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Cover Story - Posted June 26, 2015 9:39 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Invisible Ink

What happens when tattoos enter the workplace?

She’s a middle school teacher who models love and acceptance to her special education students while teaching them the value of hard work. As she reaches across a student’s desk to indicate a word, her shirt sleeve lifts to reveal a flash of black. It’s the tip of an elaborate, symbolic family portrait covering three-quarters of Elizabeth Hague’s right arm. “I want them to see that if you work hard and get the education you need, even if you are a little bit different you can still do the things you want to do,” she says of her students.

He’s a highly educated engineer with a global communications company, and the kind of white-collar employee you’d expect to find in any upscale corporate setting. On weekends, he even teaches Sunday School. But beneath his standard office attire, Mark Wolfe is in the process of covering the entire back side of his body – from his shoulders to the backs of his knees – with an intricate Japanese samurai tattoo. “I have seen people who will treat me one way when I have my shirt on and know me. And when I take my shirt off, they look at me in a totally different way,” he says.

She’s an experienced corporate paralegal who regularly appears in the courtroom. Before standing before a judge or meeting clients, Tina Alexander always puts on a sweater or jacket. The clothing conceals tattoos on her inner arms and upper back. Her employer doesn’t require it, but Alexander covers up anyway. “People still make judgments,” she says. “I hope we get past that someday, because when you are judging someone by a tattoo that’s on their skin, it’s like you are judging by the color of their skin. [Having] something on your skin doesn’t mean you can’t do your job.”

Across Amarillo and throughout the United States, more people are wearing – and possibly hiding – tattoos than ever before. Driven by ink-focused television shows, celebrity body art, and relaxing attitudes toward self-expression, the once-outlaw current of tattoo culture has flowed into every part of society. Today you’ll see more tattoos in boardrooms and PTA meetings than a biker bar.

That means Amarillo’s employers and employees have had to ask some difficult questions about self-expression over the last decade: What happens when tattoos enter the workplace?

Beyond Bikers and Sailors
Derek Jefferson got his first tattoo as a teenager in the early 1990s. Today, Texas law prohibits tattooing a person younger than 18 years of age, even with a parent’s consent. That law wasn’t around when Jefferson got inked. “My mom was cool with it, so I started getting tattooed pretty early. I was pretty heavily tattooed before I actually did it for a living,” he says.

Jefferson had planned to become a paramedic after high school when he had the opportunity to begin tattooing professionally. Eventually he and his wife, Macie, founded Screamin Mimi Tattoo in 1995 with Jon Perkins and Carl Hallowell, making it the oldest legitimate tattoo studio in Amarillo. Jefferson says the local tattoo culture “has exploded” over the past 20 years. “I was getting tattooed to be a part of my own counter-culture – skateboarding and punk rock and stuff like that. It was a pretty antisocial kind of thing,” he says of his teenage tat obsession.

He compares that culture to today. “It’s a night and day difference.”

Jon Perkins tells a similar story. He moved to Dallas a year after Screamin Mimi opened, leaving it in Jefferson’s hands. Perkins tattooed in the Metroplex for several years before returning to Amarillo to start Electric Baboon Tattoo, another highly regarded local studio, nine years ago. He reflects on how times have changed during his two decades in the industry. “In the younger generation it’s hard to find people who aren’t tattooed,” he says. “It’s not just the traditional sailors or bikers doing it anymore. It’s white collar and blue collar. It’s moms and dads all doing it.”

Compared to Screamin Mimi, Chad Smith’s American Vengeance Tattoo is a relative newcomer, having opened in 2011. However, Smith has been tattooing since 2003 and spent six years learning the craft under Jefferson, whom Smith considers “a pillar in the tattoo industry.” The two came from similar skateboarding and punk rock backgrounds. “That’s really what led me into wanting to tattoo, the punk rock posters and that kind of art,” Smith says. “Back then, if you had a tattoo, people would look at you and freak out a little and think you were bad news or no good.” That attitude is diminishing. “I’ll tattoo a doctor, a lawyer, a minister. We tattoo the rough and tough and the ones that have lace around the edges, too. It’s widely accepted now.”

