Cover story: What About Tattoos

What about Tattoos?
Valley Business FRONT
January 2012

Valley Business FRONT tattoo story coverBarbie has caught plenty of flack over the years – for her unrealistic portrayal of beauty, her obsession with dream cars, houses and boats, and her career choices, most of which keep her solidly in the realm of gender-specific employment. In October 2011, she garnered the ire of a new set of parents when collaboration between Mattel and an L.A-based fashion company, Tokidoki, resulted in a punk rock Barbie complete with pink hair and, yes, many tattoos.

While stigmas about body modification are still prominent in the business community, an October 2011 U.S. News & World Report survey asking, “Is Tokidoki’s tattoo Barbie inappropriate for children?” showed 66.76 percent of respondents answering in the negative.

Statistics such as this – and the 2010 Pew Research study showing that 38 percent of people ages 18 to 29 have tattoos – have many professionals joining HR Consultant Johna Campbell in asking, “If we look back on this time, will there be a trend toward accepting tattoos in the workplace?”

A Little Background

The earliest known tattoos were found in 1991 when Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in the Ötz valley in the Alps. Dating back to the fourth or fifth century B.C., Ötzi’s frozen body bears over 55 carbon tattoos of dots and lines in locations similar enough to those used in acupuncture practices that historians speculate they were a part of an ancient healing technique.

Since Ötzi’s day, tattoos have traveled around the globe, from ancient Egypt where body art was a women-only club to Roman soldiers who spread the tattoo fashion across the empire until it was banned by Emperor Constantine who considered tattooing to be contrary to his deeply-held Christian beliefs. Ancient tattoos have also been found in North and South America and across Asia. In Japan, tattoos have alternately been the illegal markings of criminals and so thoughtfully artistic that they inspired iconic American tattooists like Sailor Jerry.

Tattoos began the leg of their journey that stretched from Ötzi to modern American hipsters and rockers by way of England and Captain James Cook. Between 1766 and 1770, Cook made three trips to the South Pacific where he found tattoos on the people of Polynesia. His enamored crew returned to Europe adorned with traditional body art. One such crew member was Cook’s Science Officer and Expedition Botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was not just a tattooed sailor, but a highly-regarded aristocrat to boot.

This is where the path of tattoo history diverges from its perception as an art form reserved for sailors and criminals. By the late 19th Century, tattoos were as popular among European aristocracy as among today’s NBA.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and Denmark’s King Fredrick were all reportedly inked. Lady Randolph Churchill had a diamond bracelet specially crafted for occasions in which decorum necessitated that she cover the snake tattooed around her wrist. Her son Winston reportedly followed in her footsteps with an anchor on his arm.

Today, the demigods of music, sports and Hollywood carry on the tradition of tattooing in the upper echelons, but how does that reflect on the 9-to-5ers, the white collar working folks who have employers and/or clients they must impress?

Today’s Business Environment

As of November, the U.S. unemployment rate was at 9.0 percent, which is roughly what it has been since last April.

“Unemployment is high but employers are saying that they haven’t found enough qualified people,” says Johna, who co-owns the human resources consulting firm Cogent Management Resources. “Tattoos are another obstacle.”

“In certain industries, it has become more acceptable,” says Kathy Surace, whose company, Peacock Image, is geared toward helping people look their best. Kathy also writes a monthly column for the FRONT that focuses her fashion know-how on business attire.

Kathy cites creative fields like fashion and media, and fields that don’t require interfacing with the end client, like computer programming, as professions in which personal expression of all sorts is more acceptable.

“However,” she adds, “in the traditional fields of law and banking [body modification] still impacts on one’s credibility, which is vital to those industries.”

Ariel Clark, art director at the becher agency PR + Advertising, says that she often forgets how unique her position is as a professional who can and does display her body art. “If the prerogative of my office was to be corporate and therefore I had to wear long sleeves and take all the metal out of my face, certainly as an employee, I would feel a little confined by that.”

Still, Ariel and Kathy are ultimately in agreement that covering tattoos helps build favorable first impressions, although they come to it from different paths.

