Tattoo Prejudice

Published: 01 April, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 170, March, 2009

Judging people based on their appearance is a useful sociological tool, so much so that most of the process is conducted subconsciously and automatically. It can be an accurate character-assessment short cut as people’s appearance choices are often reflections of their internally held beliefs and motivation. From hair style to clothing, the car you drive and the colour of your lipstick; your choices say a lot about you.

Prejudice - (noun) An unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason.

Errors do occur however, when the interpretation of cues is affected by social or historical factors that are no longer relevant. (For instance, the traditional skinhead style of dress is rarely affiliated with racist beliefs in today’s scene.) The rapid rise in tattoo popularity observed over the last two decades has diluted the historical stereotype beyond recognition and a new tattoo culture has emerged. Unfortunately, many people’s viewpoints and opinions have failed to keep pace with the changes we have seen and prejudices are still commonplace.

The astonishingly rapid rise in popularity has undoubtedly led to some progress and social acceptance. Media coverage of tattooed celebrities and sports personalities has increased to the point where even tattoos and tattooers themselves are enjoying primetime television exposure. It seems that tattoos have become part of fashionable mainstream culture whether we like it or not. Whilst some of us may lament the daring and rebellious exclusivity we previously relished, perhaps we should be thankful too, as familiarity can help to break down the associated stigmas.

But despite a meteoric rise in popularity, many still view tattoos and tattooed people with disdain and ink fans frequently face prejudices that affect their work, social life and relationships. The people I spoke with whilst researching this article exhibited a range of opinions spanning a wide spectrum. I was interested to find out if the ones who expressed a prejudice could substantiate their position with reasoning or fact. Whilst some respondents hinted towards the historical criminal and working class stereotypes, most could not offer any basis for their opinion. When pressed, the common response would be that they had been influenced by their parents, peers or by society’s opinion as a whole. Most also conceded that they realised their views were not wholly accurate, but admitted that they continued to hold them anyway.

Acceptable Ink

Not only are tattoos becoming ever more popular but also they are transcending their traditional working class roots. The osmosis of ink into the middle and upper classes is on the rise and every artist I spoke with said that their studio caters for people from all socio-economic and demographic groups. Indeed most considered this fact to be unremarkable and were puzzled that it could be thought noteworthy nowadays. Theresa Gordon-Wade works out of Lifetime Tattoo in Derby. “It’s gotten to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if Barak Obama came in for some work!” she laughs. “We get all kinds of folk in here from every kind of background. If you’re trying to find a pattern or a pigeon hole then you’re wasting your time.”

Given the volume and variety of people with tattoos today, the old fashioned stereotypes that society clings to cannot possibly be accurate. My own research unearthed some quite disturbing viewpoints, where respondents used words like violent, criminal, stupid, dirty and unprofessional to describe those with tattoos. These opinions may be prejudiced and inaccurate in most cases, but we are still affected by them nonetheless.

Unlike those who face racial or sexual prejudice, tattoo enthusiasts do have choices. One way to avoid the prejudices tattooed people face would be to not get a tattoo in the first place. For many though, this is simply not acceptable as the right to make choices of personal taste should be fervently protected, so long as they do not affect anyone else’s happiness or lifestyle. That said, in choosing to have a tattoo we must understand the choices we make may invoke negative reactions. It would be foolish to expect everyone we encounter to have an open mind and a sensible attitude, and so perhaps we should consider how we can pro-actively deal with prejudice, rather than simply bemoan the fact that it happens.

Should I Cover Up?

For those who already have tattoos the simplest way to avoid negative reactions is to keep them hidden from view. This is of course dependent on many variables, from the size and location of the ink to the type of clothes you wear, but it has proven to be a successful strategy for many, particularly where parents and employers are concerned. Many feel that it is preferable and considerate to spare parents the upset of finding out about their ink if they are not of a generation or culture to understand. Others feel that it is better to bite the bullet. One respondent recently decided to tell her mother about her collection of tattoos after almost ten years of hiding them. “I was sick of the stress involved in being constantly on my guard. I had to be careful which clothes I wore in the summer and I was always worried that she would catch a glimpse of them somehow. I thought that a couple of hour’s worth of stress when she found out was preferable to another 10 years of secrecy and hiding.”

Those worried about the reaction of employers often choose to hide their ink as a means of avoiding prejudices in the workplace. It is difficult to balance the desire to be treated fairly with the risk of losing one’s income or job prospects and so concealment is often the path of least resistance, especially when the consequences are so severe. Thirty nine percent of Americans believe employers have the right to deny employment based on appearance factors such as weight, body art and hair style¹. Neither is it illegal in UK employment law to discriminate against body art and it is worth knowing where your company stands on the issue. The difficulty occurs when covering tattoos is either impossible or unacceptable for the wearer, as employers could react unfavourably, either overtly or covertly. It is a difficult choice for employers to make if there is conflict between avoiding unfair prejudice and the need to promote customer satisfaction and a supposed professional image. In most cases though, employers will be tolerant of all but the most “objectionable” tattoos if the performance of the employee is good. It would be preferable if employers were able to encourage a more considerate company culture based on performance, rather than one that perpetuates prejudice.

