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Employers’ attitudes differ on tattoos

By Cassia King

About 30 percent of Jason Jones' body is covered in tattoos but he was able to keep all of that colorful ink covered up during his 15 years as a bank manager.

Although he has since changed professions to become a tattoo artist, Jones also thinks tattoos will always carry a negative stigma, at least in certain professional settings.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that a banker isn't supposed to look like a tattoo artist," he said.  

He urges anyone considering a tattoo to think long and hard about the decision and to keep it above the elbow, or as he calls it, "the unemployment line."

One in five Americans now has at least one tattoo, according to a recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while that means tattoos have become more accepted by the mainstream, it also means more and more people have to find ways to cover up their body art if they want to pursue their dream job.  

There are still many employers who outright prohibit visible body art, but workplace policies widely differ, depending on the sector. Some employers have embraced tattoos as an eclectic form of self-expression.

No one needed to tell Jones to cover up his ink during his banking years. He said he did it out of consideration.

"I wouldn't want vendors and clients seeing my tattoos - Lord knows what would be going through their head," he said.

In some sectors, tattoo policies verge on zero tolerance and are made clear from the get-go.  

The Kanawha County Public Library, for instance, requires any employee with visible ink to keep it covered during work, said Alan Englebert, library director.

New hires are always informed of the policy up front, he said.  

"If someone is really determined to have a tattoo, and they are going to be showing it around, they probably need to look elsewhere for employment," he said.  

Others handle the issue on a case-by-case basis.

Cindy Deem, manager of Rogers Jewelry at Charleston Town Center, said the store

doesn't have a formal policy, but

that doesn't mean all tattoos

are welcome.

"I wouldn't want to see any tattoos with shocking words, or insulting things that would reflect on the business," she said.

"I know a lot of people in the business with tattoos," Deem said. "I think tattoos are all about personality and style. It's not like it was 20 years ago when only gang members and bikers had tattoos."

She thinks there are still occasions where concealing tattoos is appropriate, but said it's easier for men to cover up with long pants and dress shirts. Women's clothing is often less concealing, she said.  

Many law enforcement officers have tattoos from their time in the military. At the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Mike Rutherford has final say on dress code policy.

The department doesn't ask employees to conceal all tattoos, but it does try to maintain a formal dress code once employees are hired. New hires can have tattoos but they can't add to them after being sworn in.

Capt. Sean Crosier said the policy also has professional guidelines for hairstyles and facial hair.

"Some tattoos are not professional, while others are professional, small and won't detract from day-to-day business," he said.

Not wanting to alienate possible recruits during wartime, the Army has updated its policy that once restricted soldiers from having neck or hand tattoos.

The official policy now reads, "Tattoos that are not extremist, indecent, sexist, or racist are allowed on the hands and neck."

The head and face are still off limits, according to policy. Soldiers who refuse to remove an offensive tattoo will be discharged, according to the Army Publishing Directorate.

Some establishments embrace tattoos.

Pies and Pints, a downtown Charleston hangout specializing in artisan pizza and locally brewed beer, has no problem with ink on employees. Many have tattoos and they aren't told to cover them up.

"There's a lot of people working here with tattoos and there's really a variety. We have several people with visible tattoos in the front of the house, but almost everyone is covered in the kitchen," bartender Kelly Ann Davidson said.   

Although Davidson leaves her spiral wrist tattoo uncovered on the job, she once worked for Disney World, which had a more conservative stance.

"I didn't have my visible tattoo at the time, but even I had to take out my cartilage and tongue piercing." She said.

Some of her friends came up with innovative ways to cover up at Disney.

"One of the coolest ways is this stuff called liquid skin," Davidson said. "You just paint it on; it matches your skin perfectly, and then you just peel it off."

Other methods include stage makeup, skin tone stickers or Band-Aids, and even strategically placed fashion accessories.  

Turned down

Although Nick Ross was qualified in printmaking and graphic design, he found that every professional job he interviewed for turned him down. He suspects it's because of his tattoos.

"They ended up giving the job to somebody who was less qualified just because of the way they looked," he said.

Ross has an associate's degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in graphic design, but now works as a tattoo artist. He believes employers are becoming more accepting and eventually, tattoos will receive no censure.

"I would prefer for the progression to happen quicker," he said. "I have a lot of friends who have a really good work ethic and skills, but they've been denied these opportunities just because of the way they choose to express themselves."

So what should inked job seekers do when they get to their interview? It all depends.

Workforce West Virginia advises those looking for work to dress for the job, spokeswoman Courtney Sisk said. General advice about tattoos is almost impossible to give because some employers are fine with them showing, while others aren't, she said.

"You should have the image that your company is trying to project," she said.

Jobs dealing with the public usually have more stringent dress codes. Behind-the-scene jobs are usually more lenient.

"Anything that's an accessory, whether it's clothing or excessive jewelry and make-up, can affect your job - tattoos aren't any different," Sisk said.

An artist returns home

Jones was just a few weeks into his studies at Cincinnati College of Art and Design, for which he received a full scholarship, when he began to miss the hills of West Virginia.

Although he continued to paint while working at the bank, it wasn't until his wife, Michelle, pushed him to become a tattoo artist that he realized he could still have a creative job.

"It's tough to make it as an artist in West Virginia," he said. "Being a tattoo artist is one of the only ways to work as an artist in this environment."

He thinks tattoos will always have a negative stigma. He even admitted to a double standard when it came to his own children.  

"I mean, look at me. I'm heavily tattooed, but if my daughter came home with a guy that looked like me, I would be cautious."

He said most teens don't understand how permanent a tattoo and its effects can be.

I would make my kids wait until their mid-20s before getting a tattoo," he said.  


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