Thursday, October 10, 2013

Covered: A Sociological Film About Tattoos

I show the film Covered in my Introduction to Sociology course. The filmmaker is Beverly Yuen Thompson, a sociologist at Siena College. The film is 58 minutes. I show approximately 35 minutes of the film and use the remainder of class time for discussion. I've shown it to three different classes and what stands out is the variety of reactions I get from students. I had the mistaken assumption that the current generation of college students would be "all in" about tattoos. I figured they would think tattoos are cool, period. In reality, students have mixed reactions in talking about tattoos. Keep in mind the film focuses on women who have a lot of tattoos (you perhaps gathered that from the movie title. It's called Covered, not Little Tattoos You Won't Even Notice).

I highly recommend showing this film to students. The first part of the film focuses on reactions that women get in public and from family members. One woman in the film talks about the frustration of being stopped by strangers who ask about her tattoos: "I'm not a mannequin that you can just come up and look at the merchandise," she says. Another participant in the film used the phrase "tattoo etiquette" in saying that the public hasn't yet figured out how to respond to people with a lot of tattoos.

A really interesting part of the film shows disapproval from family members. There's a great scene featuring the filmmaker with her mother. One of the tattoos Thompson has is of her father, who doesn't know she has tattoos. "If he found out," her mother says, "he'd probably have a heart attack." In an interview of another mother and daughter, the daughter says she wants to get a tattoo of her mother. The mother replies: "No...It's no good for me.....Do it when I die."

Another excellent section of the film focuses on the experiences of women as tattoo artists. They talk about breaking into what has traditionally been a male industry. One tattooist talks about not always being taken seriously when customers walk through the door. She says: "Even today, after almost thirty years, sometimes I'll be tattooing a man, and people will walk in, and they'll ask the man the question." Another tattooist mentions that she is asked "Do you tattoo guys?" She laughs and wonders if people ever ask male artists if they tattoo women. On the other hand, artists talk about the positive response they get as tattooists. One says that women are more comfortable getting tattooed by women (especially in a "risque" area of their body). Another artist notes there are "possessive husbands or boyfriends that won't let a man touch their girlfriends or wives." An artist suggests that the stigma around women tattooists has lessened since she began her career. So the industry landscape has changed and continues to change.

When I ask students to respond to the film, I hear several different comments, but have observed a few themes. Some students will say they like tattoos if they have meaning.These students dislike "random" tattoos. This usually leads to other students jumping in and saying that all tattoos have meaning, even when the meaning is not obvious and apparent. Other students wonder if it's possible to get a job if they are heavily tattooed. That sentiment leads to good discussion and elicits different perspectives. Students have also talked about disapproval from family members after getting tattoos. Others beam with pride when they talk about their tattoos and the tattoos they would like to get in the future. In all, the film opens the door for students to think about the sociology of tattoos. I love the film and am inspired by the creative approach Thompson takes to doing sociology.

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