Updated: Jan 29
Does having visible tattoos affect employment?
The question is pretty much as old as the matter itself. For as long as there have been the modern general population getting tattooed, the issue has come into contention. Many would argue that for the most part, tattoos have become more widely accepted in the professional environment, and stigma around tattooed employees has generally softened.
However, with the rise of acceptance also comes the rise of the social media celebrity, and with it the creation of a whole new, generally tattoo embracing community. A lot of this community, being for the most part creative, have chosen to visually display this and the ease and frequency of them obtaining more visible tattoos (hands, faces, necks) is shown to the masses, through the screens in their pockets.
Does the ease of accessibility to these people give us a false sense that we too can thrive professionally with such visible body art?
THE INFLUENCE OF INFLUENCERS
Whilst the practice of tattooing has been around for over 6000 years, the art form generally remained confined within it's cultural net for much of this time. An almost linear trace from the Maori rite of passage, the tā moko, to the nautical sailors of the 1700s they influenced; today's tattoo industry has evolved to be that. An industry; something available and open to all. And as with all growing industries now, a powerful tool in that industry is social media.
In the 20th century we saw the rise of popularity of tattoos amongst the working age masses; as reflected by the fact that 7% of people born in the 50s are likely to have a tattoo, but 42% of people born in the 80s and 90s have one. In 1999, David Beckham famously debuted his back tattoo - which was pushed through our TV screens and plastering our papers. This was our consumable media at the time. Queue the rise of angelic, large scale back tattoos amongst the general public. Sleeves etc followed suit and it is therefore only natural that we now look to social media as our primary source of news, inspiration and trends.
Ariana Grande, Cara Delavigne, Rhianna - all incredibly successful. If success can be measured by exposure, then we are all becoming more and more used to seeing people with visible tattoos. As they are successful, it's natural that we would therefore deduce that visible tattoos do not inhibit success. But it is important to remember that the careers of these celebrities or influencers is not reflective of most of the general population's. Whilst along with the birth of social media the growth of supporting and creative industries has been healthy, and some of these environments are at the forerunners of tattoo acceptance.
Career expert Vicki Salemi, from Monster.com acknowledges that workplace stigma around tattoos has decreased over the years. There seemingly is a growth in the acceptance of tattoos as a whole in the work place, with the UK Police force now reviewing applicants with tattoos on a case by case basis, and no longer blanket banning tattoos. Air New Zealand also last year lifted a ban on tattoos for their crew. A 2014 North American Survey revealed that 49.39% of the general public asked said that they would not take someone less seriously if they have tattoos.
However, whilst tattoos generally in the workplace do seem to be more widely accepted, the face, hands and neck may still be considered the 'final frontier'.
Whilst contributing to the popularisation of facial tattoos in particular (the most visible of visible tattoos), the late rapper Lil Peep himself acknowledged that what worked for his aesthetic as a successful musician would likely hold him back in the conventional work place. Speaking of a face tattoo he got in 2015, Peep explained "It was kind of like a push for myself to be successful with the music I was doing because it can make it harder to get a job when your face is covered with tattoos". In a similar sentiment, rapper Lil Uzi Vert rationalised "[sic] If I get this face tattoo, I got to focus... I can’t go in nobody’s office with a suit on with this shit on my face. I got to focus on what I want to do."
We should also note that the responsibility is not only on the influencers but the platform of social media itself. The use of Facebook and Instagram as business tools have been particularly felt in the tattoo industry. Inkedmagazine.com cited Instagram as the "most powerful tool an artist can have freely at their disposal.” It allows artists the scope of reach not possible before. This means that we follow artists from all over the world, working in different communities, demographics and tattooing different people. These different people have different circumstances, yet this isn't necessarily conveyed in the picture we see on our feed. The more we see of these visible tattoos, on both the celebrities around us and on the social media we consume, the more we become de-sensitised to the idea that this isn't the norm. Exposure = normalisation.
And if exposure means normalisation, and earlier we fathomed that exposure = success, it is fair to assume that the normal can be successful. The normal person can be successful in the same way the exposed celebrity can. Yet what that linear statement cannot consider is the context. Context is key.
The context we need to consider in the case of whether tattoos in the workplace can limit our success is the workplace itself. If you're considering a tattoo on your hand, neck or face, one of the most important variable factors will be your own work environment. And like the tenuous industry that is social media (it is after all less than 20 years old and therefore we cannot accurately predict it's longevity), so can be your current situation. It is important to firstly consider your lifestyle, and your place of work now. Then, consider future and long term ambitions and possibilities.