“When tattoos are placed in a location that can be covered by clothing when necessary, it shows respect for others and for the business,” says Kathy.

Ariel, on the other hand, sees her occasional decisions to cover her tattoos as a way to remain more focused and confident when meeting more traditional clients.

“When I do have to dress up for a presentation or something – if I put a jacket on to cover up my tattoos – I feel like I have the protection of professionalism. I can go to the meeting and I’m not worried about my tattoos showing,” she says.

Then, after a pause she says, “But that sounds really sad to say that, I think.”

Art on Display

According to the 2010 Pew Research study, 72 percent of respondents with tattoos reported that their tattoos were not usually visible.

Short of wearing turtlenecks year-round, Keri Sink has little choice but to show her tattoos at Hall Community Services where she works as an administrative assistant. Out of habit, Keri tends to wear long enough sleeves to cover the tattoos on her upper arms, a stack of skulls on her left arm and a tribute to her daughter on her right.

“The mermaid mother and daughter symbolize my daughter and me, and the anchor symbolizes my commitment to her as a mother,” she says. “My tattoos are all sentimental and mark important parts of my life.”

In the past, Keri has gotten negative feedback about her tattoos.

“I have been told that I don’t look ‘professional’ enough or that my appearance would deter customers,” she says, but in the open-minded environment of Hall Community Services, she’d had nothing but compliments from customers and clients.

It’s worth noting that Keri is a very attractive, engaging woman. It’s easy to imagine that her beauty and charm help some people overlook what might otherwise been seen as edgy or inappropriate.

Joey Kaylor, on the other hand, is a somewhat intimidating tower of a man. The owner of Protocol Automotive in Floyd, Joey has a beard that would make ZZ Top proud, a motorized anatomical heart tattooed on his chest and two full sleeves in progress. Needless to say, these go uncovered on the job.

“People already realize I’m not going to conform to the social norms to begin with so why not?” he says. This may be because his reputation as straight-shooter – a really, really straight-shooter – has made his tattoos less surprising to people. Though he added most of those tattoos in the past year, he says he hasn’t noticed any adverse effect on his business. He has, however, been surprised at the reaction he has gotten.

“The people you would expect to be open to tattoos – the liberal style people – are more judgmental than the conservative people in this area. I have preachers who come in and look at my work and they’re absolutely amazed with it – they love the detail of the work,” Joey says.

Surprisingly enough, it seems that every tattoo artist has a story of working on people of the cloth.  Mark Bell, owner of Main Street Tattoo in Salem, said the most surprising to him were the stigmata he tattooed on the wrists of a youth minister.

The Legal Side of Body Modification in the Workplace

In 2001, Costco made headlines when they changed their dress code policy to disallow visible body modifications, including facial piercings other than earrings. It was a change well within their rights. According to Todd Leeson, a partner at Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, LLP, in Roanoke, “there is no law that prohibits an employer from refusing to hire or employ a person because of a tattoo or piercing.”

But the issue gets tricky when tattoos and other forms of body modification are considered spiritual practices, which then start toeing the line between employers’ rights to define their brand and image and the rights of employees to free religious expression.

“The only thing that really can come into play,” says Agnis Chakravorty, principle at Woods Rogers PLC, “is if the body art somehow convey some type of religious or other protected belief.”

Kimberly Cloutier had worked for a Costco in Massachusetts for four years by the time they changed their dress code. When the policy was updated, her supervisors instructed her to remove her facial piercings during her shift and she refused. It would have been an open-and-shut case for HR except that Kimberly claimed her body modifications were gestures of faith guided by the Church of Body Modification.

According to the church’s website, it is a decentralized entity that holds online classes once a month and believes that body modifications such as tattoos, piercing and branding can “strengthen the bond between mind, body, and soul.”

“Title VII, a federal employment discrimination statute, could arguably provide a basis for a religious discrimination claim but only if the adverse party could show that the tattoo or piercing was part of some sort of sincerely held religious belief,” says Todd. Who, though, is to determine sincerity in these instances?

