As labor market tightens, tattooed workers gain acceptance

Mar 29, 2015

Ram Lee is owner of Traverse City Tattoo.
Credit Aaron Selbig

Have you ever walked into a business and been served by someone with a tattoo on their neck or hands? Did it shock you? Shock or not, tattooed workers are becoming more and more common.

And business owners say that’s at least partly due to a tight labor market.

Frances Holmes is human resources director for Blarney Castle Oil, which runs more than 90 convenience stores all over northern Michigan. Many of the stores are located in seasonal, resort communities.

“So when we are trying to hire, so are many other businesses at the same time," said Homes. "So there is a great demand on a dwindling labor market.”

A change in policy

Blarney Castle has made a few changes in response. They bumped their pay up slightly above minimum wage. They got rid of a policy that required a high school diploma or a GED to work at their convenience stores. And recently, they changed their thinking about tattoos.

“We had a tattoo and piercing policy, where we were saying you could not have any visible tattoos,” said Holmes.

When Blarney Castle purchased another chain of convenience stores, they noticed that many of their new employees had visible tattoos. With the constant challenge of keeping their stores staffed with nearly 1,000 workers, Blarney Castle decided to change the policy.

“You open up a magazine and you look at the celebrities and tattoo is a form of expression these days," said Holmes. "And so, with that, we looked at what we are doing and does it still make sense? If it doesn’t, then we’re going to dust it off and we’re going to re-write it.”

'Keep them where you hide them'

Rebecca Dees' "cover-up" tattoo was done over an old one. It took eight hours to complete.
Credit Ram Lee

Rebecca Dees is getting a "cover-up" at Traverse City Tattoo. That's where you get a new tattoo to cover up an old one you don’t like anymore. Dees is only 25 but already she has collected 10 tattoos all over her body, including a set of wings on her back.

She’s worked all sorts of jobs over the years, including hospitality and office work, and she says the tattoos have never been an issue.

“Most of my tattoos are able to be covered," said Dees. "I don’t really have anything below the elbow and when I go in for my interviews, the people that hire me don’t even know that I have tattoos until after I’m already hired.”

Being able to keep them covered is really the key when it comes to tattoos in the workplace.

Ram Lee is the tattoo artist working on Dees’ cover-up. He’s been in the business for more than 20 years. Lee recognizes the trouble young people with visible tattoos can run into later in life.

“I won’t do it," said Lee. "If it’s his first tattoo, he doesn’t need it on his neck or his hands. I know that probably sounds horrible for me to be that judgmental but … it’s not a fad. It’s there forever and laser doesn’t work that good to take it away. Until you know what you’re going to do in your career, keep them where you can hide them.”

And that’s good advice because lots of employers still draw the line at visible tattoos.

Mary Jo Jankoviak is Human Resources coordinator for West Michigan Bank in Manistee. Right now, Jankoviak is looking to hire a teller. And at the bank, visible tattoos are definitely a problem.

“That’s not what our customer base expects to see when they walk in," said Jankoviak. "But that’s just … part of what’s happening out there in the pool. That younger generation does have tattoos and piercings.”

Gaining acceptance

A Harris Interactive poll from 2012 found that more than one-fifth of adults in the U.S. have at least one tattoo. And that number is even higher for people in their 20s and 30s. The poll also found that fewer people think tattoos are linked to “deviant behavior.”

Rebecca Dees’ new tattoo will be safely hidden on her leg. Until summer, anyway, when she might wear shorts to take her kids to the neighborhood playground. Dees says it’s on the playground – not the workplace – where she gets a lot more funny looks. 

“I think they’re kind of scared of me like I might be a bad parent or that crazy person that’s going to try to take their kid home. But I’m just there with my kid, like everyone else.”