Tattoo Prejudice.

Latina - Tattoo Jam Aug 2009

“Prejudice is a great time saver.
You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”

E.B. White.  1899 – 1985.

Judging people based on their appearance is a useful sociological tool, so much so that most of the process is conducted subconsciously and automatically.  It can be an accurate character-assessment short cut as people’s appearance choices are often reflections of their internally held beliefs and motivation.  From hair style to clothing, the car you drive and the colour of your lipstick; your choices say a lot about you.  Errors do occur however, when the interpretation of cues is affected by social or historical factors that are no longer relevant.  (For instance, the traditional skinhead style of dress is rarely affiliated with racist beliefs in today’s scene.)  The rapid rise in tattoo popularity observed over the last two decades has diluted the historical stereotype beyond recognition and a new tattoo culture has emerged.  Unfortunately, many people’s viewpoints and opinions have failed to keep pace with the changes we have seen and prejudices are still commonplace.

“O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand.”
William Penn.
(Champion of liberty and peace. 1644 – 1718)

The astonishingly rapid rise in popularity has undoubtedly led to some progress and social acceptance.  Media coverage of tattooed celebrities and sports personalities has increased to the point where even tattoos and tattooers themselves are enjoying primetime television exposure.  It seems that tattoos have become part of fashionable mainstream culture whether we like it or not.  Whilst some of us may lament the daring and rebellious exclusivity we previously relished, perhaps we should be thankful too, as familiarity can help to break down the associated stigmas.

But despite a meteoric rise in popularity, many still view tattoos and tattooed people with disdain and ink fans frequently face prejudices that affect their work, social life and relationships.  The people I spoke with whilst researching this article exhibited a range of opinions spanning a wide spectrum.  I was interested to find out if the ones who expressed a prejudice could substantiate their position with reasoning or fact.  Whilst some respondents hinted towards the historical criminal and working class stereotypes, most could not offer any basis for their opinion.  When pressed, the common response would be that they had been influenced by their parents, peers or by society’s opinion as a whole.  Most also conceded that they realised their views were not wholly accurate, but admitted that they continued to hold them anyway.

Some Tattoo Statistics.

•    Life magazine: estimated in 1936 that 10 million Americans (approximately 6% of the population) had at least one tattoo.
•    Harris Poll: A survey conducted in 2003, nearly tripled those numbers and estimates that 16% of Americans now had one or more tattoos.
•    National Geographic News: stated in April 2000 that 15% of Americans were tattooed (Approximately 40 million people.)
•    Esquire Magazine: estimated in March 2002 that 1 in 8 Americans was tattooed.
•    Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: A 2006 a study done found that 24% of Americans between 18 and 50 are tattooed; that’s almost one in four. And the survey showed that about 36% of Americans age 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo.
•    Paw Research Centre: according to a 2006 survey, 36% of those ages 18 to 25, and 40% of those ages 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo.

Not only are tattoos becoming ever more popular but also they are transcending their traditional working class roots.  The osmosis of ink into the middle and upper classes is on the rise and every artist I spoke with said that their studio caters for people from all socio-economic and demographic groups. Indeed most considered this fact to be unremarkable and were puzzled that it could be thought noteworthy nowadays.  Theresa Gordon-Wade works out of Lifetime Tattoo in Derby. “It’s gotten to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if Barak Obama came in for some work!” she laughs.  “We get all kinds of folk in here from every kind of background.  If you’re trying to find a pattern or a pigeon hole then you’re wasting your time.”

Given the volume and variety of people with tattoos today, the old fashioned stereotypes that society clings to cannot possibly be accurate. My own research unearthed some quite disturbing viewpoints, where respondents used words like violent, criminal, stupid, dirty and unprofessional to describe those with tattoos.  These opinions may be prejudiced and inaccurate in most cases, but we are still affected by them nonetheless.

Unlike those who face racial or sexual prejudice, tattoo enthusiasts do have choices.  One way to avoid the prejudices tattooed people face would be to not get a tattoo in the first place.  For many though, this is simply not acceptable as the right to make choices of personal taste should be fervently protected, so long as they do not affect anyone else’s happiness or lifestyle.  That said, in choosing to have a tattoo we must understand the choices we make may invoke negative reactions.  It would be foolish to expect everyone we encounter to have an open mind and a sensible attitude, and so perhaps we should consider how we can pro-actively deal with prejudice, rather than simply bemoan the fact that it happens.

