How Does Your Tattoo Affect You?

Do you have a tattoo? If so, I hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into: a lifetime of stares and dirty looks. And from the looks of things, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world. You can find discrimination against tattooed individuals in countries around the globe. It affects their jobs and the way other people see them.

The History

Ancient Egyptian tattoo for Michael

In order to understand why society is judgmental toward tattooed people, we have to look at the history of the practice of tattooing. The history of tattoos is pretty much the same in every culture. One of the most detailed histories I found is featured in Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing by Clinton Sanders. The practice of tattooing begins in ancient Egyptian times. As far back as 6000 BC, they used to tattoo women, especially concubines, dancers, and priestesses. The practice spread to the Pacific Islands around 2000 BC. They were popular in these cultures by 1000 BC. These tattoos were used as a rite of passage and then to show their status in the tribe. At this point, men were also tattooed. The practice pretty much died out by 400 AD.

In 1200 AD, Japan started the practice again, but this time they only tattooed criminals and people who associated with criminals. There was a small rise in popularity of tattoos as people got loved ones tattooed on them in 1600. It didn’t last long because of the government’s unwillingness to accept tattoos as commonplace. Japan once again made tattoos popular by getting intricate designs in 1700. But it only lasted until the mid 1800s, when the emperor banned them out of fear that they would be seen as barbaric by Westerners. However, the Western sailors and visitors liked the tattoos so much, they got some themselves and took the practice back to their countries.

The Western world had their own history of tattoos by this time. The Greeks and Romans used to put tattoos on convicts and slaves. It’s unknown when they began, but Roman Emperor Constantine is noted to have changed where the tattoos were allowed to be placed in 300 A.D. These tattoos were put on the criminals to tell the public what they had done, what their punishment was, and the ruler who judged them. In the late 1700s, Europe and a young America started to tattoo their criminals. The break from only criminals getting tattooed came in the late 1700s. In that time period, sailors were coming back home from their journeys with tattoos they received in the countries they visited, like Japan.

In the 1880s, tattoos became a fashion craze among the upper class in England and the U.S. This lasted for only 20 years. Even though they became tattooed, they still viewed other classes with tattoos as deviant criminals. Around this time, freak shows became popular and more people were getting their bodies covered to join the show. However, that quickly lost it’s appeal, as people weren’t as shocked to see a heavily tattooed person. Hippies brought back tattoos as a craze in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and is still around today.

Society

Because of their intertwining history, societies from all over the world look at tattooed people as deviants. Some go so far as to call them “untidy” and “unsavory.” The severity of discrimination depends on what country you’re in.

For instance, if you’re in the United States, members of society will think you’re some kind of delinquent. Debate.org has a survey that showed 81% of people think that tattoo discrimination is still happening. Some American researchers believe that society does this because they ostracize anyone who strays from social norms. In 2007, a research study surveyed 100 people from 18–25 years old and stated that more than a third said they had a tattoo. With the rise in tattoos among young people, there is some hope that this view of tattooed people will go away.

The United Kingdom has a society that views tattoos in the same light; they also see tattooed people as criminals. Researchers at the University of St. Andrews have learned that the tattoo stigma still exists, despite the rise in popularity with celebrities. Most associate tattooed people with being a criminal or having criminal ties, but some just think tattoos make them look dirty. Their evidence suggests most of the stigma comes from older generations, so they also have hope that tattoos will be accepted some day soon.

A sign in a Japanese resort

Japan is one of the ones that’s worse than others. The main cause of stigma there is that tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia, the yakuza. Laws there don’t stop businesses from banning tattooed people from their establishments. Many believe they only placed this ban so they aren’t seen as a place that associates with gangsters. So if you want to go to a gym, pool, or resort with a visible tattoo, you better call them and see if you’re allowed in. Being a tourist doesn’t always exempt you from this rule, but they do seem to be more lenient if you aren’t of Japanese descent. Believe it or not, it’s been found that Japanese women actually find tattoos on men unattractive. So not only can you not go in certain public places, you can’t find love either.

