Tattoos at work: does body art mean a lack of professionalism?

by Sara Valle-Martínez

Imagine the following scenario: you spend hundreds – sometimes thousands – of pounds on a tattoo design by your favourite artist. Just a few days later, when you’re finally able to share your beloved body art with the world after the tedious healing process has ended, your employer tells you that you need to cover it up.

Tattoos have become a luxury, as the steep prices are not affordable for everyone, and for many they are a chance to show off their individuality and passion for a specific thing, person or music. But some workplaces still see them as a sign of misbehaviour and lack of professionalism. 

It’s a real-life conundrum that has plagued tattoo-lovers for years – but some believe that there is a light on the horizon, as feelings towards body ink are changing for the better.

Neck to toe tats

Lea Turner, 37, from Manchester, is tattooed neck to toe. Perhaps surprisingly for some, she’s also in corporate training. 

Turner’s tattoos made her stand out at work, but she took this unwanted attention and turned it around to her advantage. Now Turner’s the successful owner of two online businesses that have allowed her to work with financial services, law firms and other “stereotypically stuffy industries”.

Lea Turner, corporate trainer, proudly shows her tattoos. Photo credit: Lea Turner

“In my early 20s when I was starting to get heavily tattooed, everyone told me: ‘you’ll never get a good job’; ‘you’ll never be able to have a proper career if you’re tattooed’. Back then, it wasn’t fashionable. It made me quite an outcast,” said Turner.

“I used to get followed around shops by security and I still always get checked by security at airports, even when I’ve got my little boy with me. It makes travelling quite intimidating sometimes because people will stare and take photos in places where it’s not common to see [people] – especially women, with lots of tattoos.

“[Getting tattooed] has stopped me in the world of work. I’ve had to compensate by being exceptional at everything that I do, especially with interviews and things, because people will make assumptions when they see you. You have to work really hard to break those stereotypes, so they’ll look past the exterior,” she added.

Photo credit: Sam Lion on

Some companies as Virgin Atlantic have reworked their dress code policies to adapt to new times. But there are currently no specific employment laws in the UK that deal with tattoos. The Equality Act 2010 doesn’t prohibit organisations from asking staff to cover up their tattoos or to impose a “blanket ban” on them, meaning they are within their rights to reject a prospective employee for a role based on them having a visible tattoo.

For this reason, Turner’s is not the only story. Beckie Shuttleworth, 41, was a teacher in London when she was forced to quit her job due to criticism from her boss.

“I was told by the head teacher that I needed to ensure my tattoos were covered at all times,” said Shuttleworth. “I covered up easily in the winter but when summer came issues arose. It was very warm and I couldn’t wear tights or socks every day, so I started to wear a tubigrip to cover my ankle. Parents would ask if I was okay and I always felt awful making something up about an old injury flaring up.”

“In the end there were lots of reasons that I left teaching but not being able to be myself was a big part of it. If I felt repressed, what were we teaching the kids about being themselves?” she added. “Kids just accept you as you are. I wanted to be truthful about who I was so I could teach the kids to be authentically and joyfully themselves too.”

Inside Haunted Tattoos in Holloway Road

Shuttleworth is now a well-being tutor for kids and the proud owner of Bhumi Yoga and Bhumi Kids. She supports children to “SHINE Brightly”, as the name of her programme states, through a combination of mindful movement, meditation, and mindset practices.

Both Turner and Shuttleworth believe times are changing, but some corporate companies still insist their workers cover their tattoos. The dress code guidance 2016 update warned employers that taking a negative stance toward tattoos could lead to missing out on good candidates.

One in nine Britons have visible tattoos, based on research by YouGov. Then, why are they still seen as something that entails bad reputation? For answering the question, we need to look back at Victorian England, when tattoos were associated with criminals, hooligans, and sailors.

But tattoos were also a sign of wealth, as it was a way for sailors to show off their privilege, as they were able to afford travelling in an era when putting food on the table was already a whole ordeal.

The tattooing methods have changed throughout the years as well as the complexity of the designs, but it’s safe to say that the reasons why people get tattooed might have stayed the same.

“Surprisingly yes there is still prejudice towards tattooed people. It used to be that only aristocratic people were tattooed before it hit popularity amongst the masses but it later became associated with criminals and delinquents,” said Alice Nicholls, 39, a tattoo artist from Essex that runs tattoo studio The Fine Art of Tattoo.

“It has started to change again with celebrity status making tattoos ok for the rich again… but there is still a stigma attached especially with hand and facial tattoo art,” she added.

Tattoo-based rejections

Hegarty Solicitors acknowledges that employers can legally reject potential employees on the basis of tattoos. But it suggests that employers do all they can to mitigate the risk.

“We suggest that employers have a clear dress code policy that sets out the expected workplace attire for all staff members and includes the business rationale for each point. The employer could argue that visible tattoos have a detrimental effect on the business and that they could create a less than positive impression to new and potential customers,” they say on their website.

“The law does protect staff from unfair treatment at work based on certain protected characteristics. Tattoos and body art are not listed as a protected characteristic but there may be cases where the tattoo is linked to one of the protected characteristics. 

“For example, a tattoo might have a religious reasoning. It is also worth considering that there is a substantial argument to say that a blanket policy forbidding tattoos in the workplace can promote generational prejudice and could result in a claim of indirect age discrimination if a larger proportion of younger employees have tattoos.”

A personal statement

Holloway Road people agree that people’s professionalism shouldn’t be evaluated based on their appearance. The majority seem to think tattoos are merely a personal statement that shouldn’t be argued or criticised.

Adam Brown, 30, a tattoo apprentice at Haunted Tattoos in Holloway Road used to work in architecture and graphic design, but he didn’t like how creatively restrictive it was. He said he “always felt like a small clog in a big machine”. Tattoos gave him the freedom he needed as tattooing is the motivation “that directs everything now”.

“It’s a way of making yourself unique,” Brown said. “No one else will have that piece but you can carry it around for the rest of your life.

“There’s not really anything like tattoos. Everyone goes through new phones, new cars, new possessions… but a tattoo is for life, so that’s the attraction to it,” he said.

In a country where at least 40% of its population is tattooed, there’s still some prejudice to fight. While face and neck tattoos are still on the verge for most and there’s a long road ahead until its full acceptance, the UK it’s in the top ten most inclusive countries when it comes to tattooing.

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