For those who already have tattoos the simplest way to avoid negative reactions is to keep them hidden from view.  This is of course dependent on many variables, from the size and location of the ink to the type of clothes you wear, but it has proven to be a successful strategy for many, particularly where parents and employers are concerned.  Many feel that it is preferable and considerate to spare parents the upset of finding out about their ink if they are not of a generation or culture to understand.  Others feel that it is better to bite the bullet.  One respondent recently decided to tell her mother about her collection of tattoos after almost ten years of hiding them.  “I was sick of the stress involved in being constantly on my guard.  I had to be careful which clothes I wore in the summer and I was always worried that she would catch a glimpse of them somehow. I thought that a couple of hour’s worth of stress when she found out was preferable to another 10 years of secrecy and hiding.”

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Dale Carnegie.  1888 – 1955.
(Author & Lecturer.)

Those worried about the reaction of employers often choose to hide their ink as a means of avoiding prejudices in the workplace.  It is difficult to balance the desire to be treated fairly with the risk of losing one’s income or job prospects and so concealment is often the path of least resistance, especially when the consequences are so severe.  Thirty nine percent of Americans believe employers have the right to deny employment based on appearance factors such as weight, body art and hair style¹.  Neither is it illegal in UK employment law to discriminate against body art and it is worth knowing where your company stands on the issue. The difficulty occurs when covering tattoos is either impossible or unacceptable for the wearer, as employers could react unfavourably, either overtly or covertly.  It is a difficult choice for employers to make if there is conflict between avoiding unfair prejudice and the need to promote customer satisfaction and a supposed professional image.  In most cases though, employers will be tolerant of all but the most “objectionable” tattoos if the performance of the employee is good. I would be preferable if employers were able to encourage a more considerate company culture based on performance, rather than one that perpetuates prejudice.

A recent survey found that:

•    36% believe tattoos and piercings should be forbidden in the workplace.
•    41% would not hire someone with visible tattoos and piercings.
•    43% of companies had a policy concerning visible tattoos and piercings.

Source: Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education, Volume 10, Number 2
N.B. Women’s ears were excluded from these surveys and statistics.

The Everlasting Job Stopper

Working in formal or corporate settings can prove tiresome if owning body art becomes a criterion when evaluating performance and some prefer to negate the problem entirely.  Bold tattoos on hands, face and neck are becoming increasingly commonplace and although things are changing slowly, choosing to have tattoos in these places can dictate employment options.  The desire for the Everlasting Job Stopper tattoo should be weighed against the desire to work in a specific industry or environment and an understanding that job plans can change much more quickly than a culture of prejudice.

At the other end of the scale there are those who have no desire to work 9 – 5 in a restrictive and prejudicial culture and prefer to work where their appearance is not an issue.  Apart from the obviously attractive self-employment option, there are many industries where tattoos are not part of the recruitment or appraisal process and a great many tattoo fans choose earn a living in this way.  These industries often exist on the outskirts of modern popular culture and can be amazingly diverse and interesting places to work.  One employer I spoke with confessed to actively favouring body art and “general free thinking” when evaluating employees and applicants.  “Conventional and normal just makes me think boring and in my line of work, boring doesn’t sell.  Conventional people are just the same as everyone else and you can’t expect an exceptional performance from an ordinary person.”

A pro-active approach to prejudice.

Prejudice against a person based purely on the ownership of a tattoo is unjust.  If a person’s behaviour is unacceptable then any remonstration should be directed towards the individual, and not infer all tattoo owners.  Those who have been unfairly treated simply for being tattooed may justifiably feel angry or saddened, but the response to prejudice should be carefully considered.  Aggressive or confrontational reactions serve only to perpetuate the prejudice and will not usually bring the desired (long term) result.  Equaling the score will not fix the prejudice problem.  We should perhaps look to the opposite end of the spectrum and ignore completely the behaviour of those who are prejudiced.  Instead we could look to influence those who have yet to form a solid opinion.

