Ink. Art. Tats. Whatever you call them, tattoos are a constant source of conversation in the professional world.
Are tattoos unprofessional? Or immature? Does it depend on where you work? Is it okay if they don’t show? Can people who have large amounts of ink, particularly visible ink, be taken seriously?
These are some of the questions that I have been pondering this week, and there is a very good reason why.
In 2006, a very good friend of mine committed suicide. Her death was very hard on me, as it was on all of her friends, but it’s impossible for me to put into words how her death and the tragic circumstances surrounding it changed who I am. It’s like one day I was one person, and the next, I was someone else.
Recently, I learned that her sisters are planning to mark the fifth anniversary of her passing by getting swallows tattooed on their wrists and that they would like anyone who wants to to join them.
Now, I hate needles. In fact, I hate them so much that when I was four-years-old, I punched a pediatrician who intended to give me a shot. So clearly, any thoughts that I might have had in my younger years about getting inked were quickly crushed by the realization that getting a tattoo required being poked with a needle hundreds of times. No, thank you.
Even if I could put aside my mind-numbing fear, there are other factors to consider. Where would the tattoo go? Do I really want to be a tattooed, 80-year-old grandma? And perhaps most importantly, would having a tattoo, which due to location would be visible to all, make it more difficult for me to be taken seriously in my chosen profession?
It’s true that society’s feelings on body modifications in general, and tattoos specifically, have relaxed markedly over the years. But that’s not to say that the stigma has disappeared completely. A former co-worker of mine was one of the loveliest and most professional women that I have ever known, but it was difficult for me to conceal my shock/horror when I realized that her lower back was inked with a nine-inch-wide “tramp stamp.”
To her credit, she dismissed my surprise as puritanical, and made no apologies for the choices she had made in her youth. In fact, her retort hit me back quite hard, “The Staff Assistant with the belly-button ring should probably stay mum on the subject.” Touché.
(Tis true. I have a navel piercing. Though, since I am no longer the svelte beauty pageant queen of my early-20s, I wear the ring very infrequently. Also, as I’ve grown older, I’ve thought better of wearing a spike through my abdomen.)
On the subject of tattoos, I am understandably torn. My traditional, Western sensibilities mixed with a touch of my Mother’s Southern charm, lead me to think that they are never acceptable. But on the other hand, isn’t a small tattoo in memory of a dearly departed friend different than a sleeve of intricate ink or a band of barbed wire circling one’s ankle? Or am I just asking for sideways glances from conservative constituents and colleagues either way?
This is one area where I’m really looking for guidance from all of you, because I simple don’t know. I can’t seem to get past the idea that a tattoo, any tattoo, no matter how small or meaningful is…well, trashy. I don’t feel very modern or liberated admitting that, but it’s certainly a thought that lingers.
Beyond the (perceived) stigma on the matter, I’m also not sure that I want to be in a position where I would have to explain to others about my tattoo. Do I really want to have to justify its existence to detractors by explaining a deeply personal and painful part of my life to others? Of course, I could simply keep my reasons for getting the tattoo secret. But I know myself well enough to know, that when challenged, I would feel the need to defend my decision.
Additionally, there are concerns about disease (a family friend died of Hepatitis contracted from a tattoo), family shame (my Father would not be down for this and my Nana would blow a gasket), and the possibility that it would look really bad or I would regret it and wind up paying thousands to have it removed. There’s also a small bit of concern that I might like the tattoo and want to get more, as is wont to happen with these things.
Yep, I am deep inside an internal debate that has far more questions than answers.
I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you have tattoos? If so, how many, where are they, how big? Why did you get them, and do you regret them? And lastly, have they created barriers or uncomfortable situations in your professional life?
And if you don’t have ink, do you look down on people who do? If you had a meeting with another staffer/professional, and she had a tattoo what would your knee-jerk reaction be even if you didn’t know why she had it?