Magazine On-line [fall 2012]
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Angela Baldridge and Barbara LoMonaco

Editor’s note: Barbara LoMonaco became vice president for student affairs and dean of students in July 2012. She continues as a tenured anthropology professor and will teach occasional classes.

Barbara LoMonaco took on two unique research projects in 2011–12—studying the culture of people who wait in line for days at U2 concerts and analyzing the tattoos of mixed martial arts fighters.

MMA and tattoos

On LoMonaco’s sabbatical in the summer and fall of 2011, she put together a book of photo essays on mixed martial arts fighters, specifically on the meanings behind their tattoos. That research took her and Angela Baldridge ’04, who did the photography, to Las Vegas to interview some of the world’s best fighters to learn often intimate details about their lives.

“It turns out that for these fighters, tattoos are a really important part of their public identity,” LoMonaco said. “They fight wearing only trunks, so fans can read their bodies like a canvas. We interviewed at least 50 fighters about the stories behind their tattoos and how those related to their identities as fighters and men.”

LoMonaco guessed that the main theme of many of the tattoos would be a form of aggression—braggadocio about conquests or violent imagery. In reality, most of the art was about people in the fighters’ lives who had mentored them and personal challenges they had faced. Other fighters had their own names tattooed as a marketing tool so they would be recognized in the ring.

“Almost all of the fighters we interviewed had absent fathers and grew up without male figures in their lives,” LoMonaco said. “Many have had difficult lives and overcome a lot of challenges, so many of their tattoos really told a story of their quite interesting lives.”

One fighter from Lexington, Julio, witnessed the death of his parents in a murder-suicide when he was 13. On his back he had a tattoo of portraits of each of his parents and the mythical four horsemen of the apocalypse in front of cemetery gates displaying his family name.

“I said, ‘Why would you carry this around? Every time you step into the ring, people are going to ask about this tattoo,’” LoMonaco said. “He said, ‘It forces me to talk about it, and that’s part of my healing.’”

LoMonaco and Baldridge developed the research into an art exhibit titled Ink in the Cage: The Stories Behind MMA Fighter Tattoos, which was featured on Inside MMA, a nationally televised program on AXS TV and was the subject of a Morlan Gallery exhibit at Transylvania.

Line-cutting and social justice

The fans of Irish rock ‘n’ roll band U2 are famously diehard, and that fact is no more evident than when people stand in line at concert venues for days to get a chance to see the group perform. Through LoMonaco’s experiences going to U2 shows, she talked with some of those fans and quickly realized they were no ordinary lines. There was an entire culture forming from putting these people together for such a long time. Fans would make numbers for their wrists, and they had very strict rules on how long you could leave the line and for what reasons.

“I called my friend Marie Helweg-Larson, who is an associate professor of psychology at Dickinson College, and we decided to study social norm violations and why people were so invested in having this line,” LoMonaco said, “particularly how people react to line-cutting.”

In these gatherings, cutting in line is a serious offense. Because there is no official security, the potential for havoc is high, and certain organizers find ways to keep peace and ensure fairness. That concept isn’t revolutionary—most people are offended if someone cuts in front of them in line. The interesting aspect of LoMonaco’s research is that people in the concert queues would be just as upset if they found someone
cutting in line behind them.

“These people were morally outraged when someone cut 100 people behind them in line,” LoMonaco said. “We asked the reason, thinking maybe it was something to do with the band’s message of humanitarianism.”

By surveying fans at U2 concerts all around the world, LoMonaco learned that humanitarianism had nothing to do with it. It had to do with the fact that because these lines are self-organizing systems, they’re also very fragile.

“Because there really aren’t any teeth to these rules, if one person cuts in line, the system breaks down,” she said. “And it gets even more vulnerable with the more time people are invested. So the three hours before the line goes into the stadium is when all hell can potentially break loose, and that’s when cutting happens.”

LoMonaco and Helweg-Larson published their research in a psychology journal and did interviews with the British Broadcasting System and several radio shows in Ireland.

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