Angela Baldridge was at a bar when a mixed martial arts match came on television.
"I turned to my friend, and I said, 'This is so grotesque. I can't believe anyone would watch this for fun. It's so violent and terrible,'" Baldridge recalls, laughing.
She thinks that's funny because the next day she was taking a call from Transylvania University anthropology professor Barbara LoMonaco inviting Baldrdige to go deep into the world of mixed martial arts via the fighters' tattoos. It will be open for Friday's Gallery Hop event and continue through Oct. 26.
"I was interested in sitting down to talk with mixed martial arts fighters to understand the stories behind their tattoos as, really, metaphors of masculinity," says LoMonaco, who says she has long been intrigued by mixed martial arts and its most prominent commercial outlet, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. "I knew that some of the fighters had interesting life stories and I also knew that many of them were heavily tattooed.
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"I've taught classes at Transy for a long time on body modification and body decoration and how those inscribe gender meanings on the body."
She decided the project, which was done on a sabbatical, needed a visual component. Baldridge, a photographer who had been a student in one of LoMonaco's classes, was recommended to her.
Their two-year project is now on display at Transylvania University's Morlan Gallery as Ink in the Cage: The Stories Behind MMA Fighter Tattoos, a show of photos, transcriptions of interviews with the fighters and audio clips of them talking about the stories behind their highly decorated bodies.
"Their body really is a canvas," says LoMonaco, who is also vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Transylvania. "They fight in just trunks, so all of their tattoos are for public consumption."
Jorge Gurgel, one of the fighters with whom Baldridge and LoMonaco worked, says, "It's not fighters that are getting tattoos. Everybody is getting tattoos, especially musicians and artists. But not everyone is on TV. People see me on TV, and they get to know my tattoos and what they are about."
Tattoos as therapy
The women found that for some fighters, the tattoos were like uniforms. A couple had their names inked on their backs between their shoulders, as on a sports jersey, in what they saw as an effort to redeem family names given to them by abusive parents.
One of them was Jens Pulver, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion and a coach on Spike TV's Ultimate Fighter 5.
"His father's last name is the same as his last name, and I asked him how it felt to have that name on his back," LoMonaco says. "He replied, in the way that a lot of fighters reply to stories about redemption, that, 'My wearing the name now will bring more honor to that family name, and I'm a very different person than my father was.'"
The only local MMA fighter in the project, Julio Gallegos, has a similar tattoo, related to his parents' deaths in Lexington. In 1997, 14-year-old Gallegos watched at a Cardinal Valley food mart and taco restaurant as his father, Gerardo A. Gallegos, fatally shot his wife and Julio's mother, Elizabeth "Jody" Gallegos, and then turned the gun on himself. His tattoo includes his name, portraits of his parents and a cemetery.
"I asked why he had such a painful story on his back, and he said it forces him to talk about it," LoMonaco says. "For years he didn't talk about it, and he had a drug problem and went to prison, and talking about the story was part of the healing. Getting the tattoo was part of the healing process."
Then there were the tattooed tributes. Dan Hardy, known as "The Outlaw," has a tattoo in honor of his grandfather, who took Hardy to tae kwon do classes when he was being bullied in school and studied the martial art with him.
"His grandfather taught him, not self-defense through fighting, but gave him confidence by getting him involved in this sport," LoMonaco says.
Baldridge, who often free-lances for the Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com, recalls that when Hardy's grandfather's died at the family home, Hardy suggested everyone present have a cup of tea, one of the grandfather's favorite things.
"So he has this beautiful tattoo on his leg that is a cup of tea with 'Grandad' on it," Baldridge says.
In addition to Gallegos' memorial to his parents, he has tattoos of his daughter's handprints on his wrists.
There were also funny stories, particularly of "idiot stamps," those later- regretted tattoos often obtained during the wearer's teens.
"Many of the artists said, if you're ever going to get a tattoo, draw out the design, put it in a drawer for a year, and if you still like it after a year, you might be able to think about it," LoMonaco says. Gurgel, who is based in Cincinnati, said, 'Don't even start getting tattoos, because you'll want to get another one and another one, and you'll be a mountain of tackiness by the time you're older."
Talking to the Herald-Leader, he equates over-tattooing to overdressing except, "You can't go into the closet and take your tattoos off."
He also says tattoos on fighters are effective because the fighters are in good shape.
"First, people have to appreciate the physique before they can appreciate the tattoo," he says. "No one wants to look at a tattoo on a bunch of cellulite."
Baldridge and LoMonaco are hoping to find a publisher to turn their work into a book, and they might package the show as a traveling exhibit. The Transylvania show is its debut.
How it happened
Documenting the fighters took Baldridge and LoMonaco across the country to places including Las Vegas and Southern California, where they approached fighters at gyms and fights about submitting to interviews and photo shoots. In one instance, they bribed a doorman at a VIP party in Vegas to get a seat next to a fighter so they could approach him.
The women never were turned down.
Asked why they thought that happened, Baldridge says, "When I was looking at photos that had been done of them, because we don't want everything to look the same, a lot of their interviews focused on their fighting tactics, on their record, and there are photo books of before-and-after shots of them after they've been beat up. So you've got this complete focus on them as these fighting machines, but there wasn't much that investigated them as people."
LoMonaco said that in such a niche sport, the fighters must promote themselves, and the project was a chance for them to do that, "though they certainly didn't know us or know if we are reputable."
"Also, I am so passionate about the sport and I have followed it for so long that many of the interviews started out talking about recent fights and thoughts on fighters, so it was really easy to establish rapport. Angela was also able to engage them in stories about their families and even the stories behind their tattoos as she was shooting them."
Gurgel says he has been approached by other artists wanting to work with him and his tattoos, and he is always happy to help.
"They were very cheerful and great to work with," he says of LoMonaco and Baldridge.
The photo sessions usually took place in the cage where the fights happen, often with other fighters milling around and making fun of them — "Ho, ho, lookin' pretty" — and sometimes with fans filing in for matches.
Ultimately, Baldridge developed respect, even enthusiasm, for the sport she had disparaged the night before LoMonaco approached her about the project. She came to admire the skill involved, calling it "kinetic chess," though she found she was capable of her own visceral reactions to the sport.
Another night, she and LoMonaco were in a bar watching a fight, and "I found myself cheering for one of the fighters we had photographed," Baldridge says.
LoMonaco adds, "On her feet, cheering."