Appearance choices do not define a person; they act merely as an indicator of preference.  Whilst appearance can often be a reliable reference, a person is truly defined by their behaviour; the things that they say and do.  (Even the things one professes to believe are merely “good intentions” if not borne out by one’s actions.)    Children who have yet to form a viewpoint and adults who currently sit on the fence are influenced by their experiences and the role models they encounter.   If you own a tattoo then you are an ambassador for western tattoo culture whether you like it or not.  Actions and behaviour will influence the opinions of those who have yet to form a prejudice.

“A minority group has “arrived” only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.”
Carl T. Rowan 1925 – 2000.
(Civil Rights journalist.)

It is understandable that people are comforted by the things they find familiar and many aspire to the conventional lifestyles and opinions depicted in the media.  Conventionality is an easy way to garner approval and a sense of belonging and so is not surprising that those immersed in a strictly conventional lifestyle will sometimes feel threatened by anything from outside their comfort zone.  Confidence and comfort are environmentally specific traits and tattoos are not usually part of the environments in which strictly conventional people are comfortable.

This magazine documents the fabulous diversity of tattoo culture.  The tattoos displayed here are wonderful examples of how tastes, fashions, compulsions and motivations differ, even within the world of tattoo ownership. Most would agree that diversity is to be welcomed and applauded and the fact that tattoos are not yet a familiar part of traditional conventional western culture does not excuse prejudice.  Just because body art is not comfortably appreciated by convention does not mean that its exponents should be treated unfairly.

Not everyone will LIKE tattoos, just as not everyone LIKES mullet haircuts, polyester shell suits or Westlife; and vive le difference! But to attack someone’s personality for their choices of taste is unjust and unacceptable.  The amount of energy you expend in addressing prejudice is a matter for you to decide; ignore it, or hide from it, or fight it.  Whichever you see fit.  But I think we should understand that our behaviour is the factor on which we should ideally be judged.  It is up to us to ensure that we conduct our lives in a way that we can be proud of, whether we are fans of body art or not.

References & Sources:
¹ Scripts Howard News Service. Ohio University. 2005.
Pew Research Centre for People and the Press.
Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education, Volume 10, Number 2.
Department of Communicative Disorders. University of Louisiana. Is perception reality? Employers’ perspectives on tattoos and body piercing.

Anecdote  (Box Out.)

Samantha was gorgeous; I mean really stunning.  Not in a typically plastic Hollyoaks type way, but she just had something about her.  I couldn’t tell you what it was to this day but I thought she was sexy as hell.  The way she walked, her laugh, the way she told a story, all of these things just added to her appeal and I was smitten.  And she liked me too I could tell, after all I’m quite a catch myself!  (If you like that kind of thing!?)  We got on like a house on fire and even her friend had mentioned that she’d never seen Samantha look so happy with a guy.  It was going great.

It was a typically English November with the weather alternating between four different types of wind and rain.  Samantha and I had been on a few dates already and each time it had been fabulous.  The first was to a kooky little café bar on the outskirts of town where we sat talking for hours until closing time.  As she said goodnight and climbed into the taxi I found myself smiling and content, eager to see her again as soon as possible.  I didn’t have to wait long; as I walked towards home my phone bleeped with a text message inviting me to dinner the next night.   The horizontal rain and freezing cold winds did nothing to dampen my spirit.  The next two dates were a continuation of the first and I found myself dizzy with the beautiful aching one feels after spending the evening with a girl you realise you are falling for.  It would take more than dark clouds and thundery skies to wipe the smile from my face.

Apparently Samantha had reserved the right to do that herself.

It had been an unusually bright and dry day when we next met for dinner in town.  We enjoyed a feast of fabulous Thai food and once again talked the night away until closing time, not noticing the weather outside had become ferociously stormy.  As we stood outside the restaurant taking as much shelter as was available in the doorway, we considered our options for getting home and soon resigned ourselves to a walk back to my house, some half a mile away.  In the bright and dry early evening light Samantha had looked stunning in her shawl and headscarf, but as the wind and rain swirled around us she looked decidedly unprepared for the walk.  She didn’t take much persuading to accept my mac and I concluded that chivalry was a fair exchange for a cold and wet trek home.

