Tattoos have long struggled to climb the ladder of social acceptance, previously thought of as exclusive to low class groups such as whores and sailors—they are now moderately acceptable in western society. Unfortunately, this newfound acceptance of tattoos in society is not universal; historical stigmas continue to be pervasive in the professional world. Many heavily tattooed professionals are required to cover up their artwork as a part of maintaining their perceived professionalism, but at what cost to themselves? Research shows that tattoos are strongly linked with a sense of self identity in those individuals, therefor it is an issue when the identity of these individuals, and in turn, their authenticity, is threatened. False stigmas regarding heavily tattooed individuals in the professional workplace have a negative effect upon the sense of identity of those individuals and may even cause them to be perceived as less professional by their peers.
One issue that tattooed individuals face in the workplace is managing their perceived professionalism, to quote Forbes, “Tattoos are no longer a kiss of death in the workplace” (Forbes Magazine, 2013). However, this does not mean that tattoos are no longer a kiss of injury in the workplace. While having tattoos may not immediately disqualify one from being hired in the white collar world, it does affect the way peers, customers and even supervisors perceive the professionalism of the tattooed individual. In a survey conducted by Workopolis, 327 employers were asked, “Would a candidate having tattoos affect your decision to hire that person?”. The results confirmed what the researchers had hypothesized, false stigmas associated with tattoos really do affect one’s chances of being hired:
“Fourteen percent said they would be less likely to hire someone with tattoos, 23% said it would not affect their decision, and the rest said it would depend on the number and location of the tattoos and/or the role being filled. The rest, that is, except for one lone individual who answered that they would actually be more likely to hire a person with tattoos. This means that a total 77% of employers will or might be less likely to hire you if you have tattoos. We invited respondents to write in comments, a sample of which are posted below, and what many said was that tattoos might affect their decision if the tattoos were offensive or racist, or if the role was customer facing. This all makes perfect sense, the latter because even if the employer doesn’t mind the tattoos, a customer might, and it is the customer who keeps the business going” (Workopolis, 2014).
To understand the perception of tattoos by society as a whole, Workopolis conducted another survey with five thousand respondents in the general population, the results from this survey yielded that society as a whole is more accepting of tattoos than the professional setting is, but there is still a significant disdain for tattoos in the eyes of the public:
“Turning to the general population, we asked nearly 5,000 people – not necessarily in hiring positions – if they take a person less seriously if the person has tattoos. Forty-nine percent said “No,” leaving half (51%) of respondents who either do take someone less seriously for having tattoos, or might, depending on the situation and how many tattoos the person has” (Workopolis, 2014).
Although tattoos have become more socially acceptable as of late, the findings in the previously mentioned studies suggest that tattoos are still struggling to climb the ladder. According to statistical data from 2017, 4 in 10 U.S. adults have at least one tattoo (Statista, 2017). Considering the large percentage of tattooed Americans, it is quite contradictory that the overwhelming majority of society still hold these negative prejudices against tattoos. Many people understand that tattoos are thought of as low class, trashy, or even a sign of low intelligence; however, the origin of these false beliefs are less discussed.
Tattooing stigmas have a lot to do with the issue of perceived purity in the eyes of the public, this is demonstrated in a quote from a 2006 publication;
“If the black face is a failure to be a white face, and the female to be male, a tattooed body fails to be the base-level zero of non-inked skin” (McCormick, 2006).
Although most people understand that tattoos are not a stamp of criminality, subconsciously these prejudices still remain. Tattoos have a rocky history when speaking in regards to social acceptance; until the late 19th century tattoos were seen as a trend. The tattoo machine was first introduced in the 1890’s which made them more accessible than the previous hand poked tattoos, causing a dramatic increase in the trend of tattoos. Now that tattoos were more easily accessible, it was no longer only for the wealthy and as a result interest in tattooing shifted to the lower classes. We can assume this is where the societal association of tattoos with poverty began. At the bottom step of the social acceptance ladder, tattoos were linked to criminality, and mental illness. These false ideas about tattooed individuals are pernicious in today’s society, but it may not all be a conscious prejudice in the minds of the majority. Researchers have found, skin prejudices have been long ingrained in our society, even before tattooing:
“Within Western societies, the aesthetic ideal has long been light, unblemished skin, and knowingly eschewing that ideal aesthetic is an appearance violation: within conventional American society, light, clear skin is a long enduring beauty ideal… in addition, blotchy, blemished, and marked skin in American society is seen as unhealthy, impure, ugly, or low class. In fact, light skin is highly correlated with psychological, occupational, educational, and economic advantage” (Irwin, 2011, p.35).
