5 On Your Side

Are tattoos still taboo at work?

Posted February 18, 2013
Updated February 19, 2013

— Surveys show more than 1 in 5 people has at least one tattoo. Nearly half of 26 to 40 year olds have one. Another survey found 45 percent of law students have one by the time they graduate. But when it comes to the workplace, are tattoos still taboo?

Celebrities, professional athletes and hair stylists are some of the professions where tattoos are generally accepted and sometimes expected. But would the same hold true for doctors or financial planners, for instance?

"I have a college degree. I've worked in the health care industry for seven years. I have a house. I have a family. I'm just like everybody else … and I have tattoos,” said Gretchen Sutton, an IT professional in the medical field.

 tattoo Some hiring managers frown on visible tattoos

Sutton says she got her first tattoo on her ankle, then one on her back and then a half sleeve on both arms.

"I have six tattoos and plan to get more,” she said.

Considering her job requires her to sometimes meet with office managers, doctors and hospital executives, Sutton says she is cognizant of making sure that her tattoos are covered if she does an interview or meets a client. However, when she’s in the office, her tattoos are sometimes visible to coworkers.

“Typically, I get double-takes, and they're like, ‘I didn't know you where that type of person,’” Sutton said. “As I told my mom, I like tattoos, but I like money more. I want to make sure that I have a good job and get paid well, and I can get tattoos in other parts of my body.”

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says complaints from the public about a tattoo-covered deputy who appeared in news coverage of a trial prompted him to move forward with a new policy on tattoos. If their short sleeved-shirts don’t cover their tattoos, deputies have to wear long sleeves year-round.

tattoo infection Research tattoo artists, shops to avoid infection

"I don't think it looks professional in our type work,” Harrison said. “We just try to get them where we can't see them."

John O'Connor owns Career Pro Inc., a career counseling company in Raleigh. He warns, especially with traditional jobs, that visible tattoos can have an impact.

“Yeah, it’s an issue,” he said. “Privately, employers have told me it does affect their decision … It only takes a pause, when there are that many candidates for each job, to potentially reject you."

In a recent poll, 42 percent of hiring managers said their opinion of someone would be lowered if they had visible body art, and 76 percent believed visible tattoos were unprofessional.

O'Connor admits he was caught off guard when his assistant, Amanda Septien, came in with a small tattoo on her wrist.

“Wow, why did you do that? How might it affect people's opinion of you? The perception of the business,” he recalled thinking.

Polls say most people have no regrets in getting tattoos. However, in a study by The Patient's Guide, the majority of those getting them removed, about 40 percent, cited employment reasons as their motivation for having the procedure.

In addition to possible workplace stigma, experts say people who get tattoos should research the risks and be careful about who does the artwork and how.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a warning about infections from contaminated ink, and 5 On Your Side found there's little state regulation or oversight of tattoo shops.

Unlike hair stylists or nail techs in North Carolina, tattoo artists only need a $300 county-issued permit to get started. After that, a health inspector visits annually to make sure tattoo shops are "really neat and organized (and) everything is right at their fingertips," said Lisa McKoy, a health inspector for Wake County. 

But their inspections are scheduled in advance, and even tattoo artist Steve Wetherington said the rules could stand to be toughened. 

"What they do after the health department leaves, who knows?" said Wetherington, who works at Mad Ethel's Tattoo in Raleigh. "They only come once a year and you know they're coming."


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  • dragonflyz Feb 25, 2013

    I'm a professional with ink. It's not visible at work [or even wearing normal clothing], but it's personal to me. I waited over 10 years before getting it because i wanted to be 100% sure of the design, find someone i trusted, and be sure i wanted it. i dont judge people for having ink, just like i dont judge people for not having ink. i do feel that, based on career field, that caution needs to be paid about placement and ability to cover [mainly because of the narrow minded people who judge]. same for piercings- i've got 'em- but i'm not putting huge holes all over my body [and its a personal decision for me to have nothing on my face]. i think people should be cautious about their public perception with any way they modify their bodies- but look past their appearance. these mods are only skin deep. actually, the decision to get ink made me be much more introspective to select something that was so integral to who i was that i couldn't see it ever changing. it's a part of me.

  • chowder Feb 21, 2013

    I have 2 tattoos. I have a capitol W on each rear cheek. When I bend over it says WOW.

  • GoodVibrations Feb 21, 2013

    I get compliments on mine, every where I go. From old, young, male, and female. :)

  • Dan Cooper Feb 21, 2013

    Tattoo removal will become a big business if not already! Most of the people I know with them are poor decision makers anyway, their 'tats' are just further proof that they're using body art in leiu of something lacking in their character.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT Feb 20, 2013

    "There ARE jobs where tats are not appropriate. No one working with clients should have visible tats, unless you work with clientele that would be fine with tats."

    I wrote the above quote. Of course, a couple of people fired off at me and said I was old fashioned. Basically said I was wrong. That doesn't bother me, as I'm not looking for a job. If you have tats, your job options WILL be limited. That has nothing to do with me. It IS common practice today in the business world, like it or not. You can argue with me all you want. But it will have NO bearing on my quote above, that still stands true in TODAY'S world.

  • IPayYouPay Feb 20, 2013

    I certainly hope so.

  • corgimom06 Feb 20, 2013

    They look hideous.

    So do mom jeans, sandals with black socks, mullets, and sleeveless and/or mesh shirts. I would rather have a tattoo than be the victim of bad fashion!

  • aspenstreet1717 Feb 20, 2013

    They look hideous.

  • Brian Jenkins Feb 20, 2013

    "Is it because someone who has such conviction of a subject or memory that they permanently ink themselves in such a loud medium (seems like yelling)," - NCNATIVE

    No it reminds me of my dead grandmother.

  • 426X3 Feb 20, 2013

    Personally I think tattoos discrace the human body. To each his/her own.