• 36% believe tattoos and piercings should be forbidden in the workplace.
• 41% would not hire someone with visible tattoos and piercings.
• 43% of companies had a policy concerning visible tattoos and piercings.
Source: Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education, Volume 10, Number 2. N.B. Women’s ears were excluded from these surveys and statistics.

The Everlasting Job Stopper

Working in formal or corporate settings can prove tiresome if owning body art becomes a criterion when evaluating performance and some prefer to negate the problem entirely. Bold tattoos on hands, face and neck are becoming increasingly commonplace and although things are changing slowly, choosing to have tattoos in these places can dictate employment options. The desire for the Everlasting Job Stopper tattoo should be weighed against the desire to work in a specific industry or environment and an understanding that job plans can change much more quickly than a culture of prejudice.

At the other end of the scale there are those who have no desire to work 9 - 5 in a restrictive and prejudicial culture and prefer to work where their appearance is not an issue. Apart from the obviously attractive self-employment option, there are many industries where tattoos are not part of the recruitment or appraisal process and a great many tattoo fans choose earn a living in this way. These industries often exist on the outskirts of modern popular culture and can be amazingly diverse and interesting places to work. One employer I spoke with confessed to actively favouring body art and “general free thinking” when evaluating employees and applicants. “Conventional and normal just makes me think boring and in my line of work, boring doesn’t sell. Conventional people are just the same as everyone else and you can’t expect an exceptional performance from an ordinary person.”

A Pro-active Approach to Prejudice

Prejudice against a person based purely on the ownership of a tattoo is unjust. If a person’s behaviour is unacceptable then any remonstration should be directed towards the individual, and not infer all tattoo owners. Those who have been unfairly treated simply for being tattooed may justifiably feel angry or saddened, but the response to prejudice should be carefully considered. Aggressive or confrontational reactions serve only to perpetuate the prejudice and will not usually bring the desired (long term) result. Equaling the score will not fix the prejudice problem. We should perhaps look to the opposite end of the spectrum and ignore completely the behaviour of those who are prejudiced. Instead we could look to influence those who have yet to form a solid opinion.

Appearance choices do not define a person; they act merely as an indicator of preference. Whilst appearance can often be a reliable reference, a person is truly defined by their behaviour; the things that they say and do. (Even the things one professes to believe are merely “good intentions” if not borne out by one’s actions.) Children who have yet to form a viewpoint and adults who currently sit on the fence are influenced by their experiences and the role models they encounter. If you own a tattoo then you are an ambassador for western tattoo culture whether you like it or not. Actions and behaviour will influence the opinions of those who have yet to form a prejudice.

It is understandable that people are comforted by the things they find familiar and many aspire to the conventional lifestyles and opinions depicted in the media. Conventionality is an easy way to garner approval and a sense of belonging and so is not surprising that those immersed in a strictly conventional lifestyle will sometimes feel threatened by anything from outside their comfort zone. Confidence and comfort are environmentally specific traits and tattoos are not usually part of the environments in which strictly conventional people are comfortable.

This magazine documents the fabulous diversity of tattoo culture. The tattoos displayed here are wonderful examples of how tastes, fashions, compulsions and motivations differ, even within the world of tattoo ownership. Most would agree that diversity is to be welcomed and applauded and the fact that tattoos are not yet a familiar part of traditional conventional western culture does not excuse prejudice. Just because body art is not comfortably appreciated by convention does not mean that its exponents should be treated unfairly.

Not everyone will LIKE tattoos, just as not everyone LIKES mullet haircuts, polyester shell suits or Westlife; and vive le difference! But to attack someone’s personality for their choices of taste is unjust and unacceptable. The amount of energy you expend in addressing prejudice is a matter for you to decide; ignore it, or hide from it, or fight it. Whichever you see fit. But I think we should understand that our behaviour is the factor on which we should ideally be judged. It is up to us to ensure that we conduct our lives in a way that we can be proud of, whether we are fans of body art or not.

References & Sources:
¹ Scripts Howard News Service. Ohio University. 2005.
Pew Research Centre for People and the Press.
Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education, Volume 10, Number 2.
Department of Communicative Disorders. University of Louisiana. Is perception reality? Employers’ perspectives on tattoos and body piercing.


Text: Terry Jones Additional Photographs: Dave Kimelberg


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