It is not unreasonable to come to the disheartening conclusion that negative connotations linked to tattoo culture may even be part of a more primitive issue: skin stigmas. Appearances are what humans use to create impressions of people, so it makes sense that there are a lot of stereotypes and prejudices dealing with skin. It seems as though the same thought process behind racism, colorism, and negative ideas about skin conditions may be the same issue that causes the societal disapproval for tattoos and body modifications. What can be done to prevent the spread of these false stigmas? At what age do people develop these kind of prejudices? What causes a person to know that generalizing a stigmatized population is illogical, but still subconsciously do so? More psychological research is being conducted every day, maybe eventually some of these remaining questions will be answered.
False generalizations about tattoos are actually fairly complex, one interesting facet of this issue is referred to as the ‘threshold of indiscretion’. Defined as, “ a subjective limit to body modification, which when crossed casts the wearer as an outsider, too far gone to return to polite society” (McLeod, N/A). In a study conducted in an attempt to research how tattooed individuals perceive the issue, tattooed lawyer Alana says,
“up to a certain point people can write it off as a foolish mistake… I get the impression that people think I have poor judgement” (Interviewee Alana, McLeod, N/A).
Society is more than willing and able to assume a small tattoo was an impulsive mistake, however they are less accepting of a string of mistakes (heavy tattooing). This concept of the ‘threshold of indiscretion’ allows society to accept lightly tattooed indivudals as p\eople who have once made a bad mistake, but still distance themselves from the heavily tattooed person. Too deep in the threshold of indiscretion and people will begin to assume that the “mistakes” are part of a larger character flaw. The heavily tattooed body still stands out as severely more foreign than the lightly tattooed body.
Now that it has been established that tattoo stigmas are indeed still pernicious in today’s society, it is crucial to understand what effect this may have upon the tattooed population. One of the main reasons why this is such a controversial issue in society, is due to the nature of permanent body art. Tattoos are heavily linked to a sense of identity, and authenticity for individuals who have them. This hypothetical water becomes pretty murky when deciding how tattoos should be regarded in the workplace, since they are a permanent physical manifestation of self-identity. Identity and perceived professionalism both correlate to tattoos,
“Tattoos can communicate a number of traits, which include:
- personal identity,
- cultural values and practices,
- membership in sub-societies that are rebellious, peripheral, marginalized or otherwise set apart from the ‘mainstream”.
Due to the high visibility and often symbolic nature of tattoos, they can be easily misunderstood. To the outsider, analyzing a tattooed body only further distances perceptions of self, to perceptions of other. Non tattooed persons may use their interpretations of a tattooed individual’s artwork to discern information about them, and as most know; one’s interpretations of others based solely upon first impressions or appearances are often far from accurate. Many people offer the solution of covering up tattoos in the workplace, but the answer to this issue may not be so simple. An issue is created when one associates their tattoos with their identity, and in turn authenticity. In the postmodern world, self-identity and authenticity have become of upmost importance, partially due to the dislocation of current society. This poses the question of where the line can be drawn, what level of personal authenticity should one promote in a professional setting? Identity management is a crucial skill in today’s workforce, and research suggests that this may hold the answer to the heavy question regarding authenticity of tattooed professionals:
“The professional workplace has many face demands in terms of demeanor and appearance that do not allow for mismanagement of interactions.
Naturally given the amount of time spent at work and the importance that employment plays in modern survival, our workplaces have become our central identity management setting; we require the greatest degree of management at work because we have the most riding on our character there” (McLeod, N/A).
While it may be easy for some to suggest long sleeves or scarves as a method of cover-up, this is not a real solution. As explained above, the workplace is one of the most crucial atmospheres for self-identity management. By not allowing the authenticity and management techniques to occur in the workplace, employers may be unknowingly be causing long term psychological issues. Often times, identity suppressing can cause severe issues of low self-worth, confidence issues, which can both lead to feelings of insecurity in other areas of the individual’s life: not just the workplace.
In conclusion, while tattoos may be considered a mainstream practice in society today; tattoos are still rejected in many professional atmospheres. Although, the stigmas do not necessarily cause significant issues in the lives of the tattooed; they are still held in the mind of the majority. In the workplace, tattoo discrimination can have a massively negative impact upon the psychological wellbeing of the individual.