Inked Identity - Identity Week


By Jess Goulart

Photos courtesy of Joshua Coburn.

Though the old warning of “you’ll never get a job” may have been true of tattoos at one time, it’s beginning to lose punch. With the rapidly growing prevalence of tattoos in young generations, the changing workplace landscape, and the erosion of body art stereotypes thanks to the media, it’s now about as dated as a butterfly inked on the small of your back.

A recent Forbes article pointed out that tattoo regulations in medical and academic fields have become lax depending on the workplace, and predicts other professions will soon follow suit. Tattoos, it seems, are a part of our individual and cultural identity. Employment be damned.

Joshua Coburn, a former body modification artist, small business owner, and “corporate oddity” turned life coach, tells BTR that while tattoos may have obliterated his chances at certain jobs they’re an essential part of who he is.

“For a kid who was not confident in himself the initial attraction to tattoos was almost an armor,” Coburn says. “It made me feel and look different, like Superman putting on his cape. It made me feel more confident and better about who I am. So that’s what I associate with it.”

Tattoos date back centuries. Until recently, the first tattoos on record decorated the bodies of mummified Egyptians from around 2000 BC, though the discovery of the Iceman (a body naturally preserved in ice that dates back to 3300 BC) pushed back that date. It’s hypothesized that the Egyptian tattoos denoted concubines or acted as permanent amulets.

In America, tattoos were first associated with circus performers, thieves, and criminals. That perception has evolved through the years as tattoos became a symbol of rebellion were not as strongly associated with violence.

David Strohecker, a PhD student at the University of Maryland who studies the cultural context of tattoos, tells BTR that much of the reason for the shift away from a gang-related stigma is because of popular reality TV shows like Miami Ink. These shows help elevate tattoos to an art form in the eye of the general public and stress the significance of an “eternal meaning” or personal history at the root of many of them.

“It’s a culture of hyper-visibility, because tattoos now linger in the media. Young people realize that you can still have tattoos and get jobs. Millennials especially are adopting this practice and getting tattooed at greater rates,” Strohecker explains.

The Pew Research Center released a 2010 portrait on Millennials showing that 38 percent of them have a tattoo versus 32 percent of Generation X, 15 percent of the Baby Boomers, and 6 percent of the generation before that.

Obviously the Millennials will eventually make up both corporate America and the markets to which it caters, but for now that power position is held by older generations. If a company is selling a brand they will be concerned about image, and tattoos may be an exclusionary factor when they’re choosing representation. A study from the University of St. Andrew’s School of Management in Scotland found that visible tattoos still carry a negative connotation to hiring managers, though this largely depends on the age of who is hiring and what the company is selling.

Surprisingly, Coburn found that the lack of tattoos in the workplace worked to his advantage.

“I was such a rarity in those positions that I was always that guy with the tattoos on his face or that guy with the big ear lobes,” he says. “So even if people didn’t know my name they always remembered me, which was a huge asset to me in the long run.”

Coburn also points out that people will often make two assumptions about him. First, he wants a job that will judge him for his appearance, and second, that he can’t go in and “kick the doors down,” changing a business or entire industry based on the belief he has in himself.

Want a tattoo and a corporate job right now? If you’re not quite ready to brave the attention, it’s still possible to have tattoos even in the stodgiest of workplaces. Strohecker lays down three guidelines for allowing your tattoos to show in a corporate setting that he developed from research.

First, the tattoo must be “good art,” both in the sense of being beautiful and non-offensive content wise. Second, you work at an upper-level professional job where you’re respected more for your mind than your appearance. Last, you have minimal contact with the public, since that’s where corporate interests lie.

“If you don’t fit those qualifications,” says Strohecker, “you have to have your tattoos covered up in formal business attire.”

Susannah Griggs, a tattoo artist out of Detroit, tells BTR that her clients are employed in a wide range of jobs including teachers, nurses, lawyers, business owners, librarians, etc. For her part, Griggs is aware that some occupations carry strict regulations regarding tattoos and will often help clients decide on a piece or placement that will work for them professionally.

“For example,” says Griggs, “some nurses can’t have any tattoos showing so I have them bring in their scrub shirt so that if the design is going to be on their arm, we can make sure to keep it sized under the sleeve. I usually advise against places like the chest or wrist, since these places are not usually completely covered.”

If Forbes is accurate in their predictions, it won’t be long before Griggs can tell her clients to leave the scrubs at home.