Chapman anthropology students go more than skin deep to document the experience of women tattooists.


Andrew Heskett ’14 and Alyson Vallario ’14, right, spent hours interviewing women tattooists, including Jen Davis.

“Tattooing has been around as long as people have. They found tattoos preserved on the skin of cavemen. We have always been doing this.”

That narration begins the film
In My Own Skin
, made by Chapman University anthropology researchers Alyson Vallario ’14 and Drew Heskett ’14. The voice belongs to tattoo artist Laura Wangerin, one of the main subjects of the film. And if by “we” she means women of the tattooing industry, then no, they have not always been doing this.

It’s really only since the 1970s and ’80s that women tattooists started making inroads, and even today they remain a minority in the industry. The eight-minute film dips a tattooed toe into the lives of these female artists — “how they fit in with the guys and how that process changed their personalities, if they changed at all,” Vallario said.

The documentary, made for Professor Stephanie Takaragawa’s Anthropology 301 class, is gleaned from five hours of interviews and dozens more hours of other historical and ethnographic research. But at its heart, the film reflects the basic curiosity of the student researchers themselves.

Vallario came to Chapman from Northern California as a math major but discovered a new passion as a sophomore when she took Takaragawa’s introductory class in anthropology. With the professor’s help, she eventually crafted her own major in cultural anthropology.

Also during her Chapman journey, Vallario met Heskett, a film major who adopted her appreciation for anthropology. So when the two took the Ethonographic Fieldwork class together, it seemed natural to present as a film their joint research on such a visual subject.

Takaragawa, Ph.D. knew that the students would face a big hurdle in getting the female artists to embrace the project.

“The trust they gained comes through in their film,” the professor said.

The students focused on three women tattooists for Outer Limits, including Kari Barbra, who owns the three shops in Southern California and is something of a female pioneer in the industry. She started tattooing in the 1970s.

The three artists bring widely varied perspectives to the film. Jen Davis, who works in Outer Limits’ Orange location, said she has never felt hamstrung by her gender in a male-dominated industry.

“Quite the opposite,” she said. “Generally I’ve gotten jobs because I am a female, including when I started 16 years ago, when it was more of a novelty.”

However, Long Beach-based artist Laura Wangerin said she has had clients make appointments based on the quality of her portfolio only to back out when they arrived to find that she is a woman.

She also said she has seen work-related changes in her personality.

“I feel like I had to toughen up to fit in,” she says in the film. “I know I swear a lot more than I used to. Because if as a girl you’re meek and nice and don’t ruffle any feathers, you get walked all over and no one will take you seriously. So you have to find that line, maintaining who you are while not letting yourself be a pushover.”

Though the class is over, Vallario and Heskett want to expand on their research to include even more subjects, to deepen their understanding. Meanwhile at Outer Limits, Barbra couldn’t be more happy with her mix of women and men artists.

“We’re just like a melting pot in here,” she said, “and that’s the way we want it.”