It’s not unusual to see the outline of a star peeking out from a watchband or a butterfly’s wing from the strap of a high-heel shoe. A colorful skull glaring out from a short-sleeved shirt or a lotus flower unfurling beneath locks of hair have become as pervasive as iPhones.
Tattoos are everywhere. And it’s not just bikers, sailors, rock stars and strippers who are getting them. Librarians and soccer moms, CEOs and surgeons, accountants and grandmothers are all going under the needle.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of 26-40 year olds and 36 percent of 18-25 year olds have tattoos. Some do it as a rite of passage, or in memory of a loved one; others do it as self-expression or simply because it looks cool — all have chosen to make a permanent, personal statement on their body in ink and blood.
Rebecca Strain got her one and only tattoo, which isn’t usually visible, when she was 48 years old and said she doesn’t mind them personally. Professionally, however, as the owner of Le’Chic Boutique in Anniston, she has to be a bit more wary.
“Regarding what my employees show … yes, it’s something that I have to consider before hiring them. If there are vulgar words or insinuations, then I’d have a problem with it,” Strain says, adding she currently has an employee with numerous visible tattoos. “With that said, I don’t have a problem with tattoos, as long as they are tasteful.”
On the job
According to a 2011 study by CareerBuilder.com, 31 percent of surveyed employers ranked “having a visible tattoo” as the top personal attribute that would dissuade them from promoting an employee, many of whom cited distraction to customers and coworkers as well as being potentially offensive as the main reason.
“It all depends on the type of business you have,” says Larry May, owner of CD Cellar in Anniston. “I don’t think owners care as much as they worry that their customers might … what’s most important in business is knowing how your customers will respond.”
Like the stories they tell, tattoos are often private, hidden from plain sight beneath shirts, dresses, even bikinis because for all their popularity, there is still a stigma surrounding tattoos.
That is why placement is crucial.
“Some tattoos, like on the neck or the face, will make you virtually unemployable,” says Brooke Hunter, who’s been a tattoo artist in and around Anniston for nearly 20 years. “I’ve spent most of my career trying to talk people out of getting tattoos in certain places, but some just refuse to listen.”
While for law firms, banks, schools and restaurants, tattoos aren’t considered problematic, the same isn’t true in the medical fields, where rules require they be covered either by clothing or a Band-Aid.
“For us, it’s not about personal preference, it’s about safety,” explains Hillary Folsom, manager of marketing and physician services at Regional Medical Center. “We have to be very careful and very specific to avoid a possible risk of infection. We’re not even allowed to wear open-toed shoes for the same reason. Everything we do is for cleanliness and infection control.”
Six years ago Teresa Reed’s brother-in-law was looking in the mirror while putting his contacts in when he noticed a dark spot on his iris. It turned out to be cancer. Less than two years later he was dead.
In 2011, Reed, who is a professor in the English department at Jacksonville State University, and several of those close to her brother-in-law decided to get tattoos of a stylized eye — blue with a black pupil — in his memory.
“It was something that meant a lot to me,” she says, “because he meant a lot to me.”
The tattoo is on her right wrist, a place she knew it would get noticed. But a previous experience in one of her classes taught Reed that visible tattoos, which aren’t mentioned in JSU’s dress code policy, wouldn’t be a big deal — at least among the students.
She was writing on the board one day when her shirt rode up just enough to reveal the tattoo of a chafer mirror on her side. The students asked about it and the subject was dropped with little fanfare.
“After that, my attitude about having one that was really visible, not accidentally visible really changed,” she says. “When I was choosing the placement for the other one, I made a conscious decision to make it visible. I didn’t want to hide it because it was important to me.”
In the English department, Reed knows that she’s in rather liberal company — “both socially and politically” — among her peers. Eryn Oft, a 34-year-old professor in the JSU music department, isn’t as fortunate. Though none of the other professors have said anything, she’s “gotten some attention” for her tattoos, notably the dove on the inside of her right forearm.
“My tattoos tell the story of my life,” says Oft, who has two. “They are part of my spiritual journey.”
According to traditional myth, Pope Gregory dictated melodies to a scribe after they’d been sung to him by a dove perched on his shoulder. These melodies helped popularize Gregorian chants. As a musician, such a symbol is a cornerstone of Oft’s life’s work, something she doesn’t want to hide.
“I want to live my life and not be defined by society’s rules,” she says. “I want to be true to my authentic self. My tattoos are part of that.”
Such decisions can have consequences — both passing and permanent.
Melissa, who didn’t want to be identified, decided for her 40th birthday she was going to get a tattoo. At the time she had been working in the same job for nearly a decade and had no concerns about how her boss would react. But as so often happens with tattoos, the art she wanted wasn’t going to work on her wrist, where she initially intended to get it. So instead she got the tattoo on her forearm.
Now it’s three years later and Melissa is in the midst of a career change. She doesn’t regret the tattoo, but does worry that it might prejudice people against her.
“I don’t want to hamstring myself before I even get started,” she says. “But I’ve done this now and it’s part of who I am.”
But Melissa has a plan.
“I’m rarely going to be seen without a sweater,” she says with a small laugh. “I’m always cold, even in the summer, so they’ll probably never even know I have one.”
Whether cold- or hot-natured, those with tattoos may have to accept the reality that in certain situations they’ll have to conform to what their boss or corporate managers have deemed appropriate workplace attire. And that means one thing, according to Becca Turner, director of Career Services at JSU.
“We say, ‘cover them up,’” Turner says. “When attending a job fair or going on an interview, that’s the best thing … to be on the safe side because for most business owners, tattoos are something of a gray area.”
Turner hasn’t necessarily noticed an increase in tattoos in recent years, but she has noticed that they seem to be in more visible places. And while she doesn’t want to stifle anyone’s creative outlet, when it comes to getting a job, a smart rule — whether they have visible ink or not — is to dress the part.
“It is possible to look professional and still have tattoos,” she says. “Tattoos definitely leave an impression … but I wouldn’t necessarily say they leave a negative impression.”
Jennifer Ellis got her first tattoo, a butterfly on the back of her neck, during spring break in 2000. Now at 33, she will graduate next year from JSU with a degree in social work and believes her tattoos — 11 at last count — will actually open lines of communication.
“It will give me a way to relate to some of the people,” Ellis says. “I don’t want them thinking I’m better than they are, but to know that I’m there to help. Plus, tattoos can be a great way to make people feel at ease and gives us something to talk about.”
Ellis isn’t worried about her more visible tattoos, including a bird on her right wrist, hampering her opportunity to get a job.
“Tattoos just aren’t that big a deal anymore,” she says. “Because they’re so common and popular, the stigma just isn’t there. Those days are gone.”