Workplace Topics

August 10, 2007

Setting degrees of tattoo taboos is no easy task

Los Angeles Times

George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Russell Parrish shows his fingers which spell his nickname "Hound Dawg." Parrish has experienced difficulty finding a traditional career. He is organizing an advocacy group to fight for greater tolerance for those with visible tattoos.

LOS ANGELES – Last year Justin Miloro had to wear long sleeves to conceal the Buddha curling around his left forearm and the yellow-orange sun rays on his right. Pants covered the depiction of Earth on one leg and wings on the other. The sun spreading across his back was under wraps. The plugs in his earlobes were obscured by bandages.

"I thought it was really silly," Miloro recalled, "worse than seeing the tattoos."

This year he has nothing to hide – even though the 32-year-old worked last year for Whole Foods Market in Boston, where he was a sales clerk and now works as a manager for the same company in Los Angeles, overseeing health and beauty-products departments at 25 stores.

The chain has looser dress and grooming standards in some parts of the country than others. Setting degrees of tattoo taboos is how Whole Foods handles the increasing attraction to – though definitely not universal acceptance of – body art.

Once associated with drunken sailors, felons and Hells Angels, tattoos have gone nearly mainstream, putting employers in a bind: How to write rules that won't alienate some customers on the one hand or eliminate talented workers on the other?

A pink rose discreetly inked on an ankle might pass muster at a hospital but not a day-care center; an eyebrow stud will be viewed as charming at one store and a blemish at another.

In many cases, grooming policies are being set by members of a generation known for letting it all hang out.

"The baby boomers had hair out to the ceiling, cut jeans, ripped clothes that they washed sometimes," said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey recruiting and consulting company.

And now boomers are passing judgment on nose rings.

The irony isn't lost on Fred Saunders, president and founder of FSPS, which stages concerts and productions for companies including Nintendo and Walt Disney Co. Some of them demand clean-cut crews: trimmed sideburns, long hair pulled into ponytails, no detectable tattoos.

Of course, Saunders, 57, doesn't often take his shirt off during contract negotiations: On his back is a tattoo tableau featuring a samurai warrior skirmishing with a dragon.

"There's a shock value to the art," he acknowledged, and some people get a "negative vibe."

Almost half of all Americans between 21 and 32 have at least one tattoo or a piercing other than in an ear, according to a 2006 study by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

Poll results

Men and women alike say their tattoos make them feel sexy and rebellious, a 2003 Harris Poll found, while the unadorned of both genders see body art as unsightly and think those with tattoos and piercings are less intelligent and less attractive.

For Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles, this divide can cause headaches. Although counselors' body art tends toward ladybugs or Asian characters for "luck," some parents complain the inked and pierced don't look like appropriate role models.

But Director John Beitner said if he adopted a no-tattoo policy, he would lose excellent candidates for the camp's 120 counseling jobs.

Just 10 years ago, he said, only 5 percent of the staff had tattoos, and this summer it's close to 20 percent.

Beitner's solution: the is-it-offensive test, applied on a case-by-case basis.

"A butterfly is not such a big deal," he said, but a skull and crossbones with blood dripping out of the eye sockets would be a problem.

And sometimes Beitner asks staffers to remove belly rings or tongue studs when they're at work.

Policies are all over the map. PricewaterhouseCoopers' says only employees must wear "professional" attire.

Employees at aircraft maker Boeing can show off tattoos as long as the designs aren't what a spokesman called "offensive," but grocery workers at Safeway's Vons are advised to totally cover up.

The dress code for Disney theme parks and resorts is among the most explicit and conservative: no visible tattoos and the only permissible piercings are one per earlobe.

Earrings must be "a simple matched pair in gold, silver or a color that blends with the costume," company spokesman Donn Walker said. Hoops can't be bigger than a dime.

Many law firms prefer conventional looks, as Nicole Wool discovered. Six years ago, on her second day as an associate with a Los Angeles entertainment firm, one of the older partners took her aside and told her to take out her tongue stud.

"I felt so embarrassed," recalled Wool, 32, who now works for Dr. Tattoff, a chain of tattoo-removal studios. "It made me feel like I'd done something bad."

Removing tattoos

It isn't as easy to remove a tattoo, but John Wellman, 20, has heard too many potential employers in retail sales tell him the image he projects is "not the image they're trying to send."

So he's paying Dr. Tattoff close to $700 to erase the teardrop under his right eye, a memorial to deceased friends, and three small dots on his right hand.

Dr. Tattoff's chief executive, James Morel, estimated 20 percent of the chain's clients undergo laser-erasure treatments to improve their job prospects.

Employer untroubled

Financial planner Eric Cohen is having none of that. His boss at A.G. Edwards & Sons in Torrance, Calif., is untroubled by the dragon that sometimes pokes out from Cohen's shirt cuff.

The 37-year old got the tattoo, which envelops his right forearm, in 1996 when he was working as a hotel concierge. "I still love it," he said.

When he interviewed with A.G. Edwards seven years ago, Cohen made sure to keep the dragon under wraps. He kept it covered during his first few years on the job.

Now, a string of solid performance reviews behind him, Cohen sometimes goes to work in short sleeves. "My boss is a relaxed kind of guy," he said. Besides, "it gets warm in here."