The Stats about Tats
National statistics confirm the anecdotal evidence of these tattoo artists – three of the most prominent and successful in Amarillo. Separate Pew Research Center studies reveal that 23 percent of all Americans have at least one tattoo, including one in every three Americans between the ages of 30 and 45. One in five people younger than the age of 30 have three or more tattoos. In 2008, only 14 percent of U.S. adults were tattooed.

In a 2014 poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 40 percent of respondents said someone in their household had a tattoo, compared to 21 percent in 1999.

Some of the biggest changes in the tattoo industry are related to gender. A surprising 47 percent of women younger than age 35 have a tattoo – nearly twice as many as males in that age range (25 percent).

Amarillo’s tattoo artists say social media is a driving force in the industry’s growth. “Pinterest is big,” says Perkins. “We’ll see a trend with someone coming in [with a design they saw on Pinterest]. Then we’ll start repeating that same design in several ways.” He lists feathers, arrows, and infinity symbols or silhouettes breaking into flying birds as Pinterest-driven tattoo art.

While they love the business, local artists like Smith aren’t always excited about doing verbatim reproductions of tattoos their clients find online. “For us, that is someone else’s tattoo. We don’t want to just copy that. What we try to do is make some subtle changes so it’s not the same tattoo,” he says. His clients are almost always favorable to the changes. “They say, ‘Now I like it better because it’s special for me.’”

“Job Stoppers”
The body art on Jefferson, Perkins and Smith extends to their hands and fingers. It creeps up their necks. It’s visible regardless of what they wear. In the industry, these areas are known as “public skin,” and that kind of coverage is expected among professionals. But just like they push back against cookie-cutter Pinterest tattoos, these artists also push back against customers who want ink on their hands, fingers, necks, or faces.

“We call those ‘job stoppers,’” Perkins says. “Some people won’t hire you because of them. You can’t go to work and just wear gloves all the time.” Perkins and his staff are hesitant to tattoo such exposed skin unless a client is already heavily tattooed. “We’ll actually talk to them. We want you to have a career and be able to succeed in your own life without a tattoo holding you back. I don’t just want your money. I want you to have a nice tattoo and be happy about it.”

For this reason, Perkins has turned down customers. He doesn’t mind the loss of business. If a customer can’t get a job due to a tattoo, he or she is unlikely to become a repeat customer. Why? Economics.

“I can’t keep tattooing you if you don’t have any money,” he says.

Jefferson says there’s an ethical side to the decision as well. “Anybody who marks people permanently needs to have some morals about what you do and don’t do,” he says. “[Getting a tattoo] will affect you in all kinds of profound ways. We try to get [customers] to take their choices seriously. You can educate them and say ‘This may not be the best idea.’” At the same time, Jefferson understands that turning down a determined potential client often means that person may find a less-scrupulous tattoo artist down the road.

“If we turn them away and they get it done from someone else, and it’s a poor tattoo, it’s making things worse. Now it’s in a public area everyone will see and it’s not as nice as it could be,” says Jefferson. “You have to play it from customer to customer.”

Relaxing Employer Policies
According to Vicki Wilmarth, an Amarillo employment lawyer with Burdett, Morgan, Williamson & Boykin, LLP, employees have little protection related to employment and tattoos. “There is no Texas or federal law that specifically addresses self-expression such as tattoos, body art, or piercings in a private company,” she explains. “Any business here in the Panhandle, owned by individuals, can make their own policy. The only exception you have to think about is discrimination on the basis of religion or possibly national origin.”

Tattoos required by religion or national origin are rare in the Panhandle – in fact, they’re rare everywhere, which means there have been very few instances of litigation about tattoos and the workplace. “The courts have been fairly supportive of employers being able to establish a dress code that is appropriate for the business they are in,” says Wilmarth.

Several Amarillo businesses have hired her to write their employment policies, and Wilmarth says this issue comes up frequently. “Some workplaces don't mind it as much and some do,” she says. Wilmarth describes the dress code at her own firm as among the more lenient among local attorneys. She reads from the BMW&B policy: “All tattoos and similar body art must be tasteful. Any body art that is larger than three inches square or three inches in diameter, or that is offensive (determined solely by the partners), must be covered during business hours.” While no neck or facial tattoos are acceptable, she says, “we decided small tattoos aren’t that bad,” but “the culture we deal with tends to not be as comfortable with large areas of the body covered with tattoos.”