Australian society sees people with tattoos as bikers. This is apparently such a big problem that they made new laws for tattoo artists to abide by so they can bring down big motorcycle gangs. Starting this year, tattoo shop owners have to disclose personal information to get a license. Law enforcement does an extensive background check on all the owners and makes them get fingerprinted, as well as tell the names of all close associates to the person. While most tattoo artists are fine with getting a license, many don’t like to disclose their personal information. The people of the Maori tribe are still using tattooing in their practices despite the views of society.

China’s society also has a stigma against tattooed people because of the past, when just criminals were tattooed. They also have the stigma because gangs in China are heavily tattooed. Members of organized crime took up the practice to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. Because of this, everyone with a tattoo is seen as a criminal. Even tourists are stared at for their ink when they go to China. And if they have a Chinese symbol tattooed on them, there is a possibility that the locals will be offended.

Your Job

In my research, I’ve found some countries that can legally fire you from your job if you have a tattoo. My advice is to get your tattoos in easy-to-cover places. This will make it less likely for your bosses to know you have a tattoo and your body art won’t interfere with your employment.

In the United States, places of employment can legally not hire you and not promote you just on the basis that you have ink. There are laws in place that protect people that can’t cover their tattoos for religious reasons, so if you’re not in that category, you’re out of luck. And if you’re wondering how much tattoos matter in the business world, they matter enough to limit your job choices. In 2011, a study revealed 31% of employers said they were deterred to promote people with tattoos. Another study revealed that people who work in places that deal in customer service don’t want their coworkers to be tattooed.

The Untied Kingdom is no different; there are no laws that protect people with ink from being fired from their jobs, unless they have them for religious purposes. Places of employment that have a ban on visible tattoos include airlines, the police force and places that deal with customer service. According to British lawyers, businesses are within their rights to fire or not hire people with body ink. There are a few people who got fired for having a tattoo, including a woman who got fired from her job for having a small, 4 cm butterfly tattoo on her ankle. And it happened in 2014, not ten years ago.

Japan also has no laws that prevent businesses for discriminating against tattooed employees. Even their government isn’t above firing people for their tattoos. In Osaka, mayor Toru Hashimoto surveyed over 30,000 government employees asking if they have tattoos. He told the 100 people that said they did have them that they can either get them removed or lose their jobs. The same mayor made it a requirement that all people hired for government jobs be checked for tattoos, and be turned down if they do, in case they have ties to gangs. And again, this happened just two years ago.

Australian businesses can legally fire people or not hire them for their visible tattoos. They have laws that protect people who have religious tattoos, which is good since Maori people have tattoos as part of their culture. Some people go so far as to remove their tattoos because they can’t find work. A registered nurse said that 10% of people that come in for tattoo removals do it so they can find employment.

China isn’t exempt from this ban on ink. Places can and will fire and not hire people who are tattooed. This ban is accepted the government and military, neither of which allows tattooed individuals to be hired. The women of the Li tribe used to be tattooed as part of a coming-of-age ritual. Now, they can no longer continue the practice because they can’t find jobs that allow their visible tattoos.


I can honestly say that my eight tattoos have affected my life. I work at Wal-Mart right now and their tattoo policy allows visible tattoos as long as they’re not offensive. But at my last job at Sonic, I was asked to cover up my visible tattoos. I don’t look like the type of person who would have tattoos, especially eight, so I get looks when people find out how many I have. I’m very aware of where I put my tattoos and all of mine can be easily covered or they’re in places that aren’t seen very often, like my tattoo of a small clover on my forearm.

On top of dealing with everyone in society, I have to face my family as well. They are always judging me when I see them after I get a new tattoo. Most of the judging comes from some of my non-tattooed relatives, and a little from some of my tattooed ones. My mother and father, both of whom have at least one tattoo, are completely accepting. My sister, on the other hand, has as many tattoos as I do and has a harsh judgment on how many I have.

So what does it all mean? The good news is that many countries are seeing a rise in popularity among the younger generations, which means that the stigma may go away. As for right now, tattooed people are still seen as criminals and gang members. So be wary of where you put your tattoos and what you get. Don’t get anything that can’t be covered and don’t get anything that can easily offend people.

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