Tattoos in the workplace: self-expression or unprofessional?

With tattoos entering mainstream culture off the back of a wave of inked celebs, is discrimination in the workplace still a problem for the growing number of tattooed workers?

Tattoos are traditionally the reserve of bikers and criminals. But now the art of tattooing has entered mainstream culture off the back of a celebrity juggernaut started by the great Janis Joplin back in the era of true Rock ‘N’ Roll. More recently pop-idols and sports stars have all helped bring tattooing out of the darkness and onto the high street.
Despite this popularity in the glamorous world of celebrity, it has not been truly accepted into everyday life. Many tattooed individuals still feel the weight of judging eyes boring into their decorated skin. And the effects can be just as long-lasting as the tattoos that invite them.
Brittanie Johnson is one such individual who has experienced discrimination because of her tattoos. She applied to be a mentor for underprivileged children but was turned down because of her ink.
Johnson said: “To be denied that opportunity really shocked me. It made me angry because my physical appearance was more important than the fact that I want to be involved in a positive manner in a child’s life.”
She now works as a manager at a design company, but her tattoos still cause trouble for her in the workplace. Johnson has to keep her tattoos hidden for fear that she may lose her job if her employers find out she has body markings.
“I would like to think I’ve been there long enough and done well enough to prove that they don’t define my work ethic or character,” she said. “But, I feel if I were to show them, I’d probably be sacked.”
While Johnson believes tattoos are slowly being accepted into modern life, she thinks they are still viewed negatively in the work place. And this is something that upsets her.
“I would love to show my art just like others display pictures of their kids,” she said. “But I don’t want to carry the wallet sized photos, so I have tattoos.”
Chef Tony Marshall is heavily tattooed and cannot cover his designs like Johnson. This has led to his career suffering as a result. Marshall is confined to the kitchen and is not allowed to face the diners who visit his restaurant.
“They hired me with them. But policy states they have to be covered up but I have my hands and throat fully covered,” Marshall said.
He believes that the discrimination he faces is something that shouldn’t be allowed but there is nothing he can do about it. He said: “There is no law that I’m aware of but it feels shit every day. They make you feel like a dirty secret hidden away in the back.”
Law firm Thomas Mansfield partner Kirsty Lewis, who has a tattoo herself, said that Marshall is right. “The law protects employees from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, disability, religion or belief, age, pregnancy or maternity, marital status,” she said. “But having a tattoo is not covered.”
Lewis added: “Unfortunately, we still live in a society where people are judged by their appearance and it is still likely that some employers will make assumptions about a person with visible tattoos.”
However, signs for the future are promising. It is estimated that more than one in five 18 to 29 year-olds in the UK have at least one tattoo and many of those will go on to add to their collection. When these people do get employed and progress in their careers, they will be in positions to employ fellow tattooed people.
Robin Heinrich has already noticed the improvements. As a masseuse she struggled for a long time to find a job that would accept her 18 tattoos. Now, she works at a physiotherapy clinic and experiences no problem with her ink. “My tattoos on my arms are out in plain view and most people don’t even notice them,” she said.
Heinrich believes that the discrimination that is still around is because of what people have been taught by their parents. “I think that people discriminate against tattoos because at some point in their lives, they may have been told that getting tattooed was wrong,” she said.
Manuel DeJesus has also noticed a shift in the perception of tattoos. When he started his job as a digital marketer DeJesus had to keep his tattoos covered. “It definitely would not be smart to have them exposed in a large meeting setting,” he said. But now, he says he can have more of the designs he wants, without worrying about them being visible.
Some people are even managing to take tattoo acceptance to the next level, and are using their tattoos to help them in their jobs. Amber Shipp is a maths teacher who uses mathematical tattoos on her forearms and neck to inspire her students.
“I have the Greek symbol phi which is the golden ratio, along with a golden rectangle that shows the golden spiral on a nautilus shell,” she said. “I also find the phi/golden ratio is a great way to engage kids in maths because they can see it all around them.”
By integrating the tattoos into her lessons she is able to grab the attention of students who don’t normally concentrate in the classroom. Sometimes the children broach the subject of her tattoos, and other times she uses it as a means of introduction. “Either way the kids get pumped,” Shipp said.
Shipp says acting in a positive way helps remove the stereotype that often faces those with tattoos. “If I am a kind, caring, and productive member of society, why does my ink matter?” she said.
So, while tattoos are no longer observed solely as a sign of delinquency and rebellion, there is still a long way to go before they are truly accepted. But as the tattooed pioneers climb the corporate ladder they will blaze a way for those behind them – giving them the opportunity to excel in a professional career, and slowly erase the discrimination of yesteryear.

5 thoughts on “Tattoos in the workplace: self-expression or unprofessional?

  1. Well written.
    Does or should appropriacy affect acceptability in society or in the workplace? ie the subject of the tatoo. Tatoos could be viewed as appropriate – e.g. the maths teacher, they could also be viewed as inappropriate – e.g. racist.


    1. But that could be the same for a t-shirt if it contained inappropriate content, such as a racist slogan or image as in your example. There will always be people who have something inappropriate inked onto their skin, but they will also be the exception. The problem is that, unfortunately, there are far too many people who judge and have pre-conceived ideas of a person’s character just because they have gone under the needle.


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