Professors View on Tattooist

Behind the Needle: Professor Explores the World of Tattoo Artists

This week we look at Kara Snyder and Dr. David Lane's take on the world of tattoo artists!

Dr. David Lane

Dr. David Lane is an assistant professor of criminal science that grew up in the world of tattooing. Many of his peers pushed for Lane to study tattooing, although he stuck with education, Lane set out to understand the artists perspective.

Although I've highlighted pieces of this article here, below you will find a link to Kara Snyders writing on Dr. David Lane's research titled, "Behind the Needle: Professor explores the world of tattoo artists." I really admire the way this article in particular lays out the nontraditional steps to success tattoo artists navigate. Noting Lane's typology of different types of tattooists.


Did you know that tattooing was a fad among elites in the late 1800s in Europe and the United States? Did you know that Rowland H. Macy, Winston Churchill, and even the British Royal Family were all tattooed? Some of the oldest bodies that have been recovered also have tattoos, including Ötzi the Ice Man, who had 57 of them.

None of this is news to Dr. David Lane, assistant professor of Criminal Justice Sciences. Lane grew up “surfing, skateboarding, around a hardcore punk scene that included lots of heavily tattooed people.” His friend’s brother became a tattoo artist, and eventually, so did other friends. “It was always around my social circle.”

While finishing his Ph.D. studies, Lane had mentors encourage him to study tattooing. He resisted for a while, and then realized that they had a good idea.

While the art of tattooing is not new, the body of research around it is still relatively recent. Most of the research that does exist focuses on tattooed bodies. “I woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t want to read another article about people’s bodies and tattoos,” said Lane. “I realized the tattoo artist angle was very underexplored in the research, and I decided to dive in.”

Brad Pieiffer's tattoo on his back, created by Ricky Sturdivant, also symbolizes a feeling of loss

Dr. David Lane's Typology

During his research, Lane developed the typology of different types of tattooists:

  • Legends or masters have high degrees of skill and “have established themselves in the collective memory of the occupation,” said Lane. “They have large followings of people that consider them to be the epitome of a tattoo artist.”
  • Artists and craftsmen are underneath legends/masters. Craftsmen value the traditional way of doing things, including passing traditions on from mentor to mentee. “Contemporary tattooists work within established channels to uphold these traditions as an honorific component of the occupation,” said Lane. Artists use tattooing as a medium to explore their artistic talents and value creative and artistic freedom. “There is overlap between craftsmen and artists. Artists rely on the craftsmen to produce tools and materials. Craftsmen rely on artists to create new aesthetics and push the boundaries of the craft.”
  • The shopless and scratchers are at the bottom of the tattoo stratification system. The shopless are “all those cast as outsiders by the established tattoo world,” said Lane. They are typically untrained or self-taught. Scratchers are “folk devils whom established tattooists pin the evils of tattooing upon. Shopless and scratchers are pejorative terms related to the tattoo world; no one admits to being part of this group.”

One important point Lane wants people to realize is that tattoo artists work really hard at their jobs. “Tattoo shows on television underestimate the seriousness of the job,” he said.

Wrapping Up

Tattooists work on building a following, as it is the personal, human connections that tattoo artists make that spread the word of their work and grow their brand. Building a reputation is two-fold for tattoo artists: On one side, they need to develop a strong reputation among other artists in the industry in order to access machines and build credibility. On the other side, they need to build a public following in order to make a living. “Consumers of tattoos are apt to tell others, ‘I had a great time, and you will, too,’” said Lane.

Kara Pool Snyder, Behind the Needle: Professor explores the world of tattoo artists,, September 15, 2021

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Bastards of Art is a podcast to reach out to lowbrow artist. We are helping artist to come together with a message of positivity and ambition. It can feel very lonely spending hours in the studio. We are here to help erase self doubt and cultivate the artist inside you.

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