Tattoos on the Big Cheese?
September 29, 2008 4:31 PM   Subscribe

How acceptable is it for a person in a supervisory role to get/have a visible tattoo?

I want to get a tattoo that is visible on my arms below my elbows. I'm also working as an interim as a director of my department and when the time comes, I'm vying to be the permanent replacement.

My wife says she's never seen anyone with visible tattoos manage more than a gas station.

I work at a liberal arts college. It wouldn't be a problem with my employees. I don't think it would be a problem with most of the people I work with.
posted by bryanzera to Work & Money (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've seen a great many people in management positions with a lot of tattoos, but I work for The Internet in LA, so take it with a grain of Crazy West Coast Liberalism.
posted by flaterik at 4:38 PM on September 29, 2008

The reaction will be generational and may depend on how liberal/hippie/emo your campus is. At the universities where I have worked, especially in the past few years, nearly all of the people I worked with under 32 or so had tattoos; most, but not 100%, were able to be covered by regular business clothing. However, I'm in my early 40s and find myself pretty judgmental about "people who get tattoos" (I think they're tacky, but I'm a prep, what can I say) and I can just about guarantee that anyone older than 50 is going to be more judgmental than me. Also, they are probably not going to want to put you in front of donors, parents or trustees -people who may make a judgment on the institution, for better or worse, based on your appearance - would that be part of you job? If you're a back-office guy (IT, library, business office), it probably wouldn't matter.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:40 PM on September 29, 2008

I know a half-dozen profs with tattoos visible on their arms / legs. I've never heard that anyone was bothered by it [Queen's University & MUN, in Canada]

That being said, this will very much depend on what the specific tattoo is (a unicorn with an iron cross, shitting a rainbow, might go over less well than some knotwork) and then your specific situation. Do you have a relationship with other department heads that you could ask their advice? They'll know the board members/etc. well enough to judge.

(Disclosure: I have 4 tattoos, including some writing on my left forearm)
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:41 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

My gut instinct is that the prevalence of tattoos is growing so much that you will not be the only one with a visible tattoo. To back that feeling up, you can look at this article for more viewpoints, and the book it cites Inked, Inc could give you some peace of mind too.

BTW, The dean of students at my college had dolphins up and down his legs.
posted by saffry at 4:42 PM on September 29, 2008

Try and think beyond the immediate, "This will be okay at this current job..." Where are you going to be five, ten, or fifteen years from now? Will you still be working at some cool-hip place where everyone will think, "...your tats are rad, and oh by the way here are those TPS reports you ordered, boss..."

Further, consider the fact that you haven't yet nailed this position. If it's an important role, if you're being scrutinized by people up stairs, a provocative display (which is what your tattoo would be) may be the straw that breaks the camels back. There maybe someone up stream saying, "Well, bryanzera isn't perfect, but I suppose he'll do so we should... OH MY GOD WHATS UP WITH THOSE DRUGGIE TATTOOS! GET HIM OUT OF HERE!"

Listen to your wife. It's her future too.
posted by wfrgms at 4:43 PM on September 29, 2008

It seems like it wouldn't be a problem where you work now. But acceptance will vary place to place, usually on the whims of your employer. The real question is: might visible tattoos ever be a problem anywhere you may potentially want to work?
posted by gnutron at 4:45 PM on September 29, 2008

Your wife does not want you to get a tattoo. That seems much more important than what your employer or your employees think.
posted by sageleaf at 4:47 PM on September 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

I know a lot of people who are very heavily tattooed in very high management/executive positions, and who always wear long sleeved shirts. If you are not allergic to long sleeve shirts, you can get anything you want tattooed on your arms and it won't affect your career.

As far as people who show their tattoos and still do well in the corporate world, Inked Inc is a good place to start with this.
posted by Jairus at 4:47 PM on September 29, 2008

How good are you at what you do? More seems to slide when you are unimpeachably good at your job or your vocation. If you are, do what you want. If you're not . . . be prepared to wear long sleeves til you have the promotion in hand.
posted by liketitanic at 4:48 PM on September 29, 2008

Your wife's generalization, like most generalizations, is not true on its face and across the board but is based in reality.

For example, you can look at this boing boing post from just the other day.

James Howard Kunstler says in the linked article "Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos (on main street) is a harbinger of social dysfunction."

You won't be angling for a job from Kunstler, obviously, but that's a view he holds and it's an opinion he feels comfortable stating in a public forum. He's no doubt engaging in some hyperbole and it's written in a humorous fashion, but compare it, say, to someone expressing a view that African Americans are unsuited to regular employment and likely to be promiscuous. You simply couldn't get away with that even as comedy, but slagging the tattooed and pierced? Perfectly okay.

