Written by Anya Srivats
The history behind body art is one of the most culturally rich and diverse. Tattoos, in particular, are a form of cultural expression dating back further than Ancient Egypt and India. But as they became a part of American culture, tattoos were quickly branded as an oddity that reflected poorly on personal character.
Body art in America was originally reserved for the lower class. Sailors with tattoos were seen as some of the lowest within American society, with tattoos branded as foreign and uncivilized. However, for many sailors, tattoos were seen as therapeutic or sentimental– a way to remember and cope with the horrors of war they experienced.
In the 20th century, tattooed women traveled with the circus at freak shows. Exotic dancers would get tattoos to increase their mysterious appeal to bring in business. Women otherwise lacked opportunities to live life without a husband or family, so the same women who were rejected by certain social institutions found a way to thrive within such a restrictive society. Despite the immeasurable personal value to those with tattoos, the social implications of this form of art and expression led it to become taboo.
But times are changing and tattoos are now more often than not a symbol of identity and self-expression. According to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 3 in 10 American adults reported having a tattoo. There is no link between how rich or poor one must be to “be inked”. But cultural acceptance is still only an ideal, not fully in our grasp.
Tattoos have progressively gained traction, being recognized as more mainstream rather than an indicator of “unsavory” lifestyles. However, it is still fairly common for workplaces to discriminate against tattooed individuals during the hiring process, or to implement dress codes that include hiding any tattoos. Despite a recorded change in the correlation between more dangerous lifestyles and tattoos, employers still associate body art with unprofessionalism.
Body art is simply a form of self-expression, and should not be considered unprofessional. According to a study from the World Journal of Psychiatry, college students with tattoos see them as a way of expressing their personality and identity. There is also no correlation between people without tattoos and higher intelligence or creativity. Given no scientific basis or social indications to back it up, turning away someone based on their choice to get tattoos or forcing them to hide such art is an outdated practice. By punishing people with tattoos, workplaces exclude another group of people based on a misguided character assumption.
Moreover, because tattoos often draw significance from someone’s identity or beliefs, turning people away based on them is an implicit dismissal of who they see themselves as. Viewing body art as unprofessional is a fleeting judgement that eliminates hundreds of thousands of qualified individuals from a fair chance at a job. We should not hinder the lives and careers of tattooed Americans who choose to wear their hearts on their sleeves– literally.