Kimberly may have had grounds for the discrimination suit she filed but the courts ultimately sidestepped the issue of her religious beliefs and backed Costco in her termination, saying, “Even if Cloutier did not regularly receive any complaints about her appearance, her facial jewelry influenced Costco’s public image and, in Costco’s calculation, detracted from its professionalism.”

“You have to remember that companies often consider their brand and image when hiring; tattoos could keep someone from fitting that image,” said Alec Siegel, principal and executive director of Siegel Link LLC, a recruiting firm based in Blacksburg.

Johna seconds that thought, saying that from her perspective as a HR professional, the culture of a business “just is.” That is, the industry and clientele in large part determine whether visible body modifications are acceptable or detrimental.

As a sous chef at Blue 5 Restaurant in Roanoke and the partner in a budding catering firm, Adam Morse is in an industry that “just is” mostly okay with body art, especially for those in the kitchen. In fact, on the recent premier of the popular cooking reality show, Top Chef, one contestant noted that the heavily inked contestants were going straight through the initial elimination while those left to stew sported bare skin.

At 27, the Roanoke native is working on an extensive collection of tattoos with entirely Jewish themes. He displays a Star of David on one forearm and a chai, the Hebrew word for life, on the other. He’s also in progress on half-sleeve murals that feature the 10 plagues visited upon the Egyptians in the Biblical book of Exodus. Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn – these are what finally convinced the pharaoh to let Moses’ people go.

“I figure lots of people have crosses,” says Adam. “I’m proud of my heritage so why not?”

The “why not” includes his recognition that for many Jewish congregations, body modification is so taboo that those with skin art won’t be granted burial in a Jewish cemetery. Despite the prevalence of cross tattoos, some denominations of Christianity also forbid tattoos based on the same passage of Leviticus (19:28) that fuels the Jewish prohibition: “You shall not… incise any marks on yourself.”

Tattooing is also strictly forbidden in Islam though for a notably different reason: the perception that body modification is a sacrilegious attempt to further beautify God’s perfect creations.

Matters of Perception

Alec sometimes wishes the candidates he recruits would spend more time attempting to further beautify themselves, saying that when it comes to feedback from his clients, that is, the potential employers for whom he seeks candidates,  “Grooming has often been more of an issue.”

Haircuts, shaves and a pressed shirt are some of the suggestions Alec has made to job seekers he’s met. “Grooming to go on interviews is about showing the potential employer that they’ll take the time to prepare,” which Alec says demonstrates a future willingness to do the job right.

Tattoos don’t even come second in the list of concerns from clients; facial piercings hold that spot.

“One client said she stared at the candidate’s tongue ring the whole interview and couldn’t concentrate on the candidate,” he says.

Alec, a tattoo-free tattoo fan, says he’ll go to bat for a candidate whose talents are notable but whose body modifications might lead to a poor first impression with a prospective employer.

“I will sometimes say, ‘If you ignore them as a candidate, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice.’”

When Shaun Carroll, owner of Hot Rod Tattoo in Blacksburg, began as an apprentice at Ancient Art Tattoo in 1996, all of his clients were men ages 19 to 25.

“Now a lot more people are starting in their late 40s and early 50s,” he says. “People are still really worried about what others think, though.”

Shaun notes that his client list includes Virginia Tech employees from groundskeepers to tenured professors but that all keep them hidden out of fear of what their coworkers would think. While a college environment seems, at first glance, to be one in which body modification would be not only acceptable but perhaps even appealing to the student demographic, Johna notes that the parents who foot the bill are as large, if not larger, a concern for those who must sell the university.

The Bottom Line

There was once a time, not so long ago, that the only workplaces in which one would see tattoos were ships and sideshows. These days, the youngest adults – the Millennial generation of 18 to 29 years olds – the future leaders of business, are also the most heavily inked and heavily pierced generation in America’s history.

Kathy, owner of Peacock Image, may be right when she says, “I believe that once the younger generation ages and realizes that they are limiting themselves, they will want to remove some of the visible tattoos.”

But maybe they will instead further impact perceptions of tattoos with work that is artful, personal and visible – assuming, that is, they put as much effort into their careers as they do their style.