So you can assume that there's a pretty decent chance that at some point you'll go out for a job where someone will reject you if they know you're tattooed in that way. You will certainly encounter people who will think less of you if they see them. In the long term this probably isn't an issue since confining yourself to shirts that go past your elbow isn't a big challenge. In the short term, however, it seems obvious that since you needed to ask the question that you don't wear shirts that long in the current job.

Personally I'd wait till I had the job sewed up before I did it if I were you. My tattoos are forever, so having to wait a little longer to get one doesn't strike me as a big deal.
posted by phearlez at 4:55 PM on September 29, 2008

sageleaf, his wife is speaking from a position of ignorance and her advice is next to useless.

If you want the tattoo then get it, and deal with the consequences - if any - as they arise. I don't think this is a very answerable question as only you know the dynamic of where you work and what your options might be in the near future.

As it stands you don't think it will be a problem with your employees or those you work alongside. You want the tattoo. The only negative you list is your wife's naive comment. Choice is yours.
posted by fire&wings at 4:57 PM on September 29, 2008

Your wife's verbalized concern is wrong. If she hasn't seen tattooed professionals, it's because those professionals didn't want her to see their tattoos.

I know and work with plenty of management (and higher) level people, across many fields who have forearm tattoos (though, I'm in San Francisco, which is a lot more tolerant (and tattooed) than most other places). Many of these folks wear long-sleeved shirts when they find themselves somewhere where they might not want everyone around them to know about the tattoos (e.g. my lawyer has sleevework that ends a little above where you'd wear a watch. When he and I are in a meeting, it doesn't matter, and his ink is usually exposed. When he goes to court or to another lawyer's office on my behalf, he covers them, always... but what lawyer doesn't wear long sleeves (and a jacket) to court?)

If that's the sort of thing you're willing to do, then don't sweat it. There will be people who will think less of you because you are tattooed. There will be people who find your ink intriguing (assuming it's decent). Most people won't care one way or another. And there will be times where you just want to cover up, because you'd rather not learn who sits on which side of the fence., what your wife might be saying is "Don't get a forearm tattoo, because _I_ associate them with criminals and the lower class, and I don't want to think less of you". In the interests of domestic bliss, you're going to want to work this out before making your appointment.
posted by toxic at 5:19 PM on September 29, 2008

I have a lot of visible tattoos (sleeve) and when I worked in the corporate world, I just wore long sleeves as has been suggested by others. I teach at a university now and dont cover my tattoos, which hasn't been a problem so far.
posted by drobot at 5:20 PM on September 29, 2008

really depends on your field and the work environment; the more creative, the less of problem it is (and might even be unusual if you didn't have a tattoo at least somewhere. but even were you to go somewhere else, long sleeve shirts will cover you figuratively and literally. but it doesn't sound like your work environment would have any problems with it. as for this:

My wife says she's never seen anyone with visible tattoos manage more than a gas station.

with all due respect to your wife, what kind of bullsh statement is that?
posted by violetk at 5:21 PM on September 29, 2008

Your wife really is wrong. Many many many people have tattoos. Many more than you think, even. Maybe more visibly than ever in our culture (even though tattooing is as old as the hills). Somehow, people have led respectable, productive lives and had real careers despite their tattoos -- as an example, former military men of our grandparents' generation. My grandfather and his friends all appeared to have one. Sometimes they had to cover them, sometimes not. Socially (outside of work), there will always be people who aren't polite enough to keep their bitchy, unasked-for opinions about your appearance to themselves, but that's true even if you have no body modifications.

Look, covering tattoos up in professional situations is hardly a chore, if you really like the tattoo. I don't have to at my current place of employment, and I doubt if I could ever stand to work in a place that had such a prohibition. Just because of what that may imply for the social environment.

But sometimes I have had to cover up to avoid drawing attention to myself and causing unnecessary distractions that would ruin potential fun. Examples: my brother's wedding, and visiting my grandparents. No big deal, and the tattoo in question is on my wrist, and is not small. If I could do it in a sleeveless dress, surely you can if you need to.
posted by Coatlicue at 5:23 PM on September 29, 2008

Well, I suppose it's not high executive management, but I'm pretty much one of those people Jairus mentions--a heavily-tattooed (well, I wouldn't say 'heavily,' myself, but non-tattooed people certainly would) manager who wears long sleeves in my professional life. All my subordinates, and most-if-not-all of my superiors, know about the tattoos.

