Has fashionable ink broken down employers’ taboos on tattoos?

Despite becoming increasingly popular, tattoos are still considered a hindrance to landing gainful employment. RACHEL AGIUS explores whether that taboo still holds

With summer in full swing and more skin on show, it is easy to see how the popularity of tattoos has grown from a niche, often feared signifier of criminal activity to a much more accepted art form; a permanent body modification, frequently on show.

A 2013 Pew study shows that 36% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo and 40% of those between 26 and 40 do too. There are no reliable local statistics but a cursory web search shows that as of last month, almost 5,500 Maltese people clicked ‘Like’ on a Facebook page entitled ‘Tattoo acceptance in the workplace’.

That criminal association, however, is hard to eliminate. The prevalent attitude now is not that the bearer of tattoos is associated with crime but that they would struggle to find respectable employment, a fate perhaps as equally undesirable as a criminal record.

One can argue that the intent behind tattoos has changed over the years. In the past, a tattooed person was considered an outsider to society, a member of a group no one would opt to be part of who considered a tattoo as taboo, but which members themselves embrace as an act of rebellion. A tattoo was a visible acceptance of a past, and perhaps a present, that already set that person apart from others and that person was just fine with falling outside the lines of convention.

Being tattooed now has become a ticket into a much more acceptable, much less frowned upon club. Some celebrities sport extensive tattoos. Television shows have exposed a space not many have seen before – the inside of a tattoo studio – and have gone a long way in educating the public what a professional tattoo artist and studio should look like. So it is safe to say that tattoos have broken out of their previous reputation and mostly done away with their automatic association with criminality.

The issue of employment, though, remains a complex one. The growth of the IT and creative industries, which often pride themselves in having a more liberal-minded work environment, have done much to counter the idea that people with visible tattoos could kiss a fulfilling career goodbye.

Sarah, a graphic designer, has never had any problems because of her visible tattoos, a number of which adorn her lower arms. “I work in an artistic field, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I would want art on my body,” she says. She does admit that she has never sat for a job interview with tattoos exposed – the more visible ones came later, when she already had her present job.

Similarly, Anna has had few issues with her employer. She too works as a designer and says that during interviews, she prefers to cover her ink. “Better safe than sorry,” she says.

A significant number of her colleagues have visible tattoos, so she is not singled out because of that, although in the past clients have passed comments, mostly out of curiosity. “I have had more job related problems because of my changing hair colour,” Anna admits.

Interviews seem to be the major hurdle and perhaps not unfairly. An interviewer or recruiter is looking for the best person for the job and it is no secret that some customers or clients still hold a deep-seated prejudice against those who have tattoos. A big colourful piece might impact client relations, something any business wants to avoid.

Roles requiring client interaction are the ones where visible tattoos are still a no-go. Josianne Grima, a recruiter with Misco, clarifies that it is not only professional positions that exclude the inked but also any position that involves meeting people.

“In our experience in interviewing, it is very rare that someone comes to an interview showing a tattoo,” she says, which might suggest that those with visible tattoos either skip the recruitment services sector entirely or are acutely aware of how their appearance may affect their chances, and so cover up.

As for employers, Grima says it is very rare for them to specify that they would not accept a candidate with visible tattoos. Certain employers, such as gaming companies, software houses and call centres, would not disqualify a candidate because of visible tattoos.

Everyone’s got ink! Clockwise from left, singer Amy Winehouse; American original sailor Bill Killingsworth; Kyle, works at a popular Maltese burger joint, in a photo by Nicky Scicluna; David Beckham, branded in tats; Miami Ink heroine Kat von D; and actor The Rock, in typical tribal tattoo
Everyone’s got ink! Clockwise from left, singer Amy Winehouse; American original sailor Bill Killingsworth; Kyle, works at a popular Maltese burger joint, in a photo by Nicky Scicluna; David Beckham, branded in tats; Miami Ink heroine Kat von D; and actor The Rock, in typical tribal tattoo

Still, it would appear that recruiters and employers have an unspoken understanding – tattoos and customer relations do not mix and any candidates hoping to reconcile both are going to have a difficult time.

Leo, a tattooed businessman himself, echoes these ideas. Although he has never interviewed anyone with visible tattoos, he admits that the business side of things would take precedence.

“I would have to take a ‘conservative’ stance and explain the fact that at times, tattoos and certain jobs are not compatible. People still have misconceptions about people with tattoos and I can tell you this from experience,” he says.

Leo points out a flaw in the reasoning that if actors and athletes are getting inked, then the average person could get tattoos without much fuss. “People make the mistake of thinking that if David Beckham can get tattooed, they should too,” he explains. “They forget that most famous people do not have to look for a job. We commoners do.”

Few at work know about his own tattoos, a carefully researched collection of pieces he travels far and wide to collect, and he considers tattoos a private part of his life.

“I think tattoos are quite a private matter, especially if you believe, as I do, that people’s opinion can change once they know you are tattooed,” he explains.

With evidence of this prejudice still obviously a concern for employers and job candidates alike, why do people still get tattoos?

They’ve been described as addictive and to Anna and Sarah, who both sport multiple designs, this seems to be true. “After the first one, you start to make excuses to have another, and another done,” she laughs.

“Some of them would have been at the back of my mind for ages - I just wouldn’t know how or where to do them yet. Others are a bit more spur of the moment.”

Sarah’s tattoos came about after a lot of research. Some are the result of a precise image in her mind, which she then trusts her tattoo artist to match. Others were more unexpected, she says, which she discovered online and then fell in love with.

Tattoos can be anything and mean anything. It’s not unusual to come across people who have the names, dates of birth and sometimes dates of death of loved ones. Portraits are gaining ground. Famous quotes, reproductions of popular works of art and symbols with roots in everything from classical music to Japanese cartoons are finding their way onto people’s skin. The only limitations are the imagination and how much blank canvas is left to fill.

The incompatibility of visible tattoos and employment seems to be both deep-seated and frequently being circumvented. Someone with a full sleeve is not condemned to a life of unemployment but neither should they expect a corporate institution to welcome them with open arms. Of course despite evidence that the inked are finding fewer obstacles in their career path, it is telling that some names in this article have been changed, at their owners’ request.