Throughout my life, I have seen society’s perception of tattoos and piercings shift from curiosity and admiration to disgust, and back again. Perhaps it is due to generational discrepancies and their respective body art trends, but the concept seems to have a very fine line between creative and vulgar in the eyes of older generations, making it almost taboo in the professional world. For whatever reason, people with body art are often mislabeled in the workplace as less educated or less capable than their non-tattooed counterparts.
While I understand that some careers require modesty and conformity of their employees in order to achieve a particular aesthetic, I do not agree that a person’s body art has any correlation with intellectual ability and work ethic.
As a millennial fully surrounded and influenced by modern trends in a college town, I have come to understand body art on a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. Geometric shapes, full-sleeve tattoos, nose piercings, gauges, small quotes and depictions of nature all vary in terms of color, style, placement and meaning, which leaves me to wonder how anyone has managed to stigmatize tattoos and piercings as only either repulsive or beautiful. Rather, they are an artistic representation of a person’s identity — whether of a passion, the name of a lost one, an inspiring mantra, a nostalgic reminder or simply an expression of creativity — that holds unique and personal significance.
So why, when comparing two job candidates with identical credentials, is the person without visible tattoos and piercings hired? I understand that a law firm might not want an employee with facial tattoos or big gauges, but how about a nose ring or a forearm tattoo? Do these symbols of artistic expression really negate the value of a person’s ability and intellect, or their higher-ed degree?
Last June, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences scholars Anette Cebula and Erich Kasten conducted a quantitative study that examined the creativity and intelligence levels of both tattooed and non-tattooed students. The series of questionnaires involved an evaluation of values and an IQ test — the results of which showed that the creativity of non-tattooed people was slightly higher than those with tattoos, but the IQ levels of each population sample only varied by two levels at IQ 115.61 (non-tattooed) and IQ 113.6 (tattooed). Although this study was not exactly randomly sampled — given that only students were examined — the data is credible enough to reassure me that there is little to no connection between body art and intelligence.
If I were looking to hire employees, I would be interested in the significance of the candidates’ body art and potentially use it as an indicator of character, whereas people without tattoos and piercings might be harder to read. Most tattooed people, for example, have some kind of hidden or metaphorical meaning behind their ink, which is a good sign of creativity and thoughtfulness. On the other hand, an inspiring quote or a reminder of a lost one can indicate strength and faith. I also think it is worth mentioning that tattoos — and their criticisms — can be extremely painful and require tough skin to handle, which is something that can be valuable to know how to deal with in the workplace when professional criticism or conflict arises.
I have known many talented, inspiring and qualified people with body art — most memorably one of my middle school English teachers. By mere appearance, no one would never know that beneath her long, rainbow-dyed hair, colorful sleeve tattoos, lip piercing and nose ring is the brilliant mind of a master’s degree, a great singing voice, deep Christian faith and the strength of a kickboxing instructor. My middle school hired her regardless of her appearance, and she was one of the best grade school teachers I ever had.
Like I said before, I understand that some professions have certain aesthetic requirements, but until an association can be made between body art and intellect or ability, I see no validity in turning people away based on their appearance. Tattooed people deserve equal consideration and respect in the workplace, just like those equal opportunity rights given to different races and genders.
In recent years, body art has slowly become more acceptable in society and in the workplace, although many professions still require aesthetic conformity or coverage. It is my hope that stereotypes and dichotomous perceptions of body art will continue to fade and that professionals will begin to perceive tattoos and piercings on a case-by-case basis that follows an evaluation of credibility, intelligence, work ethic and character.
Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.