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Tattoos In The Workplace

Image is divided up into three components: appearance, behavior, and communication. We’ve discussed appearance at length on this blog and with our clients, and it goes further than what you wear or how you keep your beard. Since they’ve become incredibly popular, it’s a good idea to discuss tattoos in the workplace.

This post will focus on where tattoos come from, how they’re perceived in different cultures, and whether or not you should get a tattoo.

Tattoos in America – A Brief History

mechanic with tattoos works on motorcycleBefore tattoo artists came to the States, the best ones were in port cities all over the world. This is where we get the “tattooed sailor” archetype from in our culture, with Popeye being a perfect example.

American servicemen were getting tattoos stateside as early as the pre-Civil War era. Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant, opened a tattoo shop in New York City in 1846. During the Civil War, he would travel from camp to camp tattooing soldiers of both the Union and Confederate sides.

two men with beards in apronsIn civilian life, however, tattoos got their start as a status symbol. This is because, up until the first World War, tattoos were done by hand. This increased the time and expense necessary to get them, which in effect reserved them for the wealthy.

The invention of the electric tattoo machine in the early twentieth century made the process much faster and less expensive. The wealthy abandoned the practice, and it went from being seen as a symbol of wealth to one of counter-culture at best, criminality at worst.

man with arm tattoos and sunglassesNowadays, roughly 14% of American adults have at least one tattoo. As you break the population down by age, you see that a higher proportion of Generation X and Millenials are tattooed, while the opposite is true for Baby Boomers and The Silent Generation.

The tattoo has slowly become less associated with social deviance and more associated with mainstream (youth) culture. In the 1980s, a visible tattoo was a signal that you were a punk rocker, biker, or some other social deviant. In 2020, on the other hand, harmless middle-aged dads show off tattoos when they take their kids to the beach.

Japan – A Notable Tattoo Culture

We mention Japan in our blog post about work-from-home shoes, and again that country has an interesting take on our subject matter. In Japan, tattoos are largely associated with criminality. This is because members of the fearsome Yakuza – an organized crime syndicate that operates out of Japan – are very heavily tattooed. Any association with that organization is viewed as negative.

Tattoos & Image At Work – Are Times Changing?

chef with tattoos displays croissantsAs it relates to managing your image, tattoos in the workplace require as strong a consideration as you can muster. Though removable for a hefty fee, they’re permanent. They also hurt, and good ones – the only ones to consider – aren’t cheap.

We always advise clients to manage their image in the most positively impactful way. Part of this means ensuring your appearance is appropriate for the venue, time of day, time of year, and your audience. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this advice would include covering up your tattoos, but times appear to be changing.

Take a look at the screenshot we took from UPS’ Instagram account:

young man with tattoo on left arm

It looks like a run-of-the-mill ad until you get to the crook of his left elbow, where his tattoo is on prominent display.

The United Parcel Service is a massive company, presumably with a robust marketing department. There’s no way that young man’s tattoo went unnoticed, so it stands to reason that UPS decided to purposefully showcase a tattooed customer in an effort to gain new, younger clients. Given that more young folks have tattoos than older ones do, it’s smart to have this picture on Instagram, specifically. It’s just as smart to not use such a picture in, say, a print ad in the Wall Street Journal.

In making this decision, UPS has demonstrated a knowledge of their audience and how to tailor its image for maximum impact. We as individuals would be smart to follow UPS’ lead here when it comes to tattoos in the workplace.

Can You Display A Tattoo At Work?

Short answer: Maybe. You need to make that call based on your industry and your audience on any given day. Visible ink might turn off certain people, but might have the opposite effect on others. You have to know your audience.

man with tattoo on face and hands
We’re not against tattoos, but a face tattoo should be avoided.

In terms of profession, use good judgment. Are you a lawyer working for the City? You’re not going to get far with visible tattoos. Young entrepreneur? Visible tattoos might be okay, depending on who you’re seeing that day. Brewery owner? People might look at you strangely if you don’t have tattoos.

The advice that works most of the time for most men is simple: get all the tattoos you like, but do so in places that are covered by standard office clothing. Once your neck or hands get involved, they are more or less permanently visible and you’re dedicating your appearance to that.

If you’re considering a face tattoo, know that those are still associated with criminality. Unless you are trying to project an image of lawlessness, stay away from these.

Parting Thoughts

The question of whether or not to display tattoos in the workplace has a similar answer to any other image-related query: use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

We’re here, even remotely. If you have questions about anything image-related, reach out at 215-310-0129 or info@henrydavidsen.com. We look forward to helping you.

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