DeMello, Margo 1964–
DeMello, Margo 1964–
Born December 14, 1964; married. Education: University of California, Davis, Ph.D.
Home—Placitas, NM. E-mail—[email protected]
House Rabbit Society, president and executive director; Central New Mexico Community College, faculty member.
Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2000.
(With Susan E. Davis) Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, Lantern Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Low-Carb Vegetarian, Book Publishing (Summertown, TN), 2004.
(With Erin E. Williams) Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 2007.
Encyclopedia of Body Adornment, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 2007.
Margo DeMello is a cultural anthropologist and animal rights advocate. Her book Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community attracted significant critical attention. Writing as both an academic and a member of the tattoo community, DeMello explores the history of tattooing and recent changes in the tattoo communities in North America. As she shows, tattoos in earlier eras were associated with the working classes, but since the 1980s have become widely popular among the middle class. The causes and effects of this significant cultural shift is the focus of DeMello's investigation in the book.
DeMello describes the historical context in which the new tattoo community exists and identifies two major transitions in the history of tattooing in North America: the influence of sophisticated new Japanese designs, starting in the 1960s, which offered more individualistic and exotic imagery than those associated with the older tattoo tradition; and the growth of tattoo conventions and magazines, a decade later, through which people interested in tattooing could form a community and even compete for increasingly creative images. Through these influences, writes DeMello, "middle-class competitiveness and individuality along with an elevated sense of aesthetics have been grafted onto a working-class tradition," making tattoos "fit for middle-class consumption."
Tattooing since the 1960s has developed new meanings, argues DeMello. She identifies various "tattoo narratives" that distance the practice from its histori- cally negative associations, and finds that such narratives offer original and complex justifications for the tattoo. An interesting point about these narratives, DeMello adds, is that they are structured as dialectical arguments, in which the speaker assumes a listener who either objects to the practice of tattooing or does not understand it; the speaker's role, then, is to illuminate the practice and defend it. As DeMello explains, these narratives express various themes: individualism; personal growth and liberation; personal empowerment, especially for women; spirituality, including goddess worship and other alternative beliefs; and a connection with one's natural, more primitive, being. Many of the people DeMello interviewed for the book describe getting a tattoo to express their sense of uniqueness; to differentiate themselves from others; to express defiance of convention; or to mark an important life event, such as a divorce. A woman who had been in a bad marriage, for example, told DeMello, as quoted by Theodore Dalrymple in the New Criterion, "I ended up getting this wolf [tattoo], which to me was power and strength over all the abuse and all the things that went on in my life. It was a sense of freedom … I wanted it … to become myself."
While many reviewers admired DeMello's research and analysis, Dalrymple found her insights to be superficial. Unconvinced by DeMello's favorable description of the tattoo community, Dalrymple, a psychiatrist who has worked in British prisons, claimed that in Britain "the statistic association between tattooing and criminality is very much stronger … than that with any of the more conventionally investigated factors [except for smoking], such as broken homes, drug addition, low intelligence, and poor educational attainment." In Dalrymple's view, DeMello "entirely misses the cultural significant of the spread of tattoos into the middle classes." For the critic, tattoos have become "a badge not only of independence, but also of liberal virtue" which shows the bearer's sympathy toward the working classes—but which, in the critic's view, is essentially shallow. Bodies of Inscription, Dalrymple concluded, "is a superficial examination of a social phenomenon of considerable cultural significance, but it will nonetheless be of great interest to people who know how to read between the lines."
Other critics, however, appreciated Bodies of Inscription as a valuable ethnographic study. While Village Voice writer Margot Mifflin noted the book's "whiff of reverse elitism," the reviewer praised it as a "penetrating and wonderfully original piece of work, interweaving references to Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu … with field work in a well-organized and cleanly written book." Cyril Siorat, writing in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, observed that Bodies of Inscription is "rich in ethnographic material" that contains many "pertinent observations" and offers a "very good" ethnographic analysis of the contemporary tattoo community in North America.
DeMello has also written Encyclopedia of Body Adornment, which covers not only tattooing but body piercing, branding, sex reassignment surgery, plastic surgery, makeup, and other practices. In addition to describing such practices, DeMello discusses body adornment practices among various cultural groups, as well as the influence of key individuals, including circus owner P.T. Barnum, whose tattooed "freaks" introduced tattooing to popular audiences.
Her experience adopting pet rabbits led DeMello to write, with Susan E. Davis, Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. As the book makes clear, rabbits are complex animals that are far from the stereotype of the cuddly creature depicted in nursery rhymes. DeMello and Davis discuss the history of rabbits as domesticated animals, the prevalence of rabbits in mythology and folklore, and the use of rabbits for fur and for meat. The book was hailed as a thorough and informative work. No book to date, wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "has so closely examined the behavior and place of the rabbit—as pet, prey, pest and mythic figure—in history." Booklist contributor Nancy Bent expressed similar enthusiasm, calling the book "the best book to offer readers who want to know more about their pet rabbits." DeMello is president and chief executive of House Rabbit Society, and cares for some forty-five rabbits at her home in New Mexico, where they share space with her pet cats, dogs, birds, and guinea pigs.
DeMello widens her focus in Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection, which she wrote with Erin E. Williams. A Publishers Weekly writer called it an "excellent look at cruelty to animals on an institutional level in various industries." DeMello and Williams describe various abusing practices in predictable places, such as the meat industry, but also in less obvious places such as cosmetics manufacturing and the pet-breeding industry. Writing in Booklist, Nancy Bent noted that the book "deliberately avoids complicated ethical and philosophical reasoning," instead relying on basic language to state the case for humane treatment of animals. Likewise, the Publishers Weekly contributor considered the book "tough but fair-minded."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
DeMello, Margo, Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2000.
Albuquerque Tribune, July 17, 2006, Rivkela Brodsky, "Placitas Woman Hops to Rabbits' Defense."
American Journal of Sociology, November, 2000, Clinton R. Sanders, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 856.
Booklist, March 1, 2000, Patricia Monaghan, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 1177; September 1, 2003, Nancy Bent, review of Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, p. 35; May 15, 2007, Nancy Bent, review of Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection, p. 6; August, 2007, "New Reference Sources for Older Students," p. 120.
Bookwatch, August, 2004, review of Low-Carb Vegetarian, p. 3.
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 26, 2000, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 28.
Historian, winter, 2002, Jane Caplan, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 406.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June, 2005, Cyril Siorat, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 373.
Library Journal, February 1, 2000, Chogollah Maroufi, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 106; June 1, 2007, Alicia Graybill, review of Why Animals Matter, p. 146.
New Criterion, June, 2000, Theodore Dalrymple, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 74.
New Yorker, June 5, 2000, review of Bodies of Inscription, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, June 2, 2003, review of Stories Rabbits Tell, p. 45; March 26, 2007, review of Why Animals Matter, p. 78.
Reference & Research Book News, November, 2007, review of Encyclopedia of Body Adornment; November, 2007, review of Why Animals Matter.
Village Voice, October 10, 2000, Margo Mifflin, "Pretty in Ink."
Lantern Books Web site,http://www.lanternbooks.com/ (April 15, 2008), Margo DeMello profile.
Why Animals Matter Web site,http://www.whyanimalsmatter.com (April 15, 2008), Margo DeMello profile.