Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Smelling Fear: How Tattooing Inspired Me to Explain Sensation


Cite this article:

“Smelling Fear: How Tattooing Inspired Me to Explain Sensation,” Dustin Kiskaddon. 2023 EPIC Proceedings p 428, ISSN 1559-8918

I harness my experience as a tattoo artist to affirm the power of bodies and sensation in ethnography. The talk begins with a moment—me tattooing someone who grows silent, pale, and sweaty. I didn’t know he was about to puke, but my mentor did, even though he was six feet away. How did he know, and I didn’t? It’s because he could read the sensory cues of his environment. Over time, he learned to detect tiny changes in body odor and, more importantly, to use these changes to succeed at work. I had to do the same thing—or else make permanent mistakes while tattooing the squirming bodies of strangers for money. As Simon Roberts teaches: Humans variously feel, touch, see, hear, and smell their way through the world. Each job, sport, or culture demands a localized form of sensory knowledge. People new to any scene develop this knowledge through exposure and experience, a process sociologists call “sensory socialization.” I affirm the need to explain sensory socialization and wonder aloud: How does this need play-out across ethnographic practices? Are we (and our stakeholders) getting or missing the messages?

Dustin Kiskaddon is a cultural sociologist whose book, Blood and Lightning: On Becoming a Tattooer drops February 2024 (Stanford University Press). After a decade of teaching and a few years of professional tattooing, he applies expertise in culture, the economy, and technology to conduct applied research.


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