Facial jewelry like eyebrow or nose rings, tongue studs, and ear gauges are not considered “professionally appropriate” unless they are virtually unnoticeable. Even so, Wilmarth says the BMW&B staff voted that these kinds of body piercings should not be worn during business hours. She only knows of one employee with visible body art. If any others have tattoos, she hasn’t seen them in the workplace.

Mike Ohm, a partner at the public accounting firm Lemert Holder & Ohm, shares that his company has a similar policy as Wilmarth’s law firm, allowing only small, tasteful tattoos. “While we are not opposed to tattoos, we prefer our employees to have large ones covered up during business hours due to the nature of our professional environment," he says.

While a few of our city’s largest employers declined to share their dress code or tattoo policies with us, the Amarillo Independent School District was particularly forthcoming. Doug Loomis, Chief Human Resources Officer for AISD, says board policy puts all decisions about grooming and appearance in the hands of principals at each school. “Tattoos are not strictly prohibited,” he says. “Principals and supervisors develop grooming expectations that meet the needs of their individual campus or department’s culture and environment.”

Loomis says a principal may request that a tattoo be covered up depending on the subject matter or “distractibility” of the design. “That same vein of policy would be used when addressing piercings,” he says.

Tattooed Professionals in Education
Elizabeth Hague just finished her second year at Bowie Middle School and has spent several years as an instructional assistant and teacher in AISD. She has 14 tattoos, including a sleeve covering 75 percent of her left arm, a half-sleeve on her right arm, and tattoos behind her ears, on the back of her neck, and on her wrists. “[Students] can see my elbow and down for the most part on a daily basis,” she says. “I have never been asked to cover [my tattoos] up.”

She describes her body art as a double-edged sword. “It can be distracting,” she admits. “The kids really like to get you talking about other things instead of what you’re supposed to be doing,” and will spend much of the first week of school asking questions about her tattoos before familiarity sets in. But at the same time, Hague says, her ink “can also be helpful being relatable to the kids. A lot of my kids' parents have tattoos. They have piercings and colorful hair, and so I've had a few kids who say ‘My mom has a similar design.’”

As a special education teacher, Hague works with autistic children who already feel different from everyone else. She says her self-expression through body art helps them understand that “we’re not all the same and that’s a good thing. I want them to see it's really what you choose to do – hard work or becoming educated, getting the training you need and being dependable – that really matters.”

Claudia Arnold, a senior advising associate for the East Campus of Amarillo College, has had a similar experience. “It makes them feel more comfortable with me,” she says of her students, many of whom attend the East Campus to learn technical careers like truck driving or industrial technology. Arnold has six tattoos, all visible on her feet and upper arm. “It puts them more at ease. They think, ‘She’s not judging me because I have these tattoos.’ It’s an easy way to break the ice.”

Before moving into the advisory position after earning her master’s degree, Arnold worked in human resources for AC. “There’s no policy at Amarillo College that says you can’t have tattoos,” she says. If instructors or employees cover them up, it’s done at their own discretion.

Marley Hoggatt also has a master’s degree and is the education director for the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. She got her first tattoo at 24 and now has six on her back and one on each wrist and foot. “They show at work,” she says. Hoggatt creates online development courses and doesn’t work directly with the public. “But I do deal with people in administration at Texas Tech. I meet with faculty members and professionals constantly.” While she thinks tattoos in the workplace need to be work-appropriate, she’s never been asked to hide hers.

“It’s all about expression and displaying what’s important and who I am,” she says. “I don’t think people see it as negative anymore. Many of my coworkers have tattoos.”

Hospital Policy
Unlike these educators, Amarillo’s medical professionals are generally expected to conceal their tattoos, either with clothing or bandages. Marine veteran Ryan Chisum serves as an RN in pediatric intensive care at Northwest Texas Healthcare System. After several deployments – including two tours in Iraq – he wears multiple tattoos, including a full sleeve on his left arm he calls his “PTSD collage.” Chisum describes the art as a “pretty graphic” depiction of dead bodies, decapitated heads, and people engulfed in flames. He considered the art’s potential impact on job prospects, but “figured if I’m going to an interview I’ll be wearing long sleeves anyway.”

