Dr. Allison Hawn: Public Scholar

Tuesday, April 25, 2023
Phoenix College Communication faculty Allison Hawn spent four years in tattoo shop across the US for her Ph.D. research
Phoenix College faculty Allison Hawn's tattoo of the Ross family crest
Phoenix College faculty Allison Hawn's Pictish tattoo of The Double Disc and Z-rod
Phoenix College faculty Allison Hawn's tattoo of The Boar
Phoenix College faculty Allison Hawn, wearing a Scotland hat, holding dinosaur banana bread from a student.
Phoenix College professor Allison Hawn on her dedication to public scholarship

En español. The descriptive identifiers on Dr. Allison Hawn’s social and professional platforms vary from page to page, revealing her sense of humor and some of her work history. On Instagram: accidental ninja, caffeine addict, and security specialist. Twitter: Ex-Social Worker, Highland Games Athlete, Adventure Collector, Human Magnet for the Bizarre, Gender Catastrophe. Yet, the repeat identifiers are author, tattoo researcher/historian, and Ph.D. in Communication.

Find yourself in a conversation with Allison, Phoenix College Communication Faculty, and you’ll realize how these roles collectively serve her work as a public scholar. She is fully engaged in sharing her knowledge with students, and others who seek out her expertise. For her Ph.D. in Communication, Allison spent four years in tattoo shops across the United States researching the communicative practices of tattoo artists, the history of colonialism in Western tattooing practices, and ways that tattoo artists can democratize the world of fine art. “I noticed a ton of research on why people get tattoos and people’s perceptions of tattoos, but there was nothing on tattoo artists. That’s why I started this research,” she said, “to give them a voice in an area that has traditionally ignored them.”  

Allison identifies as Scottish/Pictish American and has several tattoos that display familial and Pictish symbols [see photos at left], which we wanted to highlight during April, Scottish American Heritage Month. Try your pronunciation of a few Scottish Gaelic sayings: CEUD MILE FÀILTE (Pronounced: Queue-d Mee-Lah Fault-cha). "In Scottish Gaelic, our accents over letters slant to the left, unlike Irish Gaelic that slant to the right. It may be hard to see, but the accent is over the 'a' in 'fàilte,'" Allison writes. "This phrase directly translates to "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes" and is fairly common, warm greeting we use." Slàinte Mhath (Pronounced SL-Ah-Ntcha Vah) "This means 'Good Health' and is oftentimes used like a "cheers," a greeting, or even a something you might say as you leave someone to wish them well.

Below are edited and condensed excerpts from a recent interview about her research and role as a public scholar.

Why do people get tattoos?

To mark events is definitely one reason. For instance, the inside of my ear is tattooed with Woad. [Woad is a blue dye made from the flowering plant Isatis tinctoria and a tattoo style.] My family is Pict, which are the indigenous people of northern Scotland. We’re a very weird, insular group. We still speak Scottish Gaelic. The notches in my ear represent my age. Every decade I get a new notch.

Describe the collaborative nature of tattoo artistry.

Going to a tattoo artist is trusting someone with your body, to get into your intimate space and permanently change how you look.  The fact that they are able to do that in such a short amount of interaction is incredible. Typically, we don’t allow that without seeing a doctor’s degree on the wall. Tattoo artists have this instantaneous ability to build trust. To come up with an art piece that both can understand and agree on is part of that trust building. 

The first tattoo I ever got was an Emily Dickenson quote. I was 18 and a bit of a street kid, so I wasn’t nervous. I just didn’t know exactly what I wanted. The tattoo artist drew up a sketch and I said, “That, I want that.” From there, I started hanging out and working in the shop. I was in an undergrad program, working four jobs, but I had to choose between paying for housing or paying for school, so I lived out of my Buick. One night at the shop, having worked three days straight with almost no sleep, I asked if there was anything I could do, like wipe down the shop counters. I was so exhausted, so I sat down in the tattoo artist’s chair and fell asleep. I woke up the next morning and there was a coat over me and a note that said, You need to get more sleep. Lock up when you leave. That shop owner trusted me with thousands of dollars of equipment in the shop, so I choose tattoo artists based on that connection. 