Once there I disappeared into the bathroom to find a towel and pulled off my wet shirt.
“Oh my god!” came the exclamation from Samantha.
I honestly thought she was impressed with my physique.  I swear, that was truly my first thought, but when I looked round I could see that she was far from impressed.  She had a look of pure disgust on her face and was backing away.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, concerned.  My mind was swimming as I grappled for some reason she may be so taken aback.
“Those tattoos!” she replied, still with the stunned and horrified look on her face.  “You’ve got tattoos!”
“Well, yes.” I said, a little puzzled.  “What’s the problem?”
“I didn’t know you were like that. You don’t seem the type.”
“And what type would that be?” I asked.  To be honest, I was a little annoyed.  After all, they’re just tattoos, and quite good ones at that.
“I don’t know, but I didn’t think you’d have tattoos.  I just never thought about it, you have them all over you!”

The next few minutes really sealed the end of our relationship.  I was courteous enough to pull on a t-shirt as Samantha explained how she hated tattoos and everything they stood for. How she saw them as branding for low lives and criminals and how she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to scar their body in such a way.  She said they looked cheap, tacky and how people who had them must hate themselves and their bodies for them to deface it in such a way.

It seemed that our conversations over the last few weeks had told her less about who I was as a person than she could deduce from my tattoos.  All the stories, the deep and meaningful conversation, the shared viewpoints; all of this was washed away and meaningless as she whitewashed her opinions of me based on the fact that I had tattoos.

I was a little sad as the taxi arrived to take her home.  Not sad that she was leaving, or that we’d probably not see each other again; just sad that there are still people in the world who judge a person based on how they look rather than how they behave.  I wasn’t sorry to call time on Samantha.
It seems we had each made some terrible errors of judgement when we decided we liked each other.

Published – Skin Deep Magazine.   April 2009

~ by Tony's Desk on April 10, 2009.

4 Responses to “Tattoo Prejudice.”

  1. Hi, nice post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for blogging. I will definitely be subscribing to your posts. Keep up the good posts

  2. Hi Tony,

    I noticed your tattoos today, while we were stood at the front of the boat, both Dave & me said wow.
    Cos it was cold I had 3 layers of clothing on you’d never know but I have what I like to call “body art” on my left arm, right shoulder & ankle! And Dave’s got one on his arm too…
    I wonder why it makes so much difference to some people’s judgement, after all if they can’t see them they’re no wiser, doesn’t mean they’re not there tho! How narrow minded, like you said it’s a choice, that’s all…
    Heather from Takey Tezey

  3. I really appreciated this entry and wanted to thank you for doing such an excellent job. I actually found it when researching what to put in an essay for my Deviance and Social Control course. The assignment is to write an autobiographical account about how I have been identified or labeled as deviant in my lifetime. I’m sure you can imagine based off of your own anecdote that, as a woman, I get that reaction quite often. After all, it seems to be even less acceptable for a woman. It amazes me that even after knowing someone people would still let having a tattoo color their viewpoint of you so strongly. I currently have half my back and my upper thigh done and I typically enjoy any and every opportunity to have my ink out. However, I find myself extremely hesitant to get the half sleeve that I have been craving for the last few years. Though I rarely care what people think, it saddens me when they say things such as “you were such a pretty girl” or, like my supervisor at an old job, assume that I couldn’t possibly be a “good girl” because I have tattoos. Though my mother has her own, she still can’t bear to hear me mention my ideas for more. Though I endeavor to live only for myself, occasionally the constant stigmatization makes me hesitate to make the decisions I want to. I enjoy my grandmother’s reaction best, she wishes I hadn’t done it, but it doesn’t change how she views me at all. Ha, I’m sorry for my long winded ramble! Thanks again for brightening my morning with an entry that reminded me not everyone falls prey to a belief in the stereotypes.

    • Hello Brittany,

      thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Good luck with your assignment, I’m glad you found the info useful. It appears your experiences match those of my own and many of the people I interviewed for the article.

      I’m currently working on a piece about the relationship between tattoos and self harm in response to the frequent aspersion that the psychologies of both processes a related.

      It is fascinating!

      If that information is of any use to you in your course, do let me know. Otherwise you will be able to read the feature in a forthcoming edition of Skin Dee magazine, or here some months after.


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