A man who has tattoos all down his arms can’t be expected to “roll up his sleeves” to work in some places; his sleeves are over his skin. Instead, he’s told to roll his shirt sleeves down so his arms can’t be seen.
This is a common annoyance—the chagrin of illustrated men and women all over the world, and it’s a completely unnecessary one, one that is rapidly going away, according to an article by USA Today.
The article states not only are tattoos becoming more widely accepted in businesses, they’re becoming more popular. The latter probably causes the former: Tattoos are more popular among workers, therefore they’re more accepted in the workplace.
This is something most people can figure out intuitively. The more people do something, the more accepted it will be. Turning this logic around, we might say the less people do something, the less accepted it will be. Which is probably why tattoos have been looked down on in the past. Few people got them, so they were seen as a deviance from the cultural norm.
People have traditionally constructed professional spaces in the aim of being as uncontroversial as possible, because to court controversy is to alienate potential customers. To include people with tattoos is to align your business with a group of people considered to be peripheral, fringe, or deviant.
It would be like allowing people in your office to wear fuzzy top hats every day–customers wouldn’t take them seriously. But if everyone’s wearing a fuzzy top hat, then suddenly it’s not so bad; people’s objection to and embracing of tattoos in the workplace are both nothing more than manifestations of cultural conformity. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, just as long as everyone else is doing it, too.
But consider this before going out and getting ink implanted onto your skin: tattoos are permanent but culture is fluid. Who is to say the the tide of tattoo acceptance won’t ebb and you won’t be able to find a job again?
In this contingency, there’s always the hope of slipping into another culture. You could, for example, join the Yakuza (I’m joking, of course), who have more or less required tattoos (irezumi) for their employees since their inception. However, irezumi tends to put one at risk for liver disease, according to Needles and Sins, so maybe it’s not such a good idea.
You could also probably find a place in Czech politics, following the lead of Vladimír Franz, who has tattoos covering his entire face. However, if you’re not about the international scene, the military has the highest prevalence of tattooed employees, followed by agriculture, according to Support Tattoos and Piercings at Work.
But all flippancy aside, tattooing—as well as employment–should be a right for everyone, and keeping them separate unnecessarily complicates things.
When an employer is arguing against tattoos being visible in the workplace, he might defer to the customers’ opinions of the tattoos. Like I said before, apparently sometimes there’s a company image to uphold, and tattoos don’t fit that image.
But this is a logical fallacy, an argumentum ad populum, which presupposes not what individual customers would think, but what all potential customers will think, when in in reality every customer is different and the employer can’t readily predict how one customer will react to the next.
Still, it’s legal in the U.S. for employers to require their employees to cover their tattoos in keeping with a corporate image or dress code, according to Lawyers.com.
But the writing is on the walls (and the skin) for that sort of thinking. Just as government has no ban against tattooed politicians because there are so few, businesses will have no ban against tattooed employees because there are so many.
It’s always been the business of culture to rewrite itself from within—what was yesterday’s vice will today entice—and for the government to legislate the change after the fact.
Kathy Acker, a postmodernist novelist of the last century, saw tattooing as a “meeting of body and, well, the spirit,” according to an interview on Dalkey Archive Press.
People with tattoos aren’t just hobbyists, or, they oughtn’t be, because of the permanent nature of the tattoo. There’s no sense in making permanent a sentiment that’s temporary. A tattoo can crystallize a thought or an emotion for the rest of your life, and serve as a constant reminder.
For Acker, tattooed people are individualists full of self-determination. They’re “people who are beginning to take their own
sign-making into their own hands. They’re conscious of their own sign-making, signifying values really.”
Those values should be out in the open and readily visible in whatever context they might appear–work, home, public, anywhere. To attempt to cover them is to attempt to cover the wearer’s values.
But when it comes to peeling back the sleeves, it will be the corporate cufflinks that yield first, because the other pair of sleeves are burrowed deep into the wearer’s mortal flesh, and can’t be extracted.