Photo: travis nesbitt via Flickr
In centuries past, tattoos were mostly considered the exclusive domain of tribe members reaching manhood, or seafaring sailors whose skin reflected their travels. In decades past, edgy rock stars hinted at seduction via a glimpse of their forbidden ink, or “Let me show you my tattoo,” as Gregg Allman famously sang in I’m No Angel in 1987. These days, you’re as likely to see a generously inked CEO or member of the clergy as you are an aging club kid.
A February 2016 Harris poll declared that three in ten Americans have at least one tattoo, “with nearly half of Millennials (47%) and over a third of Gen Xers (36%) saying they have at least one.” So, does that mean that tattoos are fully acceptable in the workplace? Maybe, but it still depends on your workplace and employer. Despite the prevalence of ink-covered appendages, the jury is still out over whether tattoos are considered corporate appropriate.
Then again, some people are getting tats of their corporate logos or matching tattoos with their work besties, so it’s hard to know what’s mainstream anymore, so we asked around. Because of the sensitive nature of the question or tattoo positioning, some of the people we spoke to didn’t want to go on record at all, since they worried it could potentially offend their employers or negatively affect their careers.
To show or not to show? That is the question
Emily Ambrose, who works in hospitality marketing, has eight tattoos, each with special meaning. Her Yin and Yang symbol tattoo commemorates her late grandmother, a nurse with a special interest in Eastern medicine and her own Yin/Yang tattoo. While Ambrose freely exhibits her ink at her current position, that wasn’t the case at a previous job working guest services at a high-end boutique inn.
“I had to keep all of my tattoos covered all the time — even during the heat of high summer,” Ambrose said, adding that meant wearing long sleeves, scarves, tall boots or tights all summer long. While Ambrose found the imposed dress code frustrating, she says “the impediment to my comfort — and as a result, most likely my gracious guest-facing demeanor — was the most trying. When you’re running bottles of wine up and down flights of stairs, or traipsing across lawns at high noon in mid-July, being covered head to toe is less than ideal under any circumstance.”
Beauty & Wellness Expert Jeannine Morris has three tattoos, including a prominent hand-drawn butterfly on her wrist. While Morris doesn’t hide her ink from potential clients, she is sometimes asked to cover up.
“I do a lot of TV work as a beauty expert and often get hired as an influencer for branded content campaigns with beauty brands. Most of the time when on TV, I don’t have to cover up my tattoo, but when appearing on [the Dr. Phil-produced CBS show] The Doctors, they made the makeup artist cover it, because they were afraid of copyright infringement if they showed it on air,” she explained.
“I told them I drew it myself, but they didn’t care. I wore a cobalt blue dress and had to make sure not to get the cover-up on it for hours, which was quite the challenge. As a spokesperson, it really depends on the brand who hires me. Recently on set for a shoot, the client asked that I hold the product with my left hand instead of my right, where the tattoo is. I of course don’t mind.”
Financial journalist Kelsey (who prefers to be identified only by her first name) started getting tattoos at a young age and was constantly asked if they’d hinder her career. For that reason she initially got tattoos in places could be easily covered up.
While she’s grown more comfortable with having tattoos people can see, Kelsey said letting colleagues or clients know about her tattoos sometimes reveals more about them than it does about her.
“In the past, sources or professional contacts who are typically strait-laced have felt like it gives them a free pass to ask inappropriate questions — ‘Where are your other tattoos?’ and ‘Were you drunk when you got them?’ are two popular ones. I almost feel like it emboldens people to ask you questions that they normally wouldn’t in a work setting or a professional networking event,” she says.
When a visible tattoo is a professional asset
Sometimes, the opposite effect happens, particularly for those in creative environments.
For example, an art director at a gallery might find her hand-drawn ink inspires ooh and aahs, while a school teacher might see his ink increase his cred with students.
Chris, an assistant teacher at an elementary school, previously worked in the restaurant industry where his three tattoos went largely unnoticed. When he first started teaching though, Chris covered up since he worried about how his ink might be perceived.
When he realized the school didn’t care if teachers had tattoos and noticed the other teachers at his school with tattoos and they weren’t covering them up, “I was relieved and that’s when I really started to care less about having them covered up.”
“I’m not sure if the kids think that I’m cooler for having tattoos, but they do ask me about my tattoos from time to time,” he adds.
The double standard of tattoos for men and women
Attorney Anjali Sareen keeps her four tattoos mostly hidden.
“I honestly got them all where I did specifically because I knew I was going into a very conservative field — the law — and I didn’t even want to tempt fate that I wouldn’t get a job because of my tattoos,” Sareen says. “Now, at the age of 30, I care way, WAY less about what people think, but I have also become not a huge fan of visible tattoos myself — oddly!”
Sareen runs her own practice now, “so I can do whatever I want,” but she says she sometimes chafes against the expectations of her profession.
“I love tattoos and have a love/hate relationship with my career. The legal profession has a LONG way to go before visible tattoos are accepted,” she explains. “I absolutely hated the conservatism of the field and the double standard that women are meant to be all prim and proper but for men, things like a tattoo here or there were more acceptable.”
‘Tattoos welcome’ can be a sign of a more accepting workplace
Since tattoo culture can vary intensely from industry to industry, and some find that a tattoo-friendly workplace culture is actually a sign that they’re more free to do their job without other restrictions as well.
Ambrose, the hospitality marketing professional, no longer covers her tattoos and says it’s a huge relief.
“If we’re having a more formal event, I’ll be more cognizant of my tattoos and how visible they are, but I don’t go out of my way to hide them. I feel more free to be authentic to myself — which is in-line with the values of our parent company — and to express myself creatively. And honestly, the less I have to think about covering up my tattoos, the more I can spend time thinking about hospitality and marketing, and how to succeed in my position and to benefit my property.”