He says hospital policy is that large tattoos must be covered, though occasionally he’ll reveal a leg tattoo of Superman to the young children he works with. “They think it’s awesome,” he says. While he doesn’t regret the graphic imagery on his sleeve, Chisum would keep it covered even if his employer didn’t require it. “I don’t want little kids looking at that. It’s too gory.”

Katie Roberts, a physical therapy assistant, works with geriatric patients in long-term care and skilled rehabilitation. She has multiple tattoos on her arms, back, neck, and chest, including an Asian-themed sleeve on her left arm. While the ink on her neck and hands is visible at work, Roberts wears a “tat jacket” – a thin fabric sleeve – to cover the tattoos on her arm. “The regulation is that all tattoos are to be covered,” she says of her employer. “But there’s a lot of us in the workplace that have tattoos that are harder to cover up. For whatever reason, we haven’t had to.”

Bailey Perkins works at a local hospital as an X-ray technician and is married to Jon of Electric Baboon. “I don’t really know how many [tattoos] I have anymore,” she laughs. Despite a completed half-sleeve and a full back piece in progress, none of Perkins’ body art was visible when she got the job. “They didn’t know I had them,” she says. She continues to keep her ink covered at work, which her employer requires. “Even if I'm going in for a meeting I have to keep them covered.”

Want Tats with Your Meal?
From tatted-up celebrity chefs to hard-working local line cooks, the restaurant business has always been friendly to self-expression through body art – even in Amarillo.

“The restaurant environment is a little bit different. It’s not your average people in the work force,” says this issue’s cover subject Brian Mason, the chef/owner at BL Bistro. His arms are covered with tattoos depicting everything from Bible verses to the initials of his children. “Mine are things that happened in my life that I don’t want to lose,” says Mason, who believes tattooing has moved from the fringes of popular culture to its center. “When I got my first, you could show up late at night and get a tattoo. Nowadays you have to make an appointment,” he says. “My artist [Chad Smith of American Vengeance] takes three months to get into.”

Though he wants his employees to look “clean and responsible,” Mason says tattoos have never been an issue with patrons at the upscale BL Bistro. “I want everyone in my restaurant to feel comfortable. I don't want them to feel uneasy. But at the same time, the reason I have my tattoos is for myself. My customers come for the atmosphere and the food that we offer, not my appearance.”

Scott and Rin Buchanan, the husband-and-wife team who owns Yellow City Street Food, say their tattoos reflect their passion for the artistic community – and their customers seem to appreciate it. “I wear a tank top half the time in the summer and I thought I’d get weird looks or comments, but I don’t,” says Rin, who has colorful tattoos on her hands, chest, and arms. Scott chimes in. “Most of our customers are business people, but they are down with it. People don’t care. If someone can come to work and do their job and do it well, then that’s all that matters.”

From a hiring perspective, Leslie Fuller-Meier, the manager at OHMS Café, says she might require a server to cover a distasteful tattoo or one that could be distracting to a dining experience. “But I have yet to have someone apply who I have that issue with. As long as they’re tasteful, tattoos are not a big deal.”

With three tattoos herself, including a 3.5-inch high cross on her back, Fuller-Meier suggests our culture has stopped stigmatizing body art. “I think it’s becoming more popular,” she says. “Most people don’t bat an eye anymore. People are artwork. Tattoos that are done well are fun to look at.”

Mindful of the Future
While the “job-stopping” characteristics of such tattoos may be declining, a recent Salary.com survey shows that prejudice still exists against tattoos in the workplace. Of 2,700 people surveyed, three out of four felt visible tattoos and piercings hurt applicants’ chances of getting hired, and 42 percent thought visible body art was always inappropriate at work. Four percent reported having been discriminated against because of their tattoos.

That’s not surprising to Ray Wilson, the CEO of Catmandu Technologies, a multi-site computer services company in Amarillo, Canyon and Dumas. “There are people who will find a way to judge you no matter what. Your $300 suit at the business meeting won't be good enough, the car you drove to that meeting isn't expensive enough and so on. A person might as well just be themselves.”

Wilson is close to finishing a full sleeve tattoo on his left arm. He already has ink on his upper arm, chest, and back, but the sleeve is a big step. “It’s visible even if I have on a long-sleeve shirt,” he says. “It reaches to my wrist.”

