May 2012

May 2012: A Line In The Sand - Tattoos and Piercings

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne


Do employers have the right to require employees to conceal tattoos and other forms of body art while on the job? Of course they do, but why take my word for it? Let’s ask my friend Suzy (not her real name). Suzy and I were talking about this very subject the day before Maggie and Courtney proposed the question for our column. What are the odds?

Anyway, why should we ask Suzy? Because Suzy has a big tattoo that covers most of her back, and she works for an establishment that has a very explicit policy: No ink. It doesn’t say you can’t have ink on your body, it just says that it’s got to be covered up while you’re on the job. Suzy doesn’t just work there either. She’s a manager. That means she has to enforce the policy upon others as well as abide by it herself, and you know what? It doesn’t bother her a bit. Know why it doesn’t bother her? Because Suzy possesses something called common sense, which is something that people who view such policies as a violation of rights know nothing about.

“The average person that I serve in here is not inked,” Suzy said. “If that’s the majority of your clientele and the people you want to serve, then you probably don’t want to present that way. So I agree with the policy.”

“If you owned the company, would you retain the policy?” I queried.

“Yes, I would.”

See. Common sense. Suzy knows her customers and knows that you have to create an environment that appeals to them, or else they’ll stop coming through the doors. That’s really bad for business in any economy.

What if Suzy demanded that she be allowed to expose her tattoo? In her case, that would mean she’d have to wear a bikini top or less, which would also put her in violation of the dress code requirement that employees wear a collared shirt. So it would have to follow that if you can’t require employees to conceal tattoos, well then, you can’t require them to wear collared shirts either. See where this is going? Where does it stop? At what point do we just say that employers have no right to establish any dress codes or codes of conduct? Why stop there? As long as we’re telling employers that they can’t tell workers how to dress or how to behave, why not just say that they’re not allowed to require employees to work?

Frank, you’re being absurd. That would never happen. Okay, probably not, so let’s try a different angle. I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and assume that people on the other side of this argument think of this as an issue of rights, as in, “this is a violation of our right to express ourselves,” or some such thing. To that I’ll say, yes, you do, but it doesn’t supersede somebody else’s right to decide how to run his or her business. If you were sitting down for an interview with my friend Suzy, she’d tell you straight up that should you decide to accept the privilege of working for her (and a job is a privilege, not a right), you’re going to play by the rules and conceal your tattoo just like she does. Don’t like it? Well, then you can exercise your right to seek employment and express yourself elsewhere.


I can’t argue against tattoos. I have one. Okay, I have two. So, to avoid being the kettle calling the ol’ pot black, I say, express yourself!

Does the fact that someone has a tattoo preclude him or her from being a good employee? A hard worker? An accounting whiz? A public speaking master? A leader? The answer is no. How shortsighted of us to assume that body art equals unemployable. What if your workplace felt that blondes were offensive or just plain stupid? How many of our readers would be out of a job right now?

When I came home with a tattoo, my parents were less than thrilled. In fact, as I recall, my dad’s reaction most certainly included the f-bomb. As in, “What the f-bomb were you thinking?”

Shortly after my new ink dried, my parents came to dine at the restaurant where I was waiting tables for the summer. Their “tip’ was scribbled on a napkin and it read, “Here’s a tip: Lose the tattoo.” And people wonder where I get my sarcasm.

As summer came to an end, my mother’s concern for my pristine reputation heightened. I had just graduated college and landed my first “real job” at a very exclusive and conservative private school, and mom was certain that once they got a look at that “thing” on my ankle they would fire me immediately. She was so worried about how I would now be perceived that she rushed out to Sam’s Club and bought an industrial size box of 4×4 Band-Aids—basically enough to cover every square inch of New Jersey in one fell swoop. Each morning, as I set out for work, she would stick a Band-Aid on my ankle to hide my indiscretion. True story.

I could see her point. I was in my rebel phase (which, by the way, lasted until age 28); however, I also knew I was a hard worker and that my work ethic and brilliance would beat any negative perceptions associated with tattoos. And as far as I know, I was right. And, if I was right then, by gosh, I am most certainly right now. Right?

In 2006, a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology indicated that 24 percent of Americans between ages 18 and 50 are tattooed. This was a significant rise (66 percent) from three years prior when just 15 percent of U.S. adults had a tattoo.

So, if one in four adults is tattooed, chances are, unless you are working solo on the international space station right now, you can look around and check out the ink on your co-workers, and maybe even spot a piercing or two. Go ahead, look! (That same report also indicated that about one in seven people have a piercing somewhere other than in the soft lobe of the ear.)

These stats, of course, also suggest that 75 percent of the population do not have a tattoo. I wonder why not?

Well, perhaps it is because in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tattoos were saved for the center ring at carnivals and circuses where folks flocked to the see the Tattooed Lady. In the early to mid-1900s, tattoos were a signature of enlisted service members. In the ’50s and ’60s, renegade outlaw bikers started splashing the ink, “prison tats” became commonplace, and this is when the stereotypes and negative perceptions associated with tattoos really began. You know how I feel about perceptions. If perceptions become reality, then 25 percent of our population is now an outlaw thug with a tat from their stint in the joint.

Or … perhaps tattoos are simply another attempt at freedom of speech and/or expression, and we should take them for what they are: art. I mean, I think it’s kind of sweet that you want to pay homage to your mom with the double heart and arrow duo on your bicep.

In 2003, a Wall Street Journal article, “The Tattooed Executive,” shared tattoo policies from major corporations, four of which we can find here in South Carolina. And, remarkably they aren’t as scathingly conservative as we may think.

Boeing indicated that “non-offensive” tattoos were permitted. “I’ve seen people at all levels with tattoos and piercings,” said spokeswoman Barbara Murphy.

Tenet Healthcare (parent company of Hilton Head Hospital) had no policy on tattoos indicating that “appearance must be appropriate to the position,” per spokesperson Steven Campanini. “What we do is rely on local hospitals to enforce what is appropriate.”

Wal-Mart stores are also okay with “non-offensive” tattoos showing. And, Subway restaurants allow discrete tattoos, but company literature specifies “non-dangling earrings in the ears only. Any other visible parts of body may not be adorned with jewelry” (lest an earring drop into your $5 foot long).

Interesting, just this week I saw the following quote on Facebook: “Having tattoos does not make you a delinquent or a thug. It is art. Art is about self-expression and creativity. Some people hang their art. We wear ours.”

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