How have tattoos been perceived over the years?

Tattooing was considered a public scourge and health crisis during the 1910s and 1920s and has gone through so many ups and downs as far as acceptance goes. A lot of that boils down to colonialism, to cultural suppression. Here in America, the sentiment was, We don’t want Native Americans continuing their tattoo practices because then they are separate from us and harder to assimilate, even though white people have been tattooed for centuries. It’s a double standard.

There are periods where people demonize tattooing and use it as an othering tool, but then there are times when it’s been widely used and accepted. In the Victorian period, people in royal families were doing tourism tattoos, a permanent way to show that you had gone places. It wasn’t okay to get tattooed in your country, but if you went to Japan and got tattooed by a Japanese master then the message was: Look what I can do, look what I can afford, look at the exotic places I’ve been. It was a way to display wealth.

But then you had Samuel O’Reilly invent the first electric tattooing machine in the 1890s and that made tattooing cheaper, more accessible, faster and you could get more intricate designs done very quickly. Suddenly it became gutter trash because now everybody is able to do it, not just the wealthy elite.

How has your research impacted your teaching?  

In class, I’ve used my tattoos to speak about empathy and intercultural communication, about ways we identify. When we talk about intercultural communication, we’re not just talking about cultures, but subcultures. We’re talking about ethnic identity, language identity, and accent identity. How do you define yourself? I speak about the empathy tattoo artists need to have, the compassion. It permeates everything that I teach. 

The type of ethnography I do is not research “on”; it’s research “with.” The tattoo artists are not participants, they are co-researchers, because that’s how I view them in this process. I write something, take it to a tattoo artist, and say, “Did I get this right? What do you think about this?” They give me very honest feedback. All the conversations I had, all the ethnographic interviews I did––all the writing I did was a reiterative process. I didn’t just talk to somebody once; I would come back to talk to them again and again. I knew about their cancer treatments. I knew about their wife and kids and which kid was doing what. It wasn’t research in the traditional sense, like standing in a lab coat and watching what happens because that wasn’t going to be representative.

You can’t have a tattoo without a tattoo artist. They’re so underrepresented and discriminated against in a lot of these highfalutin areas. I’m not a highfalutin person. I’m a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. I’ve been homeless. The fact that I have a PhD is bizarre to many people, but I saw this connection. We need someone to represent tattoo artists in the academic world, because if they don’t have a voice, people will just continue the discrimination, the derogatory notions about their art form, and the negative stereotypes that come with it. My work tries to break down some of the stigma and elevate tattoo artists to the respect they deserve.

What is your responsibility as a scholar?

I want my work to be approachable by the everyperson on the street. One of my biggest pet peeves about academia is that we publish great research, but we write it in such a way that the average person has no idea what we’re saying. I’ve read academic articles where once you’ve cut through all the ten-dollar words, they actually say nothing. To our academic detriment, we don’t focus enough on public scholarship and sharing information.

Phoenix College is way more accessible than many places. One of the things that drove me nuts in the process of getting my Ph.D. were the people who seem to hoard information, like Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit. They hoard and sit on the knowledge because they studied it, and it’s theirs. It’s really important that we share our knowledge publicly. That’s where I want to take my research. That's why I do talks. That’s why I did the York Festival of Ideas. That’s why I’ve written magazine articles. [Her work has been published in The Conversation and Salon.] Yeah, getting published in an [academic] journal is nice, but how many people are going to read it?

My dedication to scholarship is untold stories and unheard voices. That has been the focus of all of my research: who is being overlooked, who is being oppressed, who is not being paid attention to? That’s where I direct my attention. I want the world to be a more equitable place. Not equal. Equitable. And to do that, the scholarship I need to engage in has to tackle problems like race, gender, all of that. Who are we not looking at–who is being set aside? 


The Phoenix College Communication program offers courses ranging from an introduction to human communication to public speaking and the elements of intercultural communication.