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Workplace Topics,


Yoda on August 17, 2007 2:35 AM | Reply

Hmmm. I'm not sure where I stand here. As an employer, I want staff to present a professional appearance to clients, but on the other hand, I agree with one's right to free expression. On a personal note, I have found that people who get tattoos and piercings have a poor self image. The human body is a perfect thing, and by definition, any modification to perfection demeans said perfection, thus making it inferior. Most of my friends, half my family and even my wife have tattoos, but I am happier, better adjusted, more successful and more confident than any of them. As you may have guessed, I have no tattoos or piercings, and I am really not as arrogant as this post makes me appear ;)

mary on August 19, 2007 5:21 PM | Reply

Would some kind of make-up cover it temporarily?
In health care, I see workers who flaunt tatoos.
They are sometimes disturbing images to workers
and patients.Could they "have their cake and eat
it too?"

Gunk on August 20, 2007 9:56 AM | Reply

"I have found that people who get tattoos and piercings have a poor self image." - Yoda

Fair enough, you're opinion. But then again, here is opinion of mine.

I have found that men with mustaches are rude over bearing people.

People are people. Tough topic to disscuss.

Gunk on August 20, 2007 9:57 AM | Reply

And also, I can't spell tonight... :)

I have a lot of tattoo's and I cover them up everyday for work and visiting family.


Sara on November 20, 2007 11:37 AM | Reply

I am educated and tattooed. I spent a good deal more money on my education and I have sterling references. My tattoos are spiritual and I'm often told how gorgeous they are by the most conservative folks. I've worked in customer service (a bookseller,a museum preparator and barista) for 12 years straight always giving the service that I would prefer never compromising that even in quite ignorant and rude situations. I have been a customer of Whole Foods and Starbucks for years neither of which when I applied while getting my degree would even remotely consider me because of my tattoos. They never called my references and each time I would go back I would see a revolving door of young incompetents. It made me sad that my money for worthy for goods rendered but my personal quality of service underestimated. Judgemental snap decisions are morally misguided. I have no body issues beyond anything within the realm of collective cultural normalcy. No more than a balding man with a combover. People hire them readily as long as they don't have tattoos. Acceptance and tolerance tempers great nations.

Alaina on December 21, 2007 7:27 AM | Reply

Tattoos are an interesting thing. I have one on my back which is easily covered when family visits and what not but I have no personal probalem with people who flaunt their work. I do, however, have a problem with disturbing images of graphic death and porographic nudity in visible areas. I currently work for a company that allows body art and percings as long as they are not offensive... it is a pitty that I cannot work there for the rest of my life as I am going to school :(

School teacher on December 23, 2007 2:30 PM | Reply

Actually, tattoos and piercing do not pinch to work, but usually body art is perceived as connected with prison or something criminal. That's why prohibition still exists.

Mandy on June 1, 2008 8:08 PM | Reply

I have to say that some of the most successful people I know are tattooed, and, so far as I know, haven't had a problem with their body art. As a sixteen year old high school student, I have no intention of getting one anytime soon, one, because I haven't a reason for one, and two, because I haven't seen any designs I like, however, I think that they are an amazing expression of who a person is, and not an expression of insecurity in oneself. I will be the first to say that I am biased because I am going to be working at my grandfather's tattoo shop this summer, although it has yet to open. Needless to say, despite the ongoing associations with prison, etc., tattoos are not unlawful, and therefore those with tattoos should not be treated as criminals, or descriminated against in an unfair manner. This sort of descrimination is nearly as unfair as racism, sexism, or age descrimination, is it not?

inked20yrfemalenproud on June 25, 2008 12:10 PM | Reply

Wow, as for the comment about people who have tattoos being less intelligent and have low self esteems....ignorance is bliss i guess , but if you want to wake up and join the real world discrimination based on something so petty and irrelevant to one's competence and ethics in the work place is bigotry at its best. The most interesting self confident and intelligent people i have met sport visible tattoos, may I suggest to those of you naive and ignorant enough to think its ok to shun someone based on this reason alone try reading getting out of your bubble's and open your eyes times are a changing

James on June 28, 2008 9:30 AM | Reply

I have a sleeve on my right arm; from neck to knuckles. I'm definitely not the same person that had gotten these images. If the same decision were proposed to me this day, I'd keep my bare skin. I suppose that's the difference between 19 and 25. I've always been slow at learning life lessons. I was caught in the moment; playing music, touring, friends. Life's been much more simple since then. I work doing stone masonry. I have long hair, a nice big beard, wear what I want. This summer, and the last, we've been working on pool scapes and swim after a hard days work. Then I go home to my lovely girlfriend.

Tattoos definitely add shape to your foolhardy life. Nothing to be afraid of.

I understand the majority of the demographic is homely. I don't think it should be judged on such a wide plane, but individually.

I could go on and on.

s.a. on December 14, 2010 9:21 AM | Reply

A year ago, I would have said any boss that wouldn't let me keep my 4 ear piercings and nose ring didn't deserve my time.
Now, I'd take pretty much anything. I've been unemployed for 4 months, and not because of the holes in my face. When I worked in IT, nobody cared in the slightest- everyone who works with computers is assumed to be a little different. But computer jobs are scarce in these parts.

Butch on February 25, 2012 7:22 PM | Reply

Tramp stamps (sometimes called "tattoos") and hog rings (sometimes called "piercings") are obscene and disgusting. If you want to defile your body with this trash, don't expect to be hired at any responsible company.

And, puh-leeze, don't pretend you are a Christian, if you have any of these disfigurements. Christians believe that the body is a temple...and wouldn't allow any "graffiti" on it!

Stan on February 25, 2012 7:25 PM | Reply

Tramp stamps and hog rings (piercings) are LC - LOW CLASS.

If you want to be stupid enough to defile your body with this trash, don't expect to be hired at any responsible company.

When I see tramp stamps and hog rings, I automatically think, "trash". Be proud of your body. Don't defile it.

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