The receding taboos of body art

The social acceptance of tattoos and piercings and their increasingly frequent appearance in the workplace

Body art such as tattoos and piercings have been traditionally frowned upon, but has recently gained a new level of acceptance.
Body art such as tattoos and piercings have been traditionally frowned upon, but has recently gained a new level of acceptance.

A year and a half ago, just a few weeks before my 18th birthday, I marched into a downtown body piercing shop with a couple of friends, lied about my age and got my nostril pierced in a delayed act of rebellion that most people get out of their system in high school.

That may seem tame and even ordinary by today’s standards, but body piercings have only recently become a part of mainstream North American culture.

Kingston-based image consultant Catherine Bell of Prime Impressions said tattoos and body piercings held negative connotations in past decades and were generally associated with what some people considered to be the less reputable members of society.

“When I look at the history before the 19th century, prostitutes and criminals used to have tattoos and then the military started to embrace tattoos and then they moved into popular culture,” Bell said. “I must admit, in the last 15 years we’ve probably become used to seeing tattoos more than ever before.”

Bell said body piercings and tattoos were connected with distinct subcultures.

“In the past you would find if someone had a tattoo people wouldn’t trust them,” she said. “This is a terrible judgement, but people would think, ‘Have they been in prison? Have they been out to sea?’”

As someone who’s worked in the fashion industry for 21 years and has been an image consultant for 16 years, Bell said she’s seen a change in the way industries deal with employees who have visible piercings or tattoos over the years.

She said although most industries today are open to body modification, more traditional areas such as finance are still wary of hiring employees with tattoos or excessive piercings.

“Companies that are more staid in their ways, particularly if their clients are more conservative don’t want to upset their clients, so it’s really part of the dress code,” she said, adding that even though piercings and tattoos are a part of one’s body, employers can enforce rules to have them covered.

Bell said although someone working in finance or a high end men’s shop may be asked to cover up their tattoos or piercings, they are much more welcomed in creative fields such as advertising and marketing.

“If you’re looking for a job in retail and it’s a funky, fashion-forward store, obviously they’re going to welcome your tattoos and piercings.”

Bell said she doesn’t advise people to hide their tattoos or piercings during interviews, but it’s important for them to remember the impact first impressions make.

“I’ve had some people go for interviews and ask about their tattoos and piercings so I always caution them that you’re not trying to hide it but you don’t want to create a visual distraction. You want them to see you,” she said, adding that it takes about 10 to 12 additional meetings before a person’s first impression can be turned around.

Although societal attitudes are changing, there’s still a stigma attached with body modification, Bell said, adding that a mature male client of hers who had many tattoos had difficulty fitting in when he went back to college.

“He had tattoos completely cover his arms and he was wearing a long sleeved T-shirt or shirt because he found that the young students coming out of high school wanted nothing to do with him and he felt that that had to do with his tattoos,” she said. “There’s already the challenge that he’s a mature student, but he also got some comments about his tattoos.”

Laura Hughes, ConEd ’12, has a pierced eyebrow. Hughes said her decision to get the piercing was entirely based on aesthetics.

“I didn’t really put a lot of thought into it. It was a spur-of-the-moment, why-not kind of thing,” she said. “For me it’s just a piercing, but for some it represents so much more.”

Hughes said she hasn’t run into any problems with her piercing when searching for jobs, but she would consider taking it out for teaching positions if necessary.

“If I’m told that it will affect my job then I will take it out,” she said. “If I’m in an interview with an employer and they said I needed to take it out then I would, but if they didn’t say anything then I would keep it in.”

Hughes said she thinks there’s less meaning behind body piercings than there used to be.

“There isn’t as much of a statement or a message involved,” she said. “It’s all about body decoration. It’s just the same as a hair cut or a fashion choice. I think it’s more accepted in our generation but some adults still see it as associated with delinquency.”

Maeve Jones, ArtSci ’12, has several piercings in her ears as well as a tattoo on her upper back. Jones said she got the tattoo, two bass clefs which can easily be covered, to represent her interest in music.

“I got my tattoo in a place where I can show it off if I want to, but I can also hide it,” she said.

Jones, who has worked several part-time jobs in Kingston, said she’s received more comments about her brightly coloured hair than she has about her tattoo or piercings. She said she thinks tattoos are becoming increasingly accepted in the workplace.

“I think people are becoming more used to the idea of seeing tattoos. I’ve seen people in all sort of fields of work [with tattoos] that you wouldn’t typically think would be allowed, like teachers and bank tellers,” she said, adding that she would considering covering her tattoo for work, but wouldn’t remove her piercings. “People are more relaxed these days, showing their own personalities instead of trying to conform or worrying about what people will think of them.” Jones said she thinks older generations are coming around to the idea of tattoos being a mainstay in popular culture.

“My parents used to be completely against tattoos but when I actually got my tattoo they didn’t seem to care too much,” she said. “I think after a few years they got used to the idea.”

Ben MacDonald, owner of Buddha’s Belly piercing and tattoo in Kingston, said the popularity of certain piercings goes in waves, with nostril and surface piercings being high in demand right now.

He said Queen’s students wereto his most frequent customers when Buddha’s Belly was located downtown.

“Some Queen’s students still make the trek out to his Gardiners Rd. location, he added.

“When I started doing this the average customer age was about 40, 45, but since 2000 or so it’s definitely dropped down into the 18 to 20 age range.”

As someone with visible body art himself, MacDonald said he’s seen a dramatic change in the way he’s been treated because of his appearance over the years.

“It’s certainly become a lot more tolerated by the general public,” he said. “I’ve had people taken ahead of me in bank lines, refused service because of how I look. That has definitely slowed up in recent year, but mid-90s that was not an unheard of thing.”

The sign at the front of MacDonald’s store states that clients under the 18 of age must have parental consent. MacDonald said the age of consent for piercings and tattoos tends to be a bit of a grey area.

“To break the skin of a minor is a statutory assault,” he said, adding that most reputable shops require customers to sign a waiver to prevent accusations of assault. Because minors can’t sign waivers, this protection isn’t in place.

MacDonald said people in certain professions, such as the medical profession, have been much freer in the location of their body modification in recent years. “Ten, 15 years ago a doctor would not have anything visible below the elbow. I can tell you we’ve had at least three [doctors] in the last month [get tattoos] below the elbow,” he said, adding that he’s also seen an increase of people in the nursing profession coming in for piercings and tattoos.

MacDonald said he thinks the popularity of tattoos in particular has actually decreased their meaning.

“I believe that people actually used tattoos to express their inner selves more in the past,” he said. “Some of the inner meaning is actually being lost. Tattoos used to be sacred. There is nothing scared about Britney Spears’ tattoos.”

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