I spent over 20 years in the corporate world – a world that is defined by rigid standards. It’s characterised by dress codes, work ethics and image. If you don’t conform, the consequences can be anything from your opinion being routinely disregarded, to being asked to change or leave. When I took the decision to start my own business, my main motivation was to achieve a better work-life balance – but freedom from those unbending parameters was another benefit too. And now I feel I can finally break the Taboo of the Tattoo.
I love tattoos. I started getting my own 26 years ago, and over that time I’ve built up a gallery of beautiful images which all have a story to go with them, just like the huge majority of my fellow Ink Lovers. I love every tattoo I have, and I will talk to anyone who asks about them – but when I was part of the corporate world, no one ever did. This was for the simple reason that I never, ever showed them – not even once, for fear of the prejudice and reaction I knew would they would prompt. And here’s how I knew.
In 1997, I got my first tattoo. I had not long turned 20, and decided to get a scorpion – my birth sign – on the back of my shoulder. I loved it and it made me so happy. Then one night, as I queued for a drink in the Student Union bar with two male students behind me, I heard one of them ask, “Are you a whore? Only whores have tattoos.”
Well…If you know me, you know that speechless doesn’t happen very often, but that night it did. And I’ve heard comments along the same lines every time my tattoos have been visible, for the 26 years ever since. Before I spoken a single word, or had one conversation, I am defined and dismissed by some people as soon as they see part of my sleeve, or catch sight of the designs at my neckline. People have crossed the road when they see me coming.
That’s why I never once revealed my secret joy and passion in my corporate job. It just wasn’t worth the inevitable reaction it would bring about. Some opinions are so entrenched that I feared even the people who knew me, who knew how good I was at my job, would think derogatively about me if they saw – and that would break down my working relationships, and destroy the professional credibility I had worked so hard to build up.
But it’s not a problem now. I can choose to work with whomever I want, and if they decide not to work with me because I have tattoos, then I’m confident that they would not have been a good fit for Haus of HR anyway. It’s taken me some time to get to this point – a gradual loosening of the fear that has been ingrained in me over so many years of prejudice – but I’m getting there, and it’s liberating.
As part of this rebirth in my tattoo confidence, in March 2023 I put up a social media post that was supposed to be a bit of light-hearted fun. I asked whether I should use a profile picture that showed my full sleeve tattoo, or one with it covered by a jacket. Once again, I was left speechless by the response. That post had over 1700 reactions, and more than 700 comments – so many that I couldn’t reply to them all. There was lots of support for my authentic, tattooed self, but there was also plenty of the reaction I have suffered and feared for so many years as well. The keyboard warriors did not disappoint, and there were plenty of derogatory comments about “she” and “her”, as if I wasn’t even there.
That weekend, I wished I had never put it out there and exposed myself once again to judgement that people feel so free to make, so publicly.
How can that be right? Why is it that someone with pictures on their skin is instantly judged and pigeon-holed? And while men with visible tattoos don’t usually face the same assumptions about their personal and professional standards, they do get judgement in other forms – usually, it’s assumed that they are violent, criminal or both.
I am the perfect example of someone who has held a very senior professional position for many years, and I’m also someone with a significant number of tattoos, that are visible when I choose them to be. Do they make the slightest difference to my ability, my professionalism, or my reputation?
It’s my personal preference not to tattoo my face, but I would never judge you or anyone else for choosing to do it, and I wouldn’t allow it to influence my judgement of whether or not you were good at your job – or even a good human being.
I’m aware of the history. Centuries-old opinions about sailors and sex-workers – traditionally the sections of society who were tattooed – are hard to shift, especially when that conscious and unconscious bias has been handed down through generations.
I also acknowledge that my own fear of people’s reactions is part of what’s kept me covered for so long. But as more and more of the younger generations express themselves with tattoos, I believe it’s time for more proactive change. It’s time to park the prejudice against tattoos, just as we are beginning to do with other choices people make about their appearance, with their hair and clothing.
Attitudes are changing; at a glacial pace, but they are changing. Many more workplaces are embracing the notion that people should show up to a job as they are – that they should feel able to share what they love and what their passions are as a human, as well as doing the top-notch job they are capable of. It’s all part of understanding mental health and wellbeing, and I welcome that with all my heart.
Wouldn’t it be better if we were a little more relaxed about the Tattoo Taboo in the workplace? Wouldn’t it be nice if we let the person do the talking and then form our opinion of them, using their voice, their abilities, their accomplishments and their story?
My LinkedIn post – and even this blog post – are not going to change the world, or take down the Tattoo Taboo. But I want us to make a start…and if I have only changed one person’s mind along that journey to show them that someone with tattoos can have a successful professional career and do a bloody good job – then that’s good enough for me.