Tattooing has been becoming steadily more acceptable in American culture. Whether it will continue to do so for the rest of your working life remains to be seen. gnutron, liketitanic and toxic, among others, make good points.
posted by box at 5:47 PM on September 29, 2008

For what it's worth, I noticed that the director of admissions at a fairly prestigious art school had a small but noticeable tattoo on her hand. But that's art school, which might be considerably different from a liberal arts college as far as attitudes towards tattoos go.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:42 PM on September 29, 2008

It all really depends on the culture you're working in. I answer to/respect people with a few below elbow tats, but that's not everyone. The safe answer is still, keep stuff you can hide with shirtsleeves. It's not the end of the world. And if you have to worry about it, it's not a good idea.

I think, anyway. Possibly.
posted by The Whelk at 6:44 PM on September 29, 2008

For some academically-inclined examples of people with ink, check out the Science Tattoo Emporium. Several faculty members have posted photos there.

Seems like long sleeves when you need them would address your professional concerns, but you might want to discuss this some more with your wife. I have the feeling she doesn't want you to get tattooed and is using your job prospects as a cover.
posted by Quietgal at 6:54 PM on September 29, 2008

Get inked, wear long sleeves if you feel like it. I work in an office and have a small tattoo above the inside of my wrist and nobody has ever said a thing.
posted by booticon at 6:57 PM on September 29, 2008

I'm an administrator in a relatively staid industry, although I'm essentially a CTO so I've got the IT pass. That said, I wear a tshirt to the office every day, and although my bicep tattoo doesn't show, I'm considering future sleeve/elbow work that would be visible when wearing a tshirt. Regardless, I always take a blazer / sportcoat to the office to wear over my tshirt, especially when meeting with external clients or other administrators, and it works. I'm professional enough to get past the first impressions. I'd say get a few blazers and sleeve away; your direct reports won't care and you can dress up, as it were, for meetings and such. However, as others have said, if your wife doesn't want you to get a tattoo, you really shouldn't.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:00 PM on September 29, 2008

Will you every be in a position where you need to get money? If so, you may need long sleeves.

A disproportionate number of my best friends are academics and, although they didn't see it going in, a large part of their career is around convincing people to write checks and feel comfortable spending many dollars entrusting the U with their children.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I work among the aging (and not so aging) corporate elite who are writing those checks and the littlest thing might set them off.

HOWEVER, consider the possibility that your loving wife grew up in a family with aging military mens and their aging military tattoos and does not want to see that on you, in your golden years. Have another talk with her. Maybe this whole "bad for your career thing" is something of a rationalization. Have you ever seen a 60-year old Marine's ink? On the beach? On 60-year old sun-damaged white boy skin? Not for everyone...
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:21 PM on September 29, 2008

Anecdotally: I've seen it done. The head honcho of a farily Fancy Pants Ivy League Affiliated Establishment I worked at had at least six *different* visible tattoos on his forearms.

Tattoos are hardly reserved for the "freak show" these days. If you find it to be a problem, just wear long sleeves.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:25 PM on September 29, 2008

Like everyone else said, if they are covered by long-sleeves, it's a moot point. But just to share from personal experience (and I do not have a tattoo out of personal preference but am quite liberal with what other people want to do with their own bodies).....when I meet DD's preschool teacher for the first time I was quite taken back by the fact she had tattoos. Now *I* didn't care (actually I really like her - she's a great lady), but I was wondering what the other parents thought, knowing how superficially judgemental many are in this day and age, and I did wonder if they didn't recognize it or just couldn't find somebody better for the job. (Again, we're talking preschool here - different story)

But also my DH's nurse has visible tattoos, and she's great, but I do wonder if some of his patients are seriously turned off by that......enough that they would have a negative impression of *him* b/c his nurse has tattoos.

So really that makes me think, if I was in a hiring position, would it make a difference for that particular job if he/she had tattoos? If so, i would make sure they're covered when you come in contact with the decision makers (either present or future).
posted by texas_blissful at 7:43 PM on September 29, 2008

I do not have tattoos.

The Director if IT at my workplace (my boss) has multiple visible tattoos. He is married to one of the Regional Directors (they met at work) who has at least one that's occasionally visible. It's had no effect on their careers; both are among the most respected people in the company. Admittedly it's a small outfit of a shade less than 100 people and only 6 offices statewide, so it's not a massive and conservative multinational.

As a hiring manager in the past, I've hired people with tattoos for professional positions. It's never even occurred to me to use them as an indicator of anyone's competence.

There are people who strongly dislike inked skin. Some of those people are in positions of power and let their personal dislike drive their judgement. But there are also people who strongly dislike dark skin. Some of those people are also in positions of power and let their personal dislike drive their judgement. There are assholes of every stripe in the world, and if you structure your life around them you're doing yourself more harm than good.

"My wife says she's never seen anyone with visible tattoos manage more than a gas station."

