Professors Have Style Stories Too: Rowan University Professor Stephanie Nichols

Stephanie Marie Nichols is a 33-year-old professor at Rowan University. Her many responsibilities include Costume Shop Supervisor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and Professor of the courses Costume Design, Costume Production, and Costume History. I met Nichols when I first applied for a campus job as Costume Shop Assistant, and now I see her three times a week in the shop where I work, making costumes for theatre productions under her direction. Even though I had seen one of Nichols’s tattoos on occasion, I never knew the compelling tail behind it, nor did I know she had more than one tattoo. This week, I got the privilege to interview Nichols for Your Style Stories, where she is now revealing her very own style story.

Courtesy of Stephanie Nichols

 Q: How many tattoos do you have?

A: I currently have two. One on the side of my upper left thigh and one between my breasts.

Q: When did you get them?

A: The one on my thigh i got when I was a Freshman in college, and the one between my breasts I got when I was a Sophomore in college.

Q: Why did you get these tattoos, what do they mean to you?

A:The one on my upper thigh was a rite of passage that I chose for myself. When I was in high school I read a couple of the books by Jean Auel in the “Clan of the Cave Bear” series. Ayla was the main character [of these books] and she was this exciting young woman who overcame these huge challenges; she was lost by her own people, and she was adopted by these other people, and she was attacked by a lion but survived and she was left with a huge claw mark about the length of her thigh. My little claw marks are only about four inches long but they are the four claw marks [like Ayla]. And so when Ayla ends up with these new people, they have to choose a totem for her. The shaman decides Ayla’s totem animal is the lion. The people are shocked because the lion is the second strongest totem besides the bear. Also one [important] aspect of the lion totem in the book is that those who have it are strong and powerful and they also are able to overcome strong adversity.

[Nichol’s voice begins to become choked by tears]

So how this relates to me… I had a really shitty childhood, especially high school. High school was horrible. But I did very well academically. But I went to a high school with a very shitty program except for English lit. English lit was our best so that’s where I excelled because that’s where I was nurtured most. When I applied to college I got into Scripp’s Woman’s College, a private woman’s college. Tuition was about 25 grand a year at the time. I got a massive scholarship, almost a full ride. When people found out, they were like, “That’s really cool but you won’t make it. You’re a girl from a crappy high school. How are you going to survive that academically?” But I finished my first semester with very good grades, except for one B.

[Nichols chuckles at the memory]

 I told myself that if I survived my first semester and I did very well (chokes up remembering the girl she was at 18), it was a really big deal to me and I was very proud of myself.  So my boyfriend at the time, Oscar, he went with me, I didn’t have a sketch or anything, to this really sketchy tattoo parlor out in Claremont, California and I told this big burly Mexican guy what I wanted and if he could do it [the claw mark tattoo] for 20 dollars. He said “oh sure” and started drawing the four lines. I intended it to be in black because I just like simplicity, but he did it in like a bright bloody red. By the time he was half way done with it, I was like well I guess it’s going to be red (laughs). And so til this day it’s a bright blood-red. Anyhow it was my way of saying I have overcome. I’ve made it this far and, God damn it, I’m going to be independent and go as far as I want to. I’d made it through up to that point and fortunately I had a huge scholarship because I had no financial support what so ever. My dad had said that he would give me 600 dollars for books, which is like nothing, and he did not so I applied for my first credit card at age 18 and I put it all on that. He eventually paid me back, but I had to go into credit card debt first. From then on I was also financially independent from my parents. I went back home and stayed at my mom’s house over the winter break and she made me pay rent when I was 18 years old. So I never went back there obviously. So the point is, make of the lion totem tattoo, huge rite of passage for me.

Claw Mark Tattoo Courtesy of Stephanie Nichols

 Q: What about the second tattoo?


A: Oscar, my then boyfriend, my first love, he still has a very special place in my heart, Oscar had given me this necklace. It was a very crudely cut metal piece and it had a loop at the top that was attached to a leather thong that went around my neck and it was the Norse symbol for balance. [At the time] I had a breast lump that was growing and it was about the size of a grape by the end of first semester of my second year of college, and you could feel it, I would let people and they would be like “wow that sucker’s huge!” And no, it wasn’t cancerous in case that’s what you were wondering. 

[She smiles warmly]

 But I had it checked out and they did a biopsy and there were no cancer cells but it was growing to the point where it was getting painful. So the doctors were like ok, we’ll have you undergo surgery and have that taken out. I didn’t realize I would have to take off all my jewelry [when I went in for surgery], we were fumbling with the tie on the leather thong and they just cut it off of me.

After the surgery I’d been carrying it around in my purse for a few months. My cousin Kristin who’s one of my best friends in the world who I grew up with, she and I were hanging out and we were talking about tattoos and I was like “I want to just get [the Norse symbol] tattooed on” and I was like “come on let’s do it.” It was totally spur of the moment and within an hour we were at another shady tattoo shop and again I only had the [symbol] with me and I just told the guy I want you to draw this, exactly this size, I want you to put it right between my breasts. And he was like “well you know when your breast sag, it’ll sag.” I was like yes, I am ok with that, I think that’s awesome in a way because it’s going to be at the center of my body and it’s a reminder that I need to always seek balance in life because I tend to work too hard, I tend to push myself too hard, and I need to find those moments when I can sit back and say ok I’ve come this far, give yourself a frickin’ break, girl. It’s a reminder for me to seek balance in life and in everything.

Anyhow, it was the same kind of shady deal [as the last tattoo], I think I only paid 15 dollars for this one. He didn’t even draw it on me, he just kind of drew it and fortunately it was sort of balanced. Over the years, you know, I’ve had 14 years for my body to start changing and already it’s slightly crooked and it doesn’t bother me. I think that’s awesome in a way because it points toward how much of life is ahead.

So, obviously the one between my breasts wasn’t so much a rite of passage as the other one, but it’s a reminder to myself to look to the future. And even though my relationship with Oscar ended eventually, it makes me really happy that I still have this little thing that reminds me of him. So I still carry around a little piece of Oscar… between my boobs.

[Nichols and I both laugh at her description]

Norse Symbol Tattoo Courtesy of Stephanie Nichols

 Q: If you had to choose, which tattoo would you say is your favorite and why?

A: Hmmm… yeah I think the first one. I mean they both mean a lot to me, but the first one was huge. I’m a big believer in rites of passage. That [tattoo] was my rite of passage from poor white trash girl who spoke with a Mexican accent because she grew up in a poor Mexican neighborhood, with a terrible education program, to this prestigious private woman’s college student… and who kicked ass my first semester (smiles).

Q: What do you think you will tell your children if they want to get a tattoo some day?

A: Can I help you design it? So that it really means something and so that it is something that will help carry you through life and it isn’t something that you’ll regret. My husband and I are actually trying to start a family soon and I’m very biased, I want to have a girl. I want to have a girl so I can raise a strong independent woman who’s not afraid of anything because that’s not what I got, I was afraid of everything.  And [I’ll tell her] if you want to get a tattoo, make it mean something.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Bruce K
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 12:33:19

    This was a very interesting blog – It showed a side of a professor that one might not expect, and shed light on how all kinds of people have tattoos and meanings behind them. I think your blog has done a great job of showing all types and getting personal stories. I’d like to see more of the same, but maybe by exposing some more people you might not expect to have tattoos – older folks, public figures such as teachers, businessmen, ect. Keep up the good work.


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