In the early days of his business, Wilson admits he wouldn’t have gotten a visible tattoo, worrying that a negative first impression could cost him potential clients. Today, he believes the reputation he and his staff have developed will override any concerns about appearance. “I’m looking for people on my team who can perform and have good work ethic and who have a proven track record,” he says. “I don’t care whether they have tattoos all over them, piercings or whatever form of expression. If they show up for work on time and look professional and get the job done, they are hired.”

Landon Lambert is a successful Amarillo lawyer who practices elder and family law while also serving as the elected Donley County attorney. “As a professional, I've adopted the Japanese businessman model,” he says of the three-quarter sleeve on his right arm. “As long as I can roll my sleeve up two or three times and cover it, then I'm fine.” Despite being heavily tattooed himself and believing that “tattooed people are the most interesting people,” Lambert realizes that he’s in a profession where he might be judged negatively for body art. “There are some things that are going to be held against you for quite some time. As far as being an elected official in a small county, I gave up wearing short-sleeve shirts for [my tattoos]. It’s nothing I’m ashamed of – I’m proud of them – but you’re going to have certain people who won't hire you if they think you're some kind of tattooed freak.”

Lambert remains hopeful, though, and has seen tattoo prejudice decline, even among his elderly clients. These days, he gets more tattoo-related questions than judgment. “They’re [becoming] a little bit more accepting. That’s good. You never know who’s got a tattoo somewhere.”

Derek Jefferson, of Screamin Mimi, got his first tattoos in order to stand apart from society and recognizes the irony of countercultural body art finding its way into courtrooms and classrooms. “People who are really into tattooing and wearing this kind of stuff are proud of it and want to show it,” he says. “It’s affected them in a positive way. If I can help someone do that then I am winning all day.”

Innovations to an Ancient Art

Tattooing has been practiced for centuries, and the mechanics of tattoo machines are decades old. But the past 20 years have brought innovations to the industry. “We have better ink pigments,” says Jon Perkins of Electric Baboon. “Back in the day, people used pigments that had metal in them. That’s not the case anymore. We have advances in taking the ink from metal molecules to plastic molecules to organic molecules.”

Tattoo inks used to be available in black, red, green and yellow. Today, new pigment technologies mean ink can be produced in multiple shades. “Now people tattoo like they paint. The portraits and 3-D tattoos we can do astound people,” Perkins says.

Derek Jefferson of Screamin Mimi says the new ink technology has brought unwanted changes, too. “When I started tattooing in 1993, there were maybe three or four reputable companies that produced tattoo pigment. Now there are over 100. You could throw out 96 percent of them because it’s junk and not good for you.”

He says many of these new pigments are being manufactured cheaply in China and aren’t safe. That’s why finding a knowledgeable, ethical tattoo artist is so important. “Tattooing is very popular, so you have a lot of people trying to cash in,” he says. “That’s what sets us apart: We’ve dedicated our lives to this art. We believe what we do and how we affect people is a sacred thing.”

Why Do People Get Tattoos?

Dr. Maxine De Butte is a tenured psychology professor at WTAMU with a doctorate in neuroscience. Her appearance fits right in among her high-achieving peers at international scientific conferences. But during summer courses at WT, she occasionally wears a sleeveless blouse – which reveals several of the 17 tattoos she’s gotten over the past three years. She describes her body art as a “journal chronicling things I’ve been through,” with each tattoo representing trials or obstacles she has had to overcome. “I started out with one little tattoo and it blossomed from there,” she says. “I don’t know when I’m going to stop.”

According to De Butte, tattoos often represent significant personal changes. “For a lot of individuals a tattoo can chronicle turning points,” she says, like college students leaving the home or couples getting married. De Butte got her first tattoo after a difficult divorce, and says the physical pain of tattooing helps her deal with negative emotions or loss. “It's more like a pleasurable pain, like a stress reliever for me,” she says, describing the rush of feel-good endorphins a tattoo needle releases in the brain. “The pain of it is not a bad pain at all.”

For this reason, she says research shows that most tattoos are not spur-of-the-moment decisions, but the results of meaningful decision-making. “Most individuals do not regret their tattoos,” she says.

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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