Fashion designer Julia Handleman has made her dreams come true. For several years she climbed the corporate ladder, designing for The North Face, Old Navy and Land’s End. And she did it all with visible henna-inspired tattoos across her face, neck, hands and arms.
Ink is now showing up in the next generation of white-collar lawyers, accountants and business executives. Thirty-six percent of 18–25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26–40-year-olds have at least one tattoo, according to a 2006 Pew Research study. More professionals may be sporting tattoos, but there is still some friction between visible ink and the workplace.
“I have strived to have a corporate career and not have to make a trade-off [between my job and my tattoos],” Handleman said. “I hope to someday become a director, then a [vice president]. To have those accomplishments and not sacrificing being heavily tattooed will be very satisfying for me.”
Kristen Schilt, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said that overall, the stereotypes associated with tattoos have shifted during the last century. However, she added that it is difficult to change the perception of something once viewed so negatively.
“Historically, tattoos were associated with deviant populations, and it’s really changed since the ’60s and ’70s,” Schilt said. “We are a culture of individuals, and people want to express their individual selves. Tattoos are one way to do this.”
As more people get tattooed, the notion of what they say about a person must be redefined, according to Bob Jones, founder of Insight Studios tattoo parlor, 1062 N. Milwaukee Ave. He said “young, careless rebels” are not his only customers anymore.
“We had an 84-year-old woman [who] got tattooed a while ago,” Jones said. “It’s no longer about smuggling guns, getting on your Harley to go to the tattoo shop or slamming shots of Jack Daniels while Johnny Cash is kicking some guys ass in the back alley because he’s looking at you funny. Those days are over, which is very, very good.”
Jones said when he first started in the body modification industry in 1995, there were approximately nine other shops in Chicago. Now, there are more than 100. Tattooing equipment and the knowledge of how to use it are far more accessible than they used to be, which he said makes talented artists who do affordable tattoos easier to find.
However, it is still unclear where the line is drawn between professional appearance and individual expression when a tattooed generation has to apply for jobs.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers can impose dress codes and appearance policies, as long as they do not discriminate against a person’s race, religion, age, national origin or gender. But companies can legally require employees to hide their tattoos. If this isn’t possible, it could keep an applicant from getting hired.
In cases brought to the EEOC, employees have argued that denying them the opportunity to display their tattoos at work is discrimination. In 2005, the EEOC required the Red Robin restaurant chain to pay $150,000 to a tattooed employee and make substantial policy changes to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit. The company was charged with refusing to accommodate employee Edward Rangel, who was fired for tattoos he received during a religious rite of passage. Throughout the suit, Red Robin maintained that allowing any exceptions to its dress code policy would undermine its “wholesome image.”
Though Jones personally has multiple tattoos, he said he understands that no matter what, the employer makes the decisions.
“I see no reason why an ink spot on someone’s body would change why they get hired or not,” Jones said. “But as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s their job and it’s their company. So if you want that job, you have to play by their rules.”
In corporate America’s more conservative industries, such as banking, law and insurance, tattoos and body piercings can hurt applicants’ chances of landing a job or advancing their career, said Untrunnis Brandon, founder of The Brandon Law Firm. He said these companies depend heavily on a professional image that may be compromised by visible tattoos.
Brandon said his company has a strict dress code because his employees are the face of his business when appearing in court. He has found that a distracting tattoo can draw a judge or jury’s attention away from an argument.
It is difficult to consider prejudice against tattoos being on par with racial or gender discrimination because body modification is a choice, while the others are not, according to Brandon.
“People have hang-ups,” he said. “Because you are a certain race or you wear your hair a certain way, people are going to pre-judge you anyway. But you don’t want to give [people] any added incentive, especially when you want [them] to listen to our words. At some point, we all in society have to take responsibility, and I have to note that if [you] do a certain thing to [your] body, it limits [your] options.”
Jones said before people get a visible tattoo, they should know what they will be signing up for. In Illinois, Insight Studios is the only business other than a plastic surgeon’s office to legally offer laser tattoo removal. Jones said approximately 25 percent of the customers who receive the treatment do so to further their careers.
“We had one guy who was lasering his whole sleeve off because he was going to be a lawyer, and he just didn’t want to have it anymore,” Jones said. “I get it. You need to eat, plain and simple. Ultimately that’s the most important thing.”
Handleman said she believes having both a successful career and visible tattoos makes her an ambassador and role model for members of the body modification community.
“There’s a handful of us that have very corporate careers,” Handleman said. “There are doctors, there are lawyers, but you don’t really hear about it. So to be publicly visible [and show that] we can do this is definitely something that’s important to me.”
Handleman attributes her success to the approachable way she presents herself professionally and the fact that she works in a creative industry.
“It’s a catch-22, because on one hand, I would definitely tell people … that visible tattoos do have the potential to hold you back,” Handleman said. “But I also think if it’s part of who you are, it’s not really a choice on some level. Because of my tattoos, I may have had to work harder.”
Cultural norms are not consistent from place to place, so the level of tattoo acceptance in the workplace varies, Handleman explained.
She said intolerance is rare in urban environments, but visible tattoos are more taboo in rural and traditional areas.
“People get this skewed idea of acceptance,” Handleman said. “Living in Chicago, tattooed people might perceive that it’s more acceptable than it is if you lived in a more conservative place. But if you go two hours outside of a major city, it can become very conservative very quickly. Your career may take you to more conservative places that you can’t anticipate.”
With so many people—young and old—inking their skin, Schilt said rules against visible tattoos in the workplace may spark a social revolution.
“I think what sociology teaches us is that change is always possible,” Schilt said. “So it’s perfectly feasible that this is something that a social movement could organize around. There’s just going to have to be a lot of changes in people’s thinking.”