Let Your Freak Flag Fly: The Case Against Covering Your Tattoos

The last time I covered up my tattoos was in 2010, when I was going to meet my landlords for the first time.

Apr 8, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

The last time I covered up my tattoos was in 2010, when I was going to meet my landlords for the first time. Desperate for an escape from my shitty alley house1, I figured that as much as covering my tattoos made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t going to shoot myself in the foot by insisting on displaying them and then lose a potentially amazing opportunity.

I got the house, and on the day I moved in, I showed up dressed as usual, tattoos on display. My landlords (who live next door) never commented and they haven’t since. Living next to older adults has actually been quite eye opening for me in terms of the stereotypes I maintain about things they may/may not approve of, and my landlords genuinely don’t seem to give a flying fig about tattoos, Beyoncé, or my tendency to wander around in threadbare t-shirts and boxer shorts.

Over at our sister site xoVain, Chelsea recently posed a question about whether she should cover her tattoo for her wedding, out of respect for her conservative Jewish in-laws and a desire for the photos to be timeless. Her own thoughts on the subject are mixed, but a lot of commenters seemed to agree with my stance on the issue: don’t cover up.

For tattooed people, tattoos are a part of us. And at your wedding, or any other major life event, you shouldn’t be ashamed of parts of yourself. Assuming you haven’t been covering up your tattoos before, people who know you know they’re there, and they might be surprised to see them mysteriously vanished for the event.

One of my friends actually had her wedding dress designed around her tattoos to showcase them. Others have just strategically arranged their wedding clothes to accentuate their tattoos -- and even then, it’s surprising how many people don’t really notice them when they’re familiar with you, because the tattoos just kind of blend into the background. Many people, for example, haven’t noticed that I have a dingbat behind my ear even though it’s been there for years.

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This is technically a type of dingbat known as a fleuron, because it's a floral motif. And before you ask what it means, it's a serious homage to my training in letterpress printing and a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that I'm crazy. 

Something like Chelsea’s tiny wrist tattoo isn’t going to be noticeable as part of her larger ensemble and all the other things swirling around her on her wedding day, and it won’t be visible in photos unless she makes a point of turning her wrist out. It’s likely to be a nonissue, and her in-laws (and her fiance) are going to have to accept the fact that the tattoo exists and she’s part of the family now.

On the other hand, more heavily tattooed people like Emily, with two very visible (and gorgeous) sleeves, or me, with a lot of work around my head and neck and eventual plans for sleeves, have different kinds of social barriers and obstacles to think about when it comes to society and our tattoos.

Should we cover up tattoos for job interviews, family visits, court appearances, and whatever else?

Conventional wisdom says that tattoos are “inappropriate” and we have an obligation to cover them up where they might offend, but I’ve long maintained that this is ridiculous. Society is evolving too rapidly and abruptly for this to be good advice. My grandma, for example, loves my tattoos and always asks to see my latest work.

When I have jury duty, I don’t cover my tattoos, and I wouldn’t cover them on the witness stand unless there was a specific reason to do so. If an attorney felt I would be more reliable or likable with them covered, I’d probably wear a high-necked sweater, for example.

While I’d dislike the root assumptions behind the request to cover up, I’m not completely naïve, and I’m aware that many people are nervous around tattooed people or think of us as scary, unreliable and dangerous. You have to pick your hills to die on, and a court where someone's life or liberty lies in the balance isn't the right place or time.

For job interviews, sometimes having tattoos seems almost like a plus, and at other times, it’s a minus. That’s something the individual applicant needs to evaluate, but it’s worth remembering that if you get the job, you’re then going to be in the position of having to cover up your tattoos every day at work, and you’re going to be in the kind of workplace where people are hostile about tattoos.

Is that really an environment you want to be in? Maybe if you’re desperate for work, you’ll take it, but if you’re not, why do that to yourself?

Presumably in the course of researching a workplace, you’d find out if it’s tattoo-friendly and then make a decision about whether you want to cover or not on the basis of that information. I’ve worked in jobs where I’ve had to cover and remove piercings and I hated every minute of my morning routine, feeling like I was sticking my true self in a box to create a polite mask for the day.

I got out of those jobs as quickly as I could even though I was technically good at them and could have progressed, because I didn’t feel comfortable in that work environment.

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With a tattoo like this, it's basically turtlenecks forever if you don't want it to show. (This is a memorial tattoo for someone who passed in 2005.) 

Not everyone has the privilege of being themselves at work, though, and other people are trying to balance lives and careers where their desires for specific career goals might be more important to them than how much of themselves they show at work. Maybe you really want to be a public interest attorney, for example, in which case visible tattoos are an absolute no-no because people are looking for any reason to judge you.

At this stage of my life, I personally don’t see myself covering up again, and my plans for future tattoos involve work that will be harder and harder to cover up even if I wanted to, so I'm basically committing myself for life here. I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to hide myself anymore, and where my tattoos as part of me are part of the whole package.

The kind of work that I do allows me to do that, and I work in an industry where visible tattoos and piercings are not really a detriment; having them show up in author photos doesn’t cause people to immediately recoil (and, in fact, many people don’t notice my lip piercing).

Lots of writers are pierced and tattooed, and while it might not fly at a conservative publication, I'm not applying for positions at those kinds of publications, nor would they want me -- my clips would be more of a deterrent than my ink.  

I also feel that being a visible tattooed person is important not just for me as an individual, but also for the cause of other tattooed people in general.

By being visible, I’m doing my part to help make it easier for other people to be visible if they choose to do so. I’m making visible tattoos a more common sight, and I’m pointing out that having tattoos doesn’t make people dangerous and unreliable.

Having ink under my skin as a means of self-expression and adornment doesn’t mean I can’t be a rocket scientist, an elite bodyguard, a CEO, a doctor, or any number of other things. (Let’s face it, there are far more significant obstacles lying between me and any of these careers.)

Social attitudes about tattoos and visibly tattooed people are shifting. That doesn’t mean everyone everywhere accepts tattoos, or that there aren’t places where having visible tattoos is probably not a great idea, but it does mean that individual decisions about covering up have gotten a lot more complicated, and people really do get to make informed decisions about how they want to proceed.

There’s nothing wrong with covering up for reasons of self-preservation, to avoid hassles and drama, to put a stop to endless obnoxious questions, or to fit in at a given environment where tattoos are not very welcome. Sometimes covering up is necessary for practicality, survival, or common sense; but you get to be the judge of that.

So, tattooed xoJaners, do you cover up? Where and when? Do you feel like the climate for tattooed people is changing? Have you ever been surprised like I've been by people accepting your tattoos when you weren't expecting them to?

1. Fort Bragg has a fascinating array of alleys winding through town, and many of them are heavily populated with secondary income-generating units. Some of these alley houses are really quite nice, while others are basically converted sheds. I’ll give you three guesses as to which type a freelancer just starting out in a community with a stratospheric housing market would inhabit. Return