"The object is not to get chummy with the poor. These are artistic practices that reconstruct class boundaries and ultimately relegate the poor to the hardcore," says Karen Bettez Halnon, associate professor of sociology at Penn State's Abington Campus near Philadelphia.
Signature tattoos, custom choppers, expensive health club fitness programs and the like represent a new form of gentrification, or middle class takeover of lower class communities, Halnon notes.
Her findings are published in an article, "Muscles, Motorcycles and Tattoos: Gentrification in a New Frontier," in the current issue of the international Journal of Consumer Culture.
Halnon's study explains how a "compelling symbolic triplet of lower class masculinity" has been glorified with a range of class distinguishing qualities such as: discussing the practices in esoteric language; locating the practices deep in history; treating the practices as optional and autonomous indulgences; gaining the sponsorship of elite institutions; and establishing professional skills and knowledge that provide social distance from the lower classes.
The researcher examined the content of coffee table books, conference proceedings, museum exhibits, and the techniques of various artists and experts who sculpt customized bodies and machines, such as on the television shows "American Chopper" and "Miami Ink." The Penn State professor says her findings are troubling because "gentrifying muscles, motorcycles and tattoos, like all cases of gentrification, ultimately displaces the lower classes from their communities."
Providing an example of the harm that may be done through symbolic gentrification, Halnon cited Wooden and Blazak's study of San Francisco gutter punks who took drastic measures to defend against "frat boys and pro athletes" who invaded their "symbolic turf" by appropriating body piercing as a style. One group of gutter-punks responded by cutting off their pinky fingers.
"The extremity of such action may be understood as measure of the extreme value of symbolic territory for the socially and economically disenfranchised," notes Halnon.
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