A tattoo is a permanent marking on the skin made by depositing ink into the skin’s dermis layer using a high-powered electric needle. This practice is seen as an acceptable form of body art and is rich in cultural and social history. Tattoos are a form of art and a means of self-expression that allow you to turn yourself into your art gallery and see stages of your life decorate your body. The oldest documented tattoo belonged to Otzi the Iceman, “whose preserved body was discovered in the Alps between Austria and Italy in 1991” (Nina Jablonski). The Iceman was estimated to have died around 3300 B.C, but the practice was well established before then.
If the practice is so old and well established, why is there so much stigma associated with tattoos today? The answer lies in the culture of the country you reside in. In the USA, tattooed people have been viewed as societal outliers for centuries. The American ideology demotes tattoos to low-class symbols, known to keep high-paying jobs out of their league. American sailors were the class of men who brought the art into American society. Since sailors acquired their tattoos overseas, the American bourgeoisie saw them as lower class and degenerates, holding foreign artwork on their skin. However, this turned around in the late 19th and early 20th century when “Freak Shows” became popular in America. Tattooed people were seen as entertainment. Children would pay to take photos with tattooed people, collecting them like baseball cards.
In Asia, tattooing has been a celebrated art form for thousands of years; however, it was only ten years ago that China and Japan’s tattoo industry began to be accepted. Interestingly enough, tattoos hold a more negative connotation in Japanese culture today than in modern-day China. You are not allowed to enter many public places if you are visibly tattooed, like gyms, pools, and hot springs. It’s not uncommon to see “no tattoos allowed” signs at these public facilities’ entrances. This may be because of the strong association with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and criminal activities.
Similar to Japan and other Asian countries, Singapore is also a conservative society. In a survey done in 2019 by The Independent (a news publication in Singapore), 47 percent of Singaporeans are less likely to hire someone with a visible tattoo. 58 percent of the surveyed population believes that tattoos should be covered at work. According to 87 percent, the least employable tattoo placement would be the face, followed by the neck, hand, and arm.
With these perceptions of tattooed people, discrimination against them in the workplace seems inevitable. According to John Gaskell, a chemistry teacher at Singapore American School, he was told that “getting a ¾ sleeve or longer could get me fired.” He later states that he wanted to have ¾ sleeves and felt it unfair that a person had the power to exert control over his body and life. Matt Hughes, on the other hand, had positive experiences with tattoos in the workplace, with a minor issue:
“I did have this one moment at a previous school where a 9th grader came home and showed her mom a tattoo that she had just got on her hand. Her mom got upset with me and complained that I wasn’t a very good role model to her child and that I had corrupted her in some way or somehow encouraged her to get it. I had no idea she would get a tattoo, nor would I ever advocate that someone else get one. But people make assumptions sometimes, and, to be fair, we learn to be adults by imitating what we see adults do. Now I never wear short sleeves until AFTER parent night, so I guess we each learned something there.”Matt hughes
A popular stereotype about tattooed people is that they are more “reckless” and “impulsive” than people without tattoos. However, Andrea Hendrickson, college counselor at Singapore American School, got her first tattoo the week before turning 30 when already placed in her second job. In her time at SAS, she’s gotten three done, with a total of ten tattoos (at the moment). A famous phrase that people with visible tattoos will hear is “you’ll regret them.” All three interviewees mention that they have never regretted their tattoos. Hughes was explicitly saying, “I’ve never regretted getting a tattoo. I have some old ones that I wouldn’t get now because I’m a different person than when I got them, but that doesn’t mean I have regrets about it. I like having little reminders of all the different stages and ways of thinking I’ve gone through. It’s really fun to remember those times in that way.”
There is no doubt that people are getting denied jobs and opportunities solely because of their choice to have tattoos. Little is being done to remedy this issue; however, there are some improvements. For example, under Title VIII in the USA, it is illegal to discriminate based on religion. This extends to the employee’s tattoos and piercings, meaning that if the employee has a tattoo or piercing associated with their religious beliefs, it is illegal for the employer to discriminate against the employee’s tattoos (and piercings). On top of that, having tattoos does not make an employee less capable at their job. If I were an employer, I would be impressed if an employee had an extensive piece on themselves. An average 7-inch tattoo can range anywhere from $500-$1000 (depending on the artwork’s complexity). This shows that the person has a deeper understanding of themselves. Some workplaces are phasing out the negative stigma around tattoos by dropping their ‘no visible tattoos’ policy, partly because of cultural backlash. For example, in 2019, New Zealand dropped this policy because it meant that traditional Maori markings had to be covered. While attitudes towards tattoos are about as complex as the designs themselves, it’s time for more workplaces to realize that tattoos are here to stay.