–Kenny Rice

All photos courtesy of Dr. Barbara LoMonaco

MMA is being taken to school, at the prestigious private liberal arts Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. You may not have been here but you understand the institution: a limited high- standard enrollment (1100), manicured lawns surrounding weathered brick buildings dating centuries– all framing a classic steeple building in the campus center.

The oldest college west of the Allegheny Mountains, founded in 1780, that has produced U.S. Vice Presidents, Senators, Supreme Court Justices and Ambassadors, is putting on display: Cris “Cyborg” Santos, Jens Pulver, Matt Brown, Vitor Belfort, Dan Hardy, Jorge Gurgel and a dozen more fighters.

More specifically, their tattoos are the focal point of an intriguing art exhibit at the Morlan Gallery until October 26.

“Ink In the Cage: The Stories behind MMA Fighter Tattoos” is a collection of photographs gathered over two years that seamlessly and surprisingly juxtaposes combative athletes in a cerebral setting. Walking past the stunning pictures in a pristine collegiate gallery does have a slowly building impact of contradictions, capturing warmth within violent appearances.

It is essentially an extension of anthropological study. Texts next to pictures explain a reason, the purpose of each tattoo for the individual.  A visitor can put on headphones and listen to painfully personal accounts (Pulver’s uncensored story is mesmerizing) about trials, tragedies and triumphs depicted in their body art as reminders and tributes.

“Their bodies are so public. Their bodies are a canvas if you read them. And my question to each fighter was ‘If you stepped into the ring what would you want the world to know about you?’” Dr. Barbara LoMonaco explains her idea for this exhibit.

Dr. LoMonaco is the Vice President of Student Affairs/Dean of Students at Transylvania. She is also an anthropology professor who received a grant to travel for the project, going from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, from Huntington Beach to Cincinnati, to meet with fighters and hear their stories.

This art display is an extension of her passion for sports, in particular boxing. She watched bouts with her father John while growing up in Texas. Just as her life and the studies of a world-traveled professor evolved, so too did her growing interest in mixed martial arts as something more exciting, as action in the squared circle waned. It began when her father sent a DVD of UFC 1 not long after the event had taken place.

She became a fan, to the point “I wasn’t so sure about bringing in the weight classes. There was something so raw and enticing about a bar room boxer taking on a Sumo wrestler,” LoMonaco smiles.

Even if she had never intended to bring her appreciation of sports to her academics – at least not with a distinct purpose – as it turned out, Dr. LoMonaco had lectured many hours to her students on body modification and decoration, how gender meanings could be derived from ancient cultures with what might at first appear as simple inscriptions. Tribal art, which today could be reasoned as that of the complexities of the MMA gathering.

“Understanding bodies are cultural entities and MMA tattoos are very much a part of our culture today, our pop culture. I was dealing with popular cultural with this project. Many fighters are big personalities, many are overcoming dramatic life moments to get to where they are,” Dr. LoMonaco says, “They may look like just a lot of tattoos to some but there is so much more in their stories.”

“It’s like our university that might appear conservative but we are doing many innovative things, our arts department has done some very edgy things such as this exhibit. The students have appreciated it, I would guess at least twenty-five percent of our student body has at least one tattoo. Spring break gives you an idea about that,” she laughed.

She enlisted the help of photographer and former Transylvania student Angela Baldridge to make this plan come to fruition.

“I had never seen it (MMA fights) until she called. It was bloody and grotesque and fascinating all at the same time,” Baldridge notes. “Once I got to know fighters I found them to be philosophical and intelligent. Their bodies are so architectural and what they conveyed in their body art so raw and real. Once I explained what it is I’m looking for and wanted to capture, that element of vulnerability, they all seem to get it. Some were reluctant but came around.”

A fighter showing a vulnerable side, at least trying to convince them to, is tougher than taking a punch. But LoMonaco and Baldridge made a formidable duo, brazenly crashing autograph signings, making countless calls and simply–again boldly–walking into gyms like Xtreme Couture and Tap Out.

The results are impressive, almost a 100% success rate. One fighter would tell another these ladies are taking this to a whole new level in detailing what we do, who we are. No fighter was compensated; they just wanted their story told.

“Jens was small as a boy for traditional team sports, but too big to be a jockey as his parents were, “Dr. LoMonaco explains, “He always wanted to wear a jersey, since he obviously didn’t do that in wrestling he now has Pulver across his back, he now has a permanent jersey on his skin. There is depth to his story like all those we heard.”

And all gradually embraced the freedom of not only showing more skin for the camera but showing more of the emotional side most fighters are always camouflaging for opponents and fans.

“I don’t say very much, I want the fighters to feel natural. When Cris Cyborg, for all her muscles has a very feminine back with prominent tattoos, came in she was at first reluctant to show that. But she understood and was simply wonderful to work with and became more comfortable in showing this art, her art as the session progressed,” Baldridge says.

“It is interesting some have regrets about their tattoos. Some have used lasers to have them removed or modified. The tribal arm band for example was very cool ten years ago, now it is the mullet of tattoos,” Dr. LoMonaco explains. “What we all thought was impressive or special at sixteen changes as we become thirty.

There is some correlation as well to history. Brad Tavares uses that in his heritage, Polynesians historically had stories in their body art. Japanese art work harkens to a time of warriors, we see that in many fighters today.”

Both ladies consider this a “small exhibit” with plans for more, perhaps even a coffee table book of the pictures and just as importantly the stories. It has drawn interest from the general public as well, those who are curious about the glimpses they’ve seen of all these tatted up people hitting each other.

“It’s wonderful for our school and I believe for MMA, that people can come to something they are comfortable with, an art gallery, to learn about something they might not have been able to appreciate before,” says Brian Lane, coach of the Division III national runners-up golf team and the perennially nationally ranked basketball team. “Dean LoMonaco’s vision is so impressive. I know anyone who comes to the exhibit will take something meaningful from it. This isn’t just for sports or MMA fans.”

A tattoo will never be taken for granted again after seeing and hearing the stories behind them. It isn’t always as it appears. And if you are wondering neither is the name of the university. Transylvania is a Latin translation for “across the woods,” which describes how the surrounding looked when the school was established. Their nickname to go along with that is Pioneers, not Vampires.

Monday on Inside MMA we will feature the exhibit. If you want to see it in person, contact Transylvania at 859-233-8142 or

Got some ink of your own?  Show us on facebook or twitter, or show the man himself on Kenny’s twitter or facebook page

Watch Kenny Rice along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Monday night on Inside MMA, and check out Kenny’s new book “Not Hit Yet” an insider look at the MMA world in 2012, available at Amazon now

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