OP-ED: Ink Is Only Skin Deep (Unless You're Trying to Get Hired)


I woke up with an uneasy feeling about what was about to transpire over the course of the next 24 hours of my life. The mental tug-of-war between my shoulder angels was intense and my head hadn’t even left my pillow.

It was tattoo day, and [a substance that shares its name with a certain town in the Zanjan Province of Iran] was about to get real.

It’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s excitement, apprehension or anxiety but it’s a emotional ritual that plays out every time I get a new tattoo. I’ll admit that as time goes on and I get more and more work done, the uncertainty has been streamlined to something that has vacated my conscience by the time I’ve finished brushing my teeth.

But today was different. I was taking the plunge into the abyss that is the territory below my elbow. My first visible tattoo isn’t of the extreme job-stopper variety (face, hands or neck) but it’s placement on my inner-forearm will necessitate long-sleeved shirts during interviews, not for fear of having to explain myself but for the fear of somebody not as understanding as the estimated 40 percent of millennials who have at least one, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2010

I represent a majority of the new wave of people decorating their skin with traditional, abstract and contemporary art; bucking the trend of historical archetypes of the tattooed, I’m young, educated and have yet to spend time in prison or the circus. I’m just a person. A person with tattoos.

Contrary to common perceptions, tattoos for me, and many other people, are not an impulsive reflex to youthful naivety and lack of foresight. I’ve had this appointment for months and I’ve sought out an artist whose portfolio coincides with the style of my desired piece. By the time I’m healed, I’ll be nearly $1,000 poorer because I care about the quality. I’m well aware that the ink that’s about to be injected into the uppermost layers of my skin will remain there for life, barring amputation or other traumatic accident.

The attitudes toward tattoos have evolved over time in the Western world. What was once a taboo in the United States is now the body modification of choice for a generation. No longer relegated to sailors, veterans or the unsavory underbelly of society, tattoos, like it or not, are mainstream. Yet, many institutions are still trying to regulate, control and sometimes eradicate them.

In March, the Army amended their rules regarding visible ink, resulting in a rush of soldiers trying to get tattooed before the March 31 deadline which would prohibit visible tattoos, with those venturing past the short sleeve/short pant barrier being limited to nothing larger than an open hand. The relationship between the military and body art goes back centuries, with soldiers in the Roman army taking a liking to the practice while battling the Britons and Crusaders bearing the mark of the Jerusalem cross to ensure a Christian burial in the event they died in battle. Tattoos displaying rank, unit solidarity and paying homage to a family’s history of service are common place.

Call me crazy, but anyone willing to put their life on the line for their country and the people living in it should be entitled to do what they please with their bodies.

Tattoos have become fine art, so fine in fact, some people have explored the possibility of posthumously preserving skin to immortalize their body-gallery. And with the proliferation of ink-centric television shows depicting how far the art has come, it’s undeniable that progress has been made. While they might not share the same desire to slice off their skin and have it framed and displayed over a fire place, it’s becoming commonplace for everyone from soccer moms (and dads), to teachers and baristas to be adorned with permanent works of art.

Tattoos have undoubtedly become more socially acceptable, with some polls suggesting that people who have them are no longer the minority, but despite their prevalence in popular culture they still can serve as a barrier in the workplace.

Legal? If it doesn’t involve a deeply held religious belief, yes.

Outdated? Debatable.

Depending on the industry, tattoo policies in the workplace can vary from utterly prohibited, to encouraged, to just straight-up confusing. Walk into your local coffee shop and (assuming you haven't followed to Siren's call to the land of green and beige) the person creating the art in your latte might be showing off their own flowers or hearts on their bodies, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the same on your bank teller. Go in for your annual check-up and your physician is likely to have a clean cut appearance, but take your laptop to the Apple doctor and in the store’s waiting room you’re just as likely to be helped by someone adorned with ink as you are by somebody with an iPhone.

Statistically speaking, it’s been said that getting hired at the iPad-slinging tech-giant is less likely than receiving an acceptance letter from Harvard, with the university taking about 7 percent of applicants and Apple hiring about 2 percent. Yet, Apple is consistently ranked near the top of customer satisfaction polls by Consumer Reports, despite all those pesky tattooed employees. (All sarcasm aside, let’s be honest, these people have access to your computer’s browser history, so who’s really in a position to judge who?)

On the other side of the corporate giant coin, Costco, which merged with Price Club in 1993, has a policy that is downright confusing. Warehouses that were originally Price Clubs and remain under union contracts allow employees to have visible tattoos while buildings opened after the merger enforce a strict no visible tattoo policy. However, union employees who transfer to non-union buildings carry over their ink-wielding privileges while their co-workers must hide theirs under compression sleeves and band-aids.

The message is mixed but at glance it appears that people with tattoos are good enough to serve you a hot cup of Joe, but not to take your temperature. Good enough to bring you the news but not to bag your groceries.

I understand that I’m fortunate enough to have a publisher that encourages self-expression and provides us a workplace that embraces that ideal. And maybe as a “creative”, I’m expected to be edgy and counter culture and have tattoos of robots and bobbleheads. The fact of the matter remains, I am the same person today with my beautiful new outline on my right arm as I was three weeks ago. What I choose to put on my body does not dictate my level of dedication to telling stories as honestly and ethically as I always have.

Of course some tattoos are offensive and, at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, some of their placements are too extreme for my personal tastes. Some might say that skin is skin, regardless of whether it’s a limb, rib-cage or head, but there’s nothing more intimately attached to one's identity than the face. Everyone I meet sees my face, while there are people who I’ve known for years that have never seen my feet. For me, face tattoos don’t make sense.

I’m not advocating for swastikas and obscenities, but if somebody can explain to me when Harry Potter and Batman became offensive I’m all ears. Sixty years ago Americans would’ve never imagined a tattooed school bus driver or camp counselor interacting with their children. The thought was just as outrageous and foreign as same-sex marriage or a black president. According to a poll from Career Builder, 31% of employers polled listed tattoos as the top personal attribute that would hinder an employee being promoted behind piercings (37%) and bad breath (34%). We’ve made progress as a society, and although discriminating against tattoos is still upheld by the law, it’s still discrimination. Choosing a religion and choosing a body modification are both choices, but only one of those forms of expression is protected under the Constitution.

I remember the moment I decided to go visible with my display of art. It may have been nearly 2 years ago, but the decision was cemented in that instant. I was in the Dodger Stadium press box, surrounded by professionals from ESPN, Fox Sports and every other major news outlet in town that was covering the arrival of the Stanley Cup Champion Kings prior to the start of the Freeway Series between the Angels and Dodgers. A former professor and I were wrapping up shooting b-roll for a documentary and I couldn’t help but notice how many of the people I recognized from television and listen to on the radio were inked.

“As long as you produce quality content, nobody cares what you look like,” he told me on the drive home.

Isn’t that what the hiring process should be about? A company is entitled to enforce whatever legal policies it wants to but if it truly wants to be the best shouldn’t it hire the best person?

We shouldn’t be passing over qualified candidates for jobs because they may or may not have—in the opinion of others or by their own admission—made a mistake in their youth. We shouldn’t be hiring second-choice police officers because the best person for the job doesn’t meet the required amount of tattoo-free skin between the wrist and the cuff of their shirt. And we shouldn’t marginalize people if their pursuit of happiness involves the soothing hum of rotaries and coils.

Ink is only skin-deep. The character underneath is what matters most.

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