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For millennials in the workplace, tattoos are no longer taboo

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

By Carley Olejniczak, Studio M staff //

We’ve all heard the sayings: “You’ll never get a real job with all those tattoos.” “Cover up your ink when you’re at work.” “Employers don’t hire people who have tattoos showing.”

Brittnay Lee, 29, is a former tattoo parlor owner who has been turned down by over 10 different jobs because of her tattoos. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Lee.)

But is this tattoo taboo relevant anymore?

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 40% of young adults ages 18-25 in the U.S. have at least one tattoo. As the millennial generation begins to enter the workforce, with nearly half of them sporting tats, it seems unlikely that employers will turn so many future employees away simply because of their body art.

Today, many professions, including advertising, law enforcement, nursing and education are doing away with the notion that tattoos are unsightly and unprofessional.

Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, has a significant role in the hiring of new professors for the department.

“It never even crossed my mind that [tattoos] would be a problem,” Paulson said. “We’re looking for the best qualified professors and educators that we can locate, and tattoos would be irrelevant.”

Paulson noted that every generation pushes its own envelope. “My parents told me that long hair would be a detriment to my future,” he said. “Whether it’s beards, piercings or tattoos, that’s always been the case. But then those people become the bosses, and they get outraged by something else.”

Principal Robin Newell had a no-tattoo policy for her teachers at Mitchell-Neilson Elementary until one special teacher caused her to have a change of heart.

“He was the best in his field,” Newell said. But this teacher had sleeves of tattoos. “I couldn’t ask him to change who he is, and I wanted him to be here. That really changed my mind,” she said.

Now, out of approximately 55 teachers on the school’s staff, roughly 20 of them have tattoos that they are no longer required to keep covered.

“I have some spectacular teachers,” said Newell, “who just happen to have a tattoo.”

Other institutions impose some restrictions on body graphics but still allow employees to display them proudly.

The Murfreesboro Police Department’s policy on tattoos is simple: a tattoo may be exposed on an officer while on duty as long as it’s not offensive or excessive, according to the department’s General Order of the Display of Body Graphics.

The protection of the community and the value of its officers outweigh the significance of a tattoo, therefore the MPD pledges to never use a candidate’s body graphics to eliminate them from employment.

Hospitals are another example of an institution that doesn’t prohibit tattoos. Crystal Randolph, a sterile processing technician at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has two tattoos that she is not required to cover while at work. 

“I don’t know of any policies,” Randolph said about having exposed tattoos at the hospital. “A lot of people [here] have them, actually.”

“Tattoos can be a great thing. It’s a great way to express oneself, and I don’t have a problem with that whatsoever,” said Brooks Christol, partner of Barker & Christol Advertising, a prominent advertising agency based out of Nashville. “I don’t necessarily look at someone who has a tattoo and think they are less of a person because of that.”

The growing field of advertising deals in an industry of perception. Their employees must represent their companies in the best way they can. But Chrisol, who personally oversees the hiring of his employees, doesn’t believe that tattoos should make or break an individual’s work ethic.

“Does [a tattoo] make someone more professional or less professional? Absolutely not,” he said.

Dusty Doddridge, MTSU’s  assistant director of the Career Development Center, has been helping college students with their career development for 28 years.  And over this time period, he has seen a shift in society’s stance on tattoos in the workplace.

“It’s a generational thing,” said Doddridge. “So many people have tattoos now that you don’t think of it in the same way as you would have 20 years ago.”

“Tattoos have nothing to do with performance,” he said. But when it comes to helping college graduates find their career path and prepare them for the job, Doddridge recommends taking two steps when sporting ink: research the company’s policies, and ask them if tattoos would become a problem.

Brittany Lee is a 29-year-old owner of a tattoo parlor in Murfreesboro who decided to give up her business and get herself a “regular job,” as she put it. The only problem was that she had a total of 69 tattoos on her body.

“I got turned down by at least 10 places because of my tattoos,” said Lee. “I was really hurt. It made me feel ashamed,” she admitted. “You’re there to do a job. … If you have classy tattoos done professionally, I don’t think it should be a problem. It’s a way to express yourself. Every tattoo on my body is an expression of myself.”

But Lee isn’t giving up hope. She currently works as a sales associate for Victoria’s Secret, and she has faith that this generation is going to change the way society looks at people with tattoos.

“I think people are just scared,” she said, “but I think it’s slowly going away.”

When asked what she would say to those who would reject a person for employment based off of the appearance of body art, she only had one message:

“I respect other people’s opinions … but I don’t have to answer for them. I just answer for myself.”

Carley Olejniczak is a junior in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University. She is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for Sidelines. Follow her on Twitter at @cm_olejniczak.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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