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Tattoos in the Workplace: for and Against

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Millennials entering into the workforce are doomed to face an ongoing issue with discrimination and prejudice in the workplace due to tattoos and piercings. The word tattoo, stems from the Polynesian word tatu or tatau, meaning “to mark or to strike” (Gay and Whittington 31). Tattoos and body piercings are a creative form of self-expression, practiced by people of all ages, races, and social statuses, all over the world. While tattooing has been around in history for thousands of years, its popularity has faded out and reemerged time and time again. Tattooing is an art form that has evolved into many different styles and types, adapted and influenced by many parts of the world, however many employers still discriminate against individuals with tattoos. Tattooing also referred to as body art, has existed even before legal labor laws or the job interview process had been formed. Even though tattooing has shaken off a lot of the stigmas attached to people with tattoos, discrimination is still a prevalent issue amongst the workplace and generalized community that affects many people across the world

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There is evidence of tattoos from many locations around the world such as Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, France, China (Asia), Romania, Samoa, Scandinavia, Portugal, Japan, etc. Although it is not a permanent option as is tattooing, Indian culture uses its own form of body art called henna, which is used to decorate the skin of Indian women. In 1923, excavation in Egypt uncovered multiple tattooed mummies dating back to 2160 B.C.-1994 B.C. A priestess, named Amunet, was one of the few mummies discovered and she was the best-preserved with random dashes and dots that embellished her skin (21). Although we are not aware of what the Egyptian word or phrase for tattooing was, it can be inferred that these mummified African bodies have some of the earliest accounts and tell some of the earliest tales of tattooing as there are records of fossilized women with tattoos from the ancient kingdom of Nubia revealed to be from as early as 2000 B.C. (21). More recently, there was a mummified iceman found in the Otzal Alps in September of 1991, named “Otzi the Iceman,” who was coined as Europe’s oldest human mummy. Rizal had a total of 61 tattoos preserved on his skin in various locations (Authority Tattoo). He is believed to have lived over 5,300 years ago (Gay and Whittington 20), which speaks to the depth of history that tattooing has.

Tattooing was considered a show of masculinity but also stereotypically parallel with deviance. They were indicated as “neither necessary, useful, or desirable, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality” (Armstrong). Some would argue that it is still so to this day in European/American culture. Tattoos were considered taboo amongst people of higher stature, so the majority of the traditional tattoos seen in the past (and also in the present) were associated with circus performers, criminals, motorcycle bikers, gang members, prisoners, and sailors/soldiers (Zestcott et al. 7). Eventually, traditional tattoos transitioned over to become more popular as people were using them for cosmetic reasons (i.e. permanent makeup), incorporating colors into their tattoos and sexually expressing themselves through tattoos became popular (Authority Tattoo). In the 1920s, during the Industrial Revolution, for the first time in American history, jobs were plentiful. Thomas Edison, who is often falsely credited for the invention of the lightbulb, came up with technology and made a pathway to provide electricity for homes all over America, whereas before his invention, electricity in the American home was exclusive to the uber-rich. This invention of power in our homes as we know it today, was not a simple process and Mr. Edison begins creating questionnaires to test for common knowledge as had hundreds of college-educated applicants at his disposal seeking employment. Thus creating and molding the way for the job interview process we know today; Tattooing predated job interviews. The irony in that is so many individuals, including myself, are discriminated against when applying for employment but tattoos were around first. A lot of people grow up being taught that tattoos have negative connotations and will be frowned on in the workplace. Being present during the mid-2000s, tattooing in America was almost as big as it had been in the 1960s where tattooing was fun, wild, sensual but sexy, trendy, and very different all at the same time, so naturally, tattoos were intriguing to most.

After my research for this paper, and from personal experiences myself as a tattooed individual, I fully understand that tattooed people aren’t any more likely to be more unprofessional than non-tattooed people. If my tattoos are covered, you would have no idea I have them. If I don’t show you my tattoos, then nothing about me suggests that I’m going to be a tattooed person. So it is definitely unfair the extent to which a tattooed person should have to go to cover up tattoos to present a certain image in the workplace for someone (whether customer or employer) to avoid the preconceived assumption that employee is an issue or incapable of performing the job efficiently {See Fig. 1}. The number of employers that are comfortable seeing and employing people for professions that are tattooed is not a large one. The majority of society can sometimes accept body art when it comes to a job in retail or sales but they are not so comfortable when it is a doctor or lawyer, and the greatest question is why? As stated in Beware the art on your sleeve; Employers can judge tattoos, body piercings:

People would rather not work with someone who has visible body art in situations requiring face-to-face contact with customers, even if qualified for the job. Also, people do not want to share sales commissions with body art wearers, concerned they will negatively impact their own job performance.

Federal and/or state laws to help to regulate discrimination and prejudice and protect individuals with body art and piercings are a rarity and pretty much nonexistent in most states. Unjust dress code policies (written or unwritten) place extreme limitations on its employees with body art. There have been many attempts to fight these injustices in many levels of the judicial systems across the country on many different bases such as the nature of the images, religion, constitutional issues/rights, etc., with little to no luck becoming a protected class. According to Pechman:

Neither federal nor state law protects employees from discrimination due to their tattoos or body piercing. Fired employees have filed lawsuits against their employers claiming religious discrimination, sex discrimination, and a violation of free speech with little success. Several courts have found that as long as employers apply their dress codes standards uniformly, employers may dictate what body art their employees may and may not display.

In conclusion, given the extensive history of tattoos, it is almost mindboggling the stigmatization that correlates to tattoos/body art and piercings in the workplace and society as a whole. The everyday question of whether it is ethical or not for an employer to restrict your appearance or terminate you is based on the notion that they do not like the way your body art looks in their establishment instead of your competency to effectively carry out the responsibilities of the job. They do not like the possibilities of the stigmas associated with tattoos and piercings somehow affecting their business. As a constituent part of the American society of tattooed individuals, I await the day where we can be free of the stereotypes and able to combat discrimination for good. Tattooing has evolved over the centuries and will continue to adapt to influences, but discrimination is still a prevalent issue in the workplace that affects many people across the world.

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