Chris Helland never expected to get famous just for rolling up his sleeves—but there he is, his arms folded across this chest and his forearms bared, gazing out from billboards and bus shelters across the city. Curling down from under his rolled shirtsleeves, the tattoos are hard to miss. Dense and elaborate, they wind around his forearms in black inked waves, unabashedly asserting themselves in the photograph.
But it’s not necessarily the tattoos that are the surprise—it’s the context. Chris Helland is a Dalhousie professor, and the decision to bare the tattoos was a deliberate one. He was recently recruited by the university to be part of their “Discover the Unexpected” campaign—one of a series of posters and online videos featuring people with different or unusual stories related to taking class at Dal: a female skateboarder who came up with a business plan to open a board shop while taking an entrepreneurial course, a dreadlocked drummer passionate about neuroscience. In Helland’s case, the ad highlights “Goblins, Ghosts, Gods and Gurus,” a popular second-year religion course he teaches in the department of sociology.
But let’s face it: the ad is about the tattoos. “It’s interesting to be recognized,” says Helland, 40, who has taken a lighthearted approach to the campaign, “but it’s sort of a strange thing to be promoted as just ‘tattoo guy’ as opposed to for my research and my work as an academic.” He says that when he was originally recruited, the university was looking for professors who taught interesting courses—but when they found out about the tattoos, things changed. “I told them ‘are you sure you aren’t going to be scaring people away?’” says Helland, laughing from behind the desk in his tidy office.
Marla Cranston, who was involved in devising the university’s current campaign, says the decision to promote the professor’s tattooed side was in keeping with its goal of shying away from the image of the university as a stodgy place.
“You just don’t expect to see a university professor with tattoos,” says Cranston. “This is a way of showing that our profs are people that teenagers can relate to.”
Not to say that Helland’s tattoos are entirely un-academic. The inked designs working their ways up his arms were mostly earned with scholarship money: every time Helland, who started university at 26 with the goal of getting a tenure-track professorial job before he turned 40 (he managed it by 38), won an academic award, he would use some of the money to treat himself to a new work of body art. Helland, who has built his academic career on studying religious activity on the internet, says that most his tattoos—from a detailed rendering of the first Dalai Lama to “some other Buddhist and Egyptian stuff”—relate to religion.
His appearance in Dalhousie’s campaign has earned Helland a fair bit of unexpected attention. In December, the ad was posted on needled.com, an American tattoo blog, with the comment “I find it refreshing to see another tattooed academic on a billboard rather than being hidden as an embarrassment,” finishing up with the pithy statement: “universities take heed: tattooed profs=great marketing.” Helland has since agreed to do a photo shoot in New York City for inkedinc.com, a website devoted to “the intersection of body art and professional culture,” and has been approached by the editor of Skin Art, a glossy American magazine dedicated to tattoos.
“I still think tattooing is a fairly tribal thing to do,” says Helland, who got his first tattoo at 19. Though he agrees that they’re becoming more culturally accepted, Helland says that tattoos, once the mark of “degenerates, sailors or criminals,” still indicate that the wearer is a little bit different: “you’re willing to be a bit more on the edge—you’re not just a number or another cog in the machine.”
As for the question of using his tattoos to sell Dalhousie, Helland says he still thinks the decision was a brave one on their part, and that if it helps with recruitment, he’s happy to lend an arm. “They’re showing a diverse side to the faculty, and the fact that professors are people—and interesting people.” And when the fame gets to be too much for him, Helland can always roll down his sleeves.