Your wife is either ignorant obtusely expressing her dislike for the plan. Since I'm hesitant to accuse her of ignorance, I'll be charitable and just suggest that you listen to what she wants and make your decisions with that in mind.
posted by majick at 11:47 PM on September 29, 2008

Metafilter seems to have quite a few people with elaborate tattoos. I'm not sure how many people would be willing to come into this forum and say "Yuck, tats make people look dirty or unprofessional." Also, the mefi demographic seems younger and hipper than the people who are making hiring decisions for director positions.

It really depends on your work environment. I work in a moderately conservative company and I've not seen a visible tattoo on any executive that I can recall. Of course, I'm sure there are some tats, but they are covered during the business day.

You explicited asked if it was acceptable. Sure, why not? Could it be an obstacle? Perhaps, depending on the conservatism of the hiring person or group. There's really no way for Mefi to know that.
posted by 26.2 at 12:00 AM on September 30, 2008

Although I'm over 50 years of age, I'm pretty tolerant of tattoos, but have no desire for any for myself. Frankly I'd be less than thrilled if either of my kids got one, but I wouldn't loose much sleep over it.

However, for the life of me I can't understand why anybody would do something which could potentially be a deal breaker down the road with a potential future employer.

Like it or not there's still plenty of prejudice against tattoos among a substantial percentage of the population, and I'm not just talking about geezers like me.

I'm a freelancer and displaying visible tattoos would absolutely have cost me some jobs along the line.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:18 AM on September 30, 2008

Look, you can be scared all your life about what will happen when that hypothetical future employer sees your hypothetical future tattoo in your hypothetical future job interview. But the only question that ultimately matters is: do you want to get a tattoo? Anything can hamper your Career (the capital C is deliberate, as that's what most people here are projecting talking about): saying the wrong thing, having bad diction, not wearing the right kind of clothing, body language, bad skin, bad hair, bad habits, skin colour, religion, tattoos. The question is if having a tattoo will make you happier than an supervisor job where tattoos are not allowed. I refuse to believe that you will end up destitute and homeless, unable to find any gainful employment because you got a tattoo but I can also see you being passed up for a promotion if you have a tattoo.

You need to decide for yourself. Freedom of choice is the curse of a wealthy western world.
posted by slimepuppy at 5:56 AM on September 30, 2008

I'm not sure how many people would be willing to come into this forum and say "Yuck, tats make people look dirty or unprofessional."

I will. And I'm young and liberal. Metafilter is not a representative sample of workworlders.

No matter what you're getting tattooed on your arms, someone will think it's ugly and will judge you for it. It's up to you whether that matters enough to change your mind.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:15 PM on September 30, 2008

Having a tattoo is good proof that you will bow to fashion, even to the point of permanently altering your body, even though the fashion will likely pass before you do. That's about the most liberal statement I can make about how I view tattoos.

Once upon a time, a tattoo may have suggested independent thinking on the part of the person wearing it. That time passed at some point while I wasn't paying attention. It's now nothing more than a fashion accessory, something people do because it looks "cool" and "everyone" does it.

The only clear thing here is that having no tattoo is nothing that will brand you in any particular way. You remain free to be who ever you choose to be. No one can make negative judgements (that carry any importance) over your lack of ink.

I'm over 50. :-P However, my partner is under 40, and he thinks they are stupid. I'm retired, so who cares what I think? He, on the other hand, hires and fires on 3 continents. (which, in all honesty, only means that the guy with ink better show clear talent above the pack, but it does mean that much).
posted by Goofyy at 6:46 AM on October 1, 2008

"It's now nothing more than a fashion accessory, something people do because it looks "cool" and "everyone" does it."


"The only clear thing here is that having no tattoo is nothing that will brand you in any particular way."

This statement is very much true and is worth paying attention to. There are no significant disadvantages to having a uninked skin. There are potential disadvantages to having ink (including, as we see, running into people who willfully misinterpret it). If one of those disadvantages is being held in lower regard by your spouse, it's worth taking note of and considering carefully.
posted by majick at 12:44 PM on October 1, 2008

I interviewed the director of a fairly big school at a university I know you have heard of. I'd read his book, was all hyped, got there, and he had a short sleeve shirt on with a ton of tattoos.
But I'd second the people who suggest that you listen to the subtext with the wife: she may be projecting because she won't like it.
posted by history is a weapon at 7:17 AM on October 2, 2008

Came across this later, but ... well, I guess most people in Kunstler's generation and older would think it acceptable to have "clusterfuck" in one's blog title, that this doesn't represent a decline in impulse control or manners or whatever.
posted by raysmj at 11:44 PM on October 17, 2008

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