Any tattoo is the outcome of an intimate, often hidden process. The people, bodies, and money that make tattooing what it is blend together and form a heady cocktail, something described by Matt, the owner of Oakland's Premium Tattoo, as "blood and lightning." Faced with the client's anticipation of pain and excitement, the tattooer must carefully perform calm authority to obscure a world of preparation and vigilance. "Blood and lightning, my dude"—the mysterious and intoxicating effect of tattooing done right.
Dustin Kiskaddon draws on his own apprenticeship with Matt and takes us behind the scenes into the complex world of professional tattooers. We join people who must routinely manage a messy and carnal type of work. Blood and Lightning brings us through the tattoo shop, where the smell of sterilizing agents, the hum of machines, and the sound of music spill out onto the back patio. It is here that Matt, along with his comrades, reviews the day's wins, bemoans its losses, and prepares for the future.
Having tattooed more than five hundred people, Kiskaddon is able to freshly articulate the physical, mental, emotional, and moral life of tattooers. His captivating account explores the challenges they face on the job, including the crushing fear of making mistakes on someone else's body, the role of masculinity in evolving tattoo worlds, appropriate and inappropriate intimacy, and the task of navigating conversations about color and race.
Ultimately, the stories in this book teach us about the roles our bodies play in the social world. Both mediums and objects of art, our bodies are purveyors of sociocultural significance, sites of capitalist negotiation, and vivid encapsulations of the human condition. Kiskaddon guides us through a strangely familiar world, inviting each of us to become a tattooer along the way.
About the author
Dustin Kiskaddon is a cultural sociologist whose work can be seen on Instagram, @Dustin.Kiskaddon. After nearly a decade of teaching and a few years of professional tattooing, he now uses his expertise in culture, the economy, and technology to conduct applied research.
"Blood and Lightning is a stellar and vivid depiction of an industry that has long been mythologized in popular culture. Kiskaddon's memoir offers a candid perspective on both the business and creative sides of tattooing. As it dives into a cultural rite of passage, Kiskaddon's work also excels as a character study."
"In Blood and Lightning, we don't just enter the silent and physical spaces within the world of tattooing, instead the spaces are lived, examined, and connected to our humanity. Kiskaddon shows how tattoos, like history and storytelling itself, can evolve depending on the body or the world they occupy."
—Devin Katayama, Senior Produce for NPR's Throughline
"Written in an easygoing style, Kiskaddon's narrative ends up as much a workplace memoir as an anthropological study, where the work being documented is both tattooing and ethnography itself, with frequent references to taking field notes and finding ways to get interviews (paying for a tattoo turns out to be the best way to get a tattoo artist to talk for two hours). It's a charming and thoughtful slice of life."
"Blood and Lightning is an illuminating peek behind the doors of a tattoo shop, digging into the realities, ethics, and philosophy of altering the bodies of strangers."
—Ashley Holstrom, Foreword Reviews
"Kiskaddon's sensuous ethnography takes us behind the scenes in the mecca of tattooing—Oakland, California. His richly detailed prose sings as he describes his apprenticeship: learning the right touch, both needle-to-skin and with other members of this 'cool' shop. More than any other ethnography I've read, this one breathes on the page: we inhale the sharp snap of isopropyl alcohol and the tang of sweat, while early Black Flag pumps out the speakers, thumping over the hum of machines, phone calls, and pain-filled exhalations of the clients. "
—Jennifer C. Lena, author of Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts
"In this book, Kiskaddon covers ground that few researchers have been willing to traverse. Moreover, he is a scholar/tattooist, a combination rarely seen in the serious literature about tattooing."
—David C. Lane, author of The Other End of the Needle
"Very thoughtful and knowledgeable; pulled me in right from the start."
—Stephanie Tamez, Tattoo Artist and co-owner ofThis Time Tmrwprivate studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn NYC
"Blood and Lightning is a landmark study of the craft of tattooing that is consistently compelling and rewarding."
—Michael Welch, Chicago Review of Books
"Even readers who, like myself, have never gone under the needle will find themselves lured into the world that Kiskaddon unveils....Kiskaddon explores how tattooing intersects and resonates with many of the deepest themes of humanity, including art, commerce, race, identity and bodily autonomy."
—Paul Constant, The Seattle Times