as a man if I am not allowed to be comfortable in my skin and express myself authentically as a creative person?

Insert: Tattoos.

Tattoos are therapy—representative of our past, our present, and future—and allow men to create tributes to our mothers, fathers, wives, children, struggles and/or successes in life, appreciation of music, art, and literature. If society and/or academia suppress men from expressing their emotions by literally wearing their heart on their sleeve, then where can men express ourselves fully authentically?

Tattoos are an important aspect of society because they carry a shared belief in transformation. Anyone can get tattooed for any reason and use the experience to process through that landmark in their life. Tattoos instantly transform skin into a story. Tattoos create conversation starters that intersect gender, racial, and class lines—these connections are important. I am willing to engage anyone in a conversation about their tattoos simply because I am curious to how their skin tells their story.

As I eluded to in my intro, much of this conversation on tattoos sadly looks different for me—given the privilege and power I inherit from being a white male—and isn’t completely accepted for everyone yet. And for that, I hope this article can create a new conversation on tattoos in higher education.

I do not appreciate the reality of tattoo stigma that exists across racial lines because no man (or woman) should have to hide any aspect of themselves in order to be accepted in society. I should not be able to “get away” with having tattoos (or anything, for that matter) because I am a white man. I can’t say I completely “get away” with having my tattoos because I still catch judging eyes from elder administrators and from faculty, but I refuse to hide who I am.

And yes, I get that tattoos are an active choice made by the person who accumulates them and that skin color does not operate that way—but I also recognize that, because of the stigma surrounding tattoos, many men of color might hesitate to go under the needle in fear of further stigma—that is what pains me.

Every man should be comfortable wearing some ink on his skin if he chooses to express himself in that manner.

As Leonard (2012) writes, men should feel free to express ourselves with tattoos as members of academia because tattoos can make us more human in the eyes of our students—challenging the myth of the professor as an untarnished vehicle of knowledge. Not only are we as learned men able to express our knowledge and our competencies, but we can display our personality and authentic pedagogy by distinctly displaying our art for the world to see.

Tattoos are a vehicle of learning because I firmly believe that my tattoos exist in order to aid in how I tell my story of emerging into adulthood as a professional in higher education. Working with students and aiding in their development is equally dependent on how we have explored our own development (Leonard, 2012)—our physical bodies play a significant role in this relationship.

When I roll up my sleeves, I almost have one entire full sleeve and a visible piece on my other forearm. I made the conscious decision to go below my elbows on both are because I have a story I want to share on my body. I am comfortable defending the tattoos I possess and genuinely love telling the stories behind my ink. There is always a story.

Students engage in this story. Students are curious to learn the significance of each of my pieces. Students often ask how many tattoos I have—I truly have no idea anymore—so I respond with my hour/sit ratio. (Note: I’ve sat 20 times for 55 hours.) With these tattoos, I make connections with students. I am human to them. I am authentic to them because I am not hiding.

I had a conversation with a heavily tattooed male administrator at the University of Kansas when I was interviewing there for graduate school. He told me something that stuck with me, “in higher education, no one cares what you look like so long as you do a good job and inspire students.” It was a simple comment that resonated with me because I was able to acknowledge the fact that higher education truly does operate that way. We have an incredibly welcoming field that caters to people from all walks of life. So why can’t we bring about a destigmatization of tattoo culture?

This interaction at Kansas stuck with me because, as we shared our tattoo stories, we came back to many frustrations over how tattoo culture is stigmatized instead of appreciated for artistic expression. Because what this all comes down to is my fundamental belief that tattoos are art. Art is brilliant. Men who desire expressing themselves with this form of art should not feel as though we should have to hide our personal authenticity.

Men already feel like we have to suppress enough of our authentic emotions and modes of expression—so why, too, tattoos?

People who do not understand, or actively refute, a specific culture are the first to make outlandish judgments of that culture. And it is a shame this topic has not been covered much in the realm of higher education because, like racial stereotypes, the stigma around tattoos is purely skin deep.

Dennis Ahlburg (2012), who is president of Trinity University (a small private liberal arts college in San Antonio, TX) presents a mockery of how tattoo shops and tattoo culture actually function. Ahlburg makes many outlandish claims to insinuate that tattoo artists are unintelligent and that those who are tattooed are predisposed to fail in the job search the moment the ink touches skin. Ahlburg claims to know “the facts” about tattooing and yet, claims to own no ink of his own. I am simply shocked and outraged that he would attempt to assert any form of judgment over anyone for their choice in permanent artwork seeing as he obviously has no knowledge of the culture itself.

Tattoo stigma like this operates as oppression of individualistic authenticity in men.

Much of Ahlburg’s (2012) conversation on tattoos centers on this misguided belief that all tattoos involve problematic content or that everyone who has tattoos should be viewed in some negative light—when, in reality, these misconceptions are inherently themselves problematic. I have a beautiful children's literature half sleeve with Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Milo from Phantom Toll booth and the boy from The Giving Tree. However, from afar, it might look as though I just have a black and grey half sleeve covered in skulls and messages of hate—but that's not the case at all. Children have literally jumped for joy when they saw my Max tattoo. My tattoos are strategically chosen to create an image I am proud to wear.

If an employer or an institution wants to hire me for my skills and yet refuses to hire me because I choose to present myself as an art-filled canvas of self-expression—or requires me to hide my work in order to do my job, then I do not want to work for that institution or employer. Forcing someone to hide who they authentically are is a form of oppression—this includes race, gender, gender expression, class, sexual orientation, and even tattoos.

I unapologetically identify with tattoo culture and I am proud to be a future student affairs professional. My only hope is that this will begin the conversation for institutions and supervisors to rethink how we think and view men with tattoos in higher education. There is already a great deal of change taking place in higher education and I see more acceptance of tattoos—which is great—but I will not feel tattoos are truly accepted until the day I no longer have to hear someone explain that they must strategically place a tattoo so it doesn't show at their work.

Get tattooed. Share your story.

About the Author:
Craig Bidiman is a first-year Higher Education MEd graduate student at UMass Amherst. He earned his undergraduate degrees in English and Secondary Education at Oregon State University, where he served as Memorial Union President for a year and was forever transformed to enter the realm of student affairs.

Craig currently holds assistantships in the Center for Health Promotion at UMass Amherst, where he serves as a Masculinity Educator and advises the sex positive comedy troupe, Not Ready for Bedtime Players. Craig also holds an assistantship with the UMass Graduate Student Senate, where he manages advertising and social media marketing.

Craig is also an avid music reviewer, tattoo and vinyl collector, and professional wrestling nerd.

Join the dialogue on Twitter at @CrigBididman
...or on Facebook at


Ahlburg, D. (2012, October 05). President Ahlburg on tattoos: What they won’t tell you at the tattoo
parlor. The Trinitonian. Retrieved from

Diaz, S. (2011, August 21). Think before you ink: Could that tattoo cost you a job one day? USA
Today College. Retrieved from

Leonard, D. (2012, October 25). The Inked Academic Body. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Retrieved from

1 comment:

Bradley said...

Great entry! It is a sad, and rather annoying, fact that most people will instantly look at a person of color with tattoos and assume something negative, whereas white folk can generally get away with it. Then of course there is the idea that the *type* of art you display on your skin and even WHERE you display it will automatically label you as one type of person (ie. the tramp stamp, neck/face tattoos stigma, arm bands, etc.).

Thanks for this entry and your recent discussions with your artist.