I got my first tattoo two weeks ago. It’s a small koala my mother drew, placed behind my ear. As my artist placed the stencil, he commented that it would be easy to put my hair down and cover the neck tattoo for job interviews. Before this comment, I hadn’t even considered that a small tribute to my relationship with my mom, which is barely visible at most angles, could be the reason I miss out on a future job opportunity.
This got me thinking about how tattoos came to be so stigmatized in the first place. Most cultures have a history of tattoos dating back as much as 10,000 years ago, with the first ever documented tattoo belonging to Otzi the Iceman and believed to have been a pain-management method. Other tattoos or similar inking practices have been found in Ancient Egypt, Japan, China, Greece and more.
Around 400 B.C., the Persians started using tattoos to mark prisoners of war. Once this practice caught on, tattoos became standard for marking prisoners, criminals and slaves. This denoted the transition of tattoos as cultural symbols of status or religious practices to the mark of a delinquent.
While having a tattoo might have been a reasonable excuse to not hire someone in 400 B.C., tattoos have since transformed back into an artistic expression of personal meaning. According to Sage Journals, around 29% of Americans have a tattoo as of 2016. Commonly, tattoos are made with deep emotional meanings. The Medusa tattoo can often be found on victims of sexual assault, semicolons can be found on survivors of suicide attempts and butterflies can be found on those who have self-harmed.
Why is there still such a strong social connection between body art and criminal behavior? This can be partially attributed to the statistics of criminals with tattoos. In a comprehensive study by Regis University, of female inmates in 2011, 65.3% of them had tattoos. At first glance, this seems like an overwhelming statistic that would support hiring decisions against tattoos. However, the content of these designs makes all the difference.
The most popular tattoo designs for inmates were classified as “aggressive” tattoos, including skulls, flames and guns. Most offenders had traditionally stigmatized tattoos, but the stigma spread further to anyone with innocent artwork.
Just the simple act of having a tattoo should not be the determining factor in a hiring decision. The contents of the tattoo, on the other hand, could reasonably tell an employer if you would be fit for the job. If I had profanity in large print across my forehead, I would not expect to be hired at a daycare. But, a small koala behind my ear should not label me as unprofessional or criminal.
Thankfully, more and more jobs are coming to terms with their employees having body modifications, but there are still many fields that are strictly against it. I am hoping as tattoos become more commonplace and socially accepted, it will become easier to get jobs with them. The stigmatization of tattoos has long been invalid, and it’s time employers caught up with that.