If you are considering one of these placement areas, a lot of artists would usually be happier to take on these projects if you already have a fair amount of tattoo coverage, particularly visible pieces (arms etc). This is because the artist can then assume that you are accustomed to living as a relatively heavily tattooed person, and that you are settled in your lifestyle/work environment enough that additional tattoos should be of lesser impact.
It is definitely advisable checking with your current employer or researching any industries you hope to go into. As of 2016, the below statistics reflect the percentage of workers within that industry that are tattooed. Note this is tattoos in general; not specifically highly visible pieces. It is rational to assume however that the more accepted tattoos in general in that particular industry, the more likely they are to accept the more visible pieces than those that are generally less accepting.
Military – 36%
Agriculture/Ranching – 22%
Hospitality, Tourism & Recreation – 20%
Arts, Media & Entertainment – 16%
Retail – 14%
Finance & Banking – 13%
Healthcare – 13%
Professional Services – 13%
Education, Child Development, & Family Services – 12%
Manufacturing – 9%
Engineering, Design, & Construction – 9%
Information Technology – 9%
Government – 9%
It is worth noting that whilst the UK police force are now considering applicants with tattoos on a case by case basis, the Ministry of Defence Police currently operate to the policy that "tattoos on the face that are non-medical or not as a result of cosmetic surgery will result in automatic rejection."
Whilst this may seem discriminatory, in actual fact as of current UK employment laws, a tattoo is not seen as a protected characteristic. This means that an employer may lawfully refuse to employ you or even fire you for your tattoos (unless for religious reasons under the Equality Act of 2010 - this can still be difficult to prove however). Employment law expert Helen Burgess explained to the BBC: “If there was a blanket ban on tattoos and an individual were to turn up with one, if the employer followed proper process that would be a fair dismissal in law.”
A responsible tattooer would therefore always urge you to consider the effect a highly visible tattoo will have on your lifestyle; most notably your source of income as this can have the biggest repercussions. In a recent study, 42% of those surveys expressed that they believe that visible tattoos are always inappropriate at work - so definitely do your research to ensure your employers are the right side of the statistic for your tattoo ambitions.
Having previously mentioned Air New Zealand's lift on it's blanket tattoo ban, the country made further progress at the end of 2019 with journalist Oriini Kaipara becoming the first TV newsreader with a facial tattoo. Kaipara's tattoo is a cultural signifier of her Maori heritage.
Whilst seemingly this is positive as a step forward to tattoo acceptance, Kaipara's tattoo is reflective of a practise of her culture and heritage. This practice has been written about as early the mid 1700's. Given that it has taken until 2019 for this to be accepted in a public facing role, it seems as though we still have a long way to go before visible tattoos for aesthetic or personally significant reason to be cease to be a restricting factor in employment.
It therefore suggests that tattoos need to become fully entwined with culture before they are not considered taboo, or to affect the person's employment opportunities.
It is understandable that the general public is influenced heavily by social media, as this is our primary pop culture outlet. It is therefore natural that we would assume that what goes for the people we see on our screens goes for us, especially as 'influencers' in particular appear as 'half-way' celebrities. Semi-relatble, famous for living their everyday lives and sharing it with the world. The only difference between them and the general public is that their income, their lifesorce is through this - ours may not be. Given that the social media boom is still very much in it's infancy, and therefore our exposure to so many visibly tattooed people, we cannot assume that this is fully engrained in our wider culture yet.
Essentially, social media and celebrity have exposed us more to highly visible tattoos; be it rappers with their faces covered or models with their fingers blasted. By their very intention, they have influenced the general population. It is therefore understandable that as we see more and more people sporting these pieces, we feel it is becoming more accepted and the traditional stigma of tattoos in the workplace has softened. This is to an extent true, as reflected by the increase in amount of the employed population with tattoos. However, this can be easily conflated with ALL tattoos being more accepted. Thankfully, society is beginning to be more accepting of tattoos that represent someone’s heritage, as in the case of Oriini Kaipara. Whilst it could be argued that face tattoos are becoming synonymous with modern rap culture, a lot of facial tattoos are still aesthetic choices rather than being culturally significant.
Sadly, as the statistics show, 42% of people still think visible tattoos are inappropriate in the workplace. It’s therefore crucial to evaluate your own lifestyle and employment; sadly we are not all afforded the same luxury of relative creative freedom not impacting our opportunities like the celebrities and influencers that we observe through our screens.
Are you considering getting a face, neck or hand tattoo? Get in touch and we'd be happy to advise on what may be best for your specific situation!
Written by Abbie McMurray for Ladies and Gentlemen Tattoo Studio, 2019.
Sources & Research