Dr. Matt Lodder is a senior lecturer in art history and director of American Studies at the University of Essex, U.K. A few years ago, the 40-year-old tattoo historian had a bizarre experience, where a stranger not just plagiarised his academic work, and that of many of his friends and colleagues, and claimed it as his own but also impersonated him. Recently, he recounted the experience on Twitter, after which many academics from across the world reached out to him about similar creepy experiences they’ve had. Lodder spoke to VICE about the experience that has become his favourite pub story to tell over the years.
Around the end of 2017, I came to know that someone had been using my work and details from my life to catfish people in his academic and professional circle. He was a grad student in the U.S., and someone I’ve never known in a personal capacity.
Not just me, he was also copying and lifting work from some fellow academics who also happen to be friends of mine. Now, academia, by its nature, is pretty niche, right? We’re doing our own thing in our own fields. There aren’t that many of us who study tattoo history. There isn’t a vast body of work out there, not quality work, at least. So, I often get emails from people who are interested in the field, and I always try my best to be helpful. I'm lazy, to be honest. So a lot of the stuff that I've written and researched on isn't actually published yet. So I'm really happy to share it with people. I guess that’s how he suckered me in at first, some time around 2015.
He wrote to me with a fake name, asking for help for an article for his student magazine. He also wrote to all the others I know in the field, as well as some other colleagues of ours. A pretty routine email for us, nothing out of the ordinary. But it also stood out because it was quite egregious in terms of its brevity and rudeness.
Like I said, I consider it my job to help people and answer their questions about the field, so I asked him what he wanted to know. But he never, ever replied. Over the years, he assumed different identities and wrote to me using various pseudonyms and e-mails, and I never got to know the truth until much later. He also used his mum’s email ID I think, so I thought it was a woman working on a PhD on tattooing. I happened to share with him a bunch of stuff that I was working on, all in good faith.
On the back of my work and that of others, he managed to build a decent reputation at his grad school, but it was all based on lies. He told his tutors he was in London, giving all these talks and speaking at conferences that in reality I was speaking at. For his assignments, he handed in my work with minor to no edits or additions. An article I wrote for a magazine, that he simply added footnotes to and submitted as part of his degree, was marked at 90 percent, as I later came to know. Well, at least that was a major ego boost.
All along, he was also lifting bits and pieces off the websites and social media accounts of some of my friends and colleagues, especially Dr. Anna Friedman, formerly an academic and a tattoo historian, and Dr. Gemma Angel, an interdisciplinary scholar specialising in the history and anthropology of the European tattoo. He never actually followed any of us on social media, but he was always lurking on our profiles. That’s how we caught him, in fact. Anna has an Instagram page where she’d talk about tattoo history in great detail. He made the unfortunate (for him) mistake of liking one of her pictures, and he had an intriguing username which drew her to his profile.
Turns out, it was basically a whole copy of her Instagram page. But there were also pictures of him dressed a bit like me, along with lots of text copied from various things that both of us—Anna and I—had independently written. I was like, “Come on, man. That’s quite rude.” But we quickly realised the extent of it all, and it got pretty annoying to just take in the audacity of how he claimed things that we'd done as his own.
The worst was finding pictures of him just as I was trying to find out who this kid really was. That’s also how I found a video of him delivering a talk, dressed like me, and even copying my gestures and the way I talk, as some people pointed out. I know I don't have a monopoly on items of clothing like denim shirts, but in the context of everything else, it all falls into place, especially given that he was reading out stuff that I'd written. He even copied my tattoos, even though everyone told me his tattoos are quite badly done.
From there, it wasn’t that difficult to find him and figure out what else he’d claimed as his. We realised he’d been writing to us using fake names, but when it came to putting on this persona, he was using his real name. We Googled him, and found pictures of him and his Facebook page. His website was a copy of Anna’s website, even his biography was actually hers, just with his name. And with pictures of him dressed as me as the header image. The bit where he dressed up like me and copied my tattoos really got to me. I don’t know what the fuck that was. Tattooing is often seen as a way of creating a unique identity and setting yourself apart, and it’s funny that in pursuit of that he went ahead and copied my tattoos, and then, my life.
What was also quite shocking about it was that he clearly fooled everybody around him—he was an honours student, he had scholarships. Even when we contacted his school, and then the guy that he was working for, they all thought he was a brilliant scholar. So he fooled everybody around him. And he wasn't subtle about it. Yeah. I don’t know how I felt about it. I was shocked, annoyed initially, then kind of confused, and then pretty upset. I didn’t do much about it because none of it was illegal. People often walk into tattoo studios and get tattoos like someone else’s. It was just creepy and weird and inexplicable.
Of course, what he did went against academic rules. But I was lucky his employers and the university dealt with it really quickly. When we laid out all the evidence, they were horrified, but they also helped us understand how he managed to get past all the plagiarism checks and other protocols they have in place. He was copying book chapters that aren't all digitised on Google. He was also claiming that his computer was broken, so he couldn't hand things in digitally. So he was handing in hard copies of things, rather than digital copies, stuff that I think he wouldn't get away with now, but three years ago? Yeah, it could’ve slipped through. So he was really sneaky. But when they figured it out, he lost his job and his scholarships. He definitely didn't get his Master's degree, and he may have had his undergraduate degree stripped off him.
I never thought it fit to reach out to him. But one of my friends, also an academic, reached out instantly to his school asking them, “Why’s your student stealing my friend’s work?” That elicited a classic sociopathic response from him and he replied saying he was just trying to create a template, and that he wasn’t really stealing stuff. But we weren’t fooled. I do have loads of questions about what the fuck he thought he was doing, and how he thought he was gonna get away with it. Why’d he go public with all this stolen stuff? If he’d just submitted work for his grad program, he probably would’ve gotten away with it. If instead of acting so shady, he’d written to us and asked for help, we definitely would’ve helped him the best we could.
In my correspondence now, though, I’m a little more careful. I still help students, because that’s my job, but I don’t send anyone unpublished material anymore. It’s not in my nature to be distrustful, but I like to believe I’d be more alert to red flags now. And as technology has evolved, I know it’s easier to flag plagiarism now.
Looking back, it was a wild experience for sure. We even traced some online statements from someone claiming to be his ex, saying he’d gone to court for identity theft in a different case. Personally, I never felt a real threat from him, because I also know he wasn’t physically or emotionally close to me. If he lived one town over, I wonder if I’d feel differently. But I was freaked out by it, and also quite unsettled, because it was the creepiest thing ever.
In January 2018, he wrote us an apology email. We never replied, but that’s the last we heard of him. He still has social media pages, but they’re not active. I don't know whether that means he's in prison or dead or has assumed another identity. Maybe he's living his best life on the Riviera. Maybe he's been elected to Congress. I don’t know.
I've been listening to a lot of podcasts about stalkers, and quite often, people just don't stop. In hindsight, I think I'm lucky, because I’m sure we basically ruined this kid’s life. So I don’t know if he still harbours a grudge against me, or if he's just biding his time, waiting to show up on my doorstep. As I said, I don't know where he's gone. And I think it’s best to leave it that way.
Follow Matt on Twitter.