Working with Tattoos

As the number of people with body art increases, employers grapple with aesthetic standards.

By Cassia King and Corie Lynch | 11/26/2012

As of 2012, the Center for Disease control reports that one in five American adults has at least one tattoo.

For many, tattoos are a form of self expression, but when it comes to finding a job, they can work against prospective employees. Some employers are concerned that body art may project an image other than the one they want to represent their companies.

Courtney Sisk, a Workforce West Virginia Public Information Specialist, said tattoos are multi-generational, and a good portion of their clients have ink. The employment agency advises those looking for work to appear as one of the company in the interview.

“You should have the image that your company is trying to project,” she said.

Jobs dealing with the public usually have more guidelines regarding appearance, whereas behind-the-scene jobs are usually more lenient. General advice about visible tattoos is almost impossible to give because some employers are fine with them showing, while others are not, she added.

“Anything that’s an accessory whether its clothing or excessive jewelry and make-up can affect your job—tattoos aren’t any different,” Sisk said.

For some employers, the policy is clear and unwavering. Alan Englebert, director of the Kanawha Library, said the library’s policy is that visible tattoos must be covered during work. New hires are made aware of this during the interview process. He said, “If someone is really determined to have a tattoo, and they are going to be showing it around, they probably need to look elsewhere for employment.” The Kanawha Library does hire employees with visible tattoos as long as they agree to keep them covered.

Other employers, like the Kanawha County Police Department, don’t ask employees to conceal their tattoos, but try to maintain a more formal dress code once employees are hired. The Police Department doesn’t prohibit tattoos on new hires, but instead, prevents sworn-in officers from adding to prior visible tattoos. Captain Sean Crossier said the policy doesn’t just limit tattoos, but also has professional guidelines for hairstyles and facial hair.

There are several officers working in Kanawha County that had tattoos prior to their swearing in. “Some tattoos are not professional, while others are professional, small and won’t detract from day to day business,” Crossier said. He also noted that there were always exceptions, and the Sheriff makes final decisions on dress code policy.

Some employers, like Cindy Deem, manager of Rogers Jewelry in the Charleston Town Center mall, choose to handle the growing popularity of body modifications on a case by case basis rather than have a formal policy “I wouldn’t want to see any tattoos with shocking words, or insulting things that would reflect on the business,” she said.

But, Deem said many of her coworkers and employees sport tattoos—some visible, some not. “I know a lot of people in the business with tattoos,” said Deem. “I think tattoos are all about personality and style. It’s not like it was 20 years ago when only gang members and bikers had tattoos.”

Deem thinks there are still occasions where concealing tattoos may be appropriate. She said it is easier for men to hide tattoos with long pants and dress shirts, while women’s clothing is often less concealing, so their tattoos are more visible.

Some employers are opting to change their policy such as the armed services. The army has updated their policy in order to avoid eliminating possible recruitments. Their dress code at one time restricted soldiers from having any tattoos on the neck or hands. The official army policy now reads, “Tattoos that are not extremist, indecent, sexist, or racist are allowed on the hands and neck.” Any tattoo on the head or face, excluding permanent makeup, is still prohibited, and soldiers refusing to remove an offensive visible tattoo will be discharged according to the Army Publishing Directorate.

The nature of some establishments makes it easier for those sporting body ink to fit in as employees. Pies and Pints on Capitol St, accepts visible tattoos as a societal norm. Visible tattoos and piercings are allowed to be displayed on the job, and are prevalent among the employees.

Kelly Ann Davidson, a bartender at the restaurant, said, “There’s a lot of people working here with tattoos, and, there’s really a variety. We have several people with visible tattoos in the front of the house, but almost everyone is covered in the kitchen.”

Although Davidson leaves her spiral wrist tattoo uncovered on the job at Pies and Pints, she once worked for Disney in Orlando, Fl., where many of her fellow workers and performers were forced to cover their ink.

Davidson said, “I didn’t have my visible tattoo at the time, but even I had to take out my cartilage and tongue piercing.” Her friends with visible tattoos utilized many of the contemporary methods for covering them.

“One of the coolest ways is this stuff called liquid skin,” Davidson said. “You just paint it on, it matches your skin perfectly, and then you just peel it off.” Some other methods for covering tattoos include stage makeup, skin tone stickers or band aids, and even strategically placed fashion accessories.

While some find a balance between the professional world and personal style, others find their self expression more important. Nick Ross, a tattoo artist, formerly at Bent Schrader tattoo, changed his entire career path because of his very visible tattoos. Even though Ross was qualified in printmaking and graphic design, he found that every professional job he interviewed for turned him down. “They ended up giving the job to somebody who was less qualified just because of the way they looked,” he said.

Ross has his associate’s degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in Graphic Design, but now works as a tattoo artist. He estimates that over 40 percent of his body is covered by colorful ink. He believes that tattoos are becoming more accepted by employers and will eventually receive no censure. “I would prefer for the progression to happen quicker,” said Ross. “I have a lot of friends who have a really good work ethic and skills, but they’ve been denied these opportunities just because of the way they choose to express themselves.”

Although Ross found his way into tattooing as an alternative to unemployment, some have spent years behind the desk concealing their tattoos out of respect or requirement. Jason Jones, who estimates 30 percent of his body is covered in tattoos, spent 15 years working in management at a bank. He said he kept his tattoos covered during certain meetings out of respect even though he was never formally asked. “I wouldn’t want vendors and clients seeing my tattoos—lord knows what would be going through their head,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a banker isn’t supposed to look like a tattoo artist.”

Jones was given a full scholarship to Cincinnati College of Art and Design for painting after high school. But after a few weeks he realized he missed the hills of West Virginia, and returned home. Jones continued to paint even while working at the bank, and it wasn’t until his wife, Michelle, and co-workers pushed him to begin tattooing that he realized he could still have his dream job as an artist. “Its tough to make it as an artist in West Virginia,” he said. “Being a tattoo artist is one of the only ways to work as an artist in this environment.”

Still, there is no denying that tattoos are a form of expression that send a message. Jones said he believes there will always be a stigma associated with those heavily tattooed. “I mean look at me. I’m heavily tattooed, but if my daughter came home with a guy that looked like me, I would be cautious.”

He advises any young person wanting a tattoo to take time to think about it, and keep it located above the elbow, which he calls ‘the unemployment line.“ Most teens can’t understand how permanent a tattoo and its effects are,” he said. “I would make my kids wait until their mid 20s before getting a tattoo.”

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