Re-Inscribing Subculture: Commodification and Boundary Work in American Traditional Tattooing
Strohecker, David Paul
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This auto-ethnographic research explores the debate surrounding the analytical utility of the concept of subculture. Utilizing interview data collected from 58 tattoo artists and collectors, I address fundamental concerns regarding the concept, examine its historical development, and defend a refined notion of subculture as coined by Hodkinson (2002) in his study of Goth. Utilizing the four characteristics of subcultural “substance”, I showcase how American traditional tattooing is the premier example of this concept. In exploring this debate, I examine the role of the subcultural commodification process in the construction of new, field-dependent identities such as the tribal entrepreneur Goulding and Saren (2007) outline in their study of Goth. Using a general theory of subcultural commodification, I propose a new figure emergent from this process, that of the “traditionalist”, an inward-looking role adopted by many who resist the commodification process. The traditionalist seeks to defend their field-dependent identities as subculturalists at the core of these groupings. Utilizing the notion of tradition, these individuals construct new forms of subcultural capital (Thornton 1996) that position themselves outside of and away from the mainstream. In a nod to Durkheim (1912), I discuss how the sacred and the profane are used to label insiders and outsiders through the use of aesthetic judgments. This role positioning process is essential for the preservation of subculture at the level of lived experience. My research shows how traditionalists employ boundary work (Lamont and Molnar 2002) in their defense of their subcultural identities. They strategically deploy the symbolic boundaries of the sacred and the profane in order to police the social boundaries of this community.