I started getting tattoos as soon as I turned 18. My mom told me to start with something small to see if I liked it, so I got a fairy inked on my left shoulder. A year later, I got the tattoo I really wanted: a set of butterfly fairy wings across my back. I always knew I wanted to be covered in tattoos. I loved art and getting tattoos meant you could have art all over your body. But I didn't realize the consequences it would have in the "professional world."
I worked at a tattoo shop as a body piercer while I attended college in Virginia. We weren’t a very busy shop, so that’s when I started dreaming up ideas for how I wanted to design my arms. Before inking my first forearm piece, my boss said, “You sure you ready to get this on your arm? Everyone will see it. And it may prevent you from some opportunities.”
“Yes, I want it! People are cooler than you think.”
The first time I was ever asked to cover my tattoos was for a ballet performance in college. I auditioned for the role, so I didn't ask questions. I purchased a long-sleeved nude leotard and a bunch of concealer to make sure not one of my four tattoos were visible in my costume. That long-sleeved nude leotard got even more use when I transferred to a college in Connecticut with teachers who held the same values. I was told that my tattoos were distracting on stage.
After I graduated, I danced with a company where the artistic director asked me numerous times to cover my tattoos for performances. I was made to cover my tattoos when I taught dance classes because my boss told me my tattoos were a bad influence on my students. I covered myself for years, sweating profusely as I taught tap, jazz, ballet and modern dance to students of all ages. Many students found out I was covered in tattoos and asked me why I would cover them in class. That was a hard question to answer.
As you can imagine, I started getting upset that the artistic profession I chose wouldn't accept me as an art-covered person. I decided to seek different kinds of jobs, only to find the same rules. I was made to cover my tattoos at receptionist and administrative assistant positions, as to not "look trashy" for clients. I was told that elderly customers would be turned off at the sight of my tattoos. I was told my tattoos were bad for business. I was even told to cover my tattoos while I worked as a bartender because my boss felt that customers were put off by them. And these are just the jobs I landed. I wonder many times I was denied a position I was qualified for, based on my appearance alone.
I taught myself Web design in my spare time while I worked all those other jobs, and started landing positions at small businesses in that field. To my surprise, I was able to find employers who let me "be myself" in the office as a Web Designer. However, it was still a rule that when clients came around, I had to remain covered up. I decided that this was just the way it was going to be. But it wouldn’t stop me from getting tattoos.
My right arm is fully sleeved in a Garden of Eden scene. On my inner forearm is a blue-and-purple Eve with beautiful long hair, standing in front of a giant tree with a green snake wrapped around it. A big red apple with a bite taken out of it is tattooed under my right arm. On my right shoulder is a phoenix in a trap of rainbow fire thorns.
My left upper arm, where my first tattoo of the fairy still resides, became a half-sleeve ocean scene, complete with mystical dragons, sea creatures and a narwhal. My left inner wrist has a tattoo I designed as a memorial for my best friend in high school who took her own life. Her name was Lena, and she is a moon. Above that is a heart shaped lock that displays the date of my wedding. My husband has a similar tattoo -– the key to my heart –- on his right arm. The last tattoo on my left arm is of the planet Jupiter. You would be amazed at how many adults think it is a tattoo of Saturn. However, all the children who have seen that tattoo know right away what planet it is.
I have some tattoos on my chest and belly, and I have an appointment to get a unicorn on my left calf in a month. There’s a koi fish on my right foot, and a frog on my toe. Tori Amos fans will see the connection now… Jupiter… frog on my toe. Yeah, I am a big fan.
Three years ago, I was hired at as a graphic/Web designer in a company run by someone who, during my first year of employment, kindly asked me to remove a photo of myself from the company's Facebook page. In the photo, I was accepting an award on behalf of my department, wearing a professional-looking sleeveless dress that was certainly appropriate to be worn at such an occasion. Someone had left a comment on the photo, “Nice tattoos.” I was told that image was giving people the wrong idea about our company.
Since that incident, I have noticed the owner and the more conservative co-workers at my company slowly stop regarding my tatts as taboo. Though every so often I feel like a novelty when clients pass by our department during company tours. Our office is a room surrounded by windows on all sides, like a fishbowl. I can’t always hear how the visitors respond when they are introduced to the creative department through the glass, but I can see them do double takes when they spot me, now sitting pretty at my desk with hot pink hair and tattoos ablaze.
A little while ago, I met up with one of my college dance teachers. In conversation, she made a point to tell me how many of the new dance students have tattoos. She spoke in great detail about some of the pieces her students had, and which ones she liked best. It was a complete change of attitude from how she previously felt toward dancers with art on their skin. She told me she no longer makes any of her students cover their tattoos when they are on stage. That comment was a game changer for me. At that moment, I decided I would no longer cover my tattoos for anyone.
There are many negative stereotypes that people in this country use to label those who have tattoos – especially women with tattoos. But, people who adhere to these stereotypes are ignoring the fact that humans have been decorating their skin since the beginning of time. Even women. The body of an ancient Siberian Princess was found covered in tattoos. An Egyptian mummy recently uncovered, revealed a tattoo of the Archangel Michael on her thigh. Today in other countries, tattoos are seen as part of culture, and held in higher regard as an artform than how they are sometimes regarded in the USA. A person’s tattoos can tell a story, display rank, hold personal meaning, portray religious or spiritual imagery, or a multitude of other reasons that will never jump off that person’s body and do any physical harm to another person.
So why do I have to cover my tattoos?
I am happy to say that today –- 14 years after I started being asked to cover myself up –- I am finding more open- minded people. I hope this is signaling a change in the tides for people who define the “professional world.” Audiences are not distracted by dancers with tattoos. Customers will still shop at your business if your employees have tattoos. Young dancers will not grow up to make bad life choices because their dance teacher had tattoos. Wedding guests will not think the bride looks trashy in her wedding dress.
I will never cover up my tattoos for anyone, ever again. I’m tired of sweating beneath long sleeves just so someone else can pretend I am more like them. If someone tells me they have a problem with my tattoos, that’s just what it is –- their problem.