Tattoo nation or tattoo nasty?

You shouldn’t keep a good tattoo hidden – unless that is if you’re a company worried about scaring your customers. Air New Zealand is one such company. It has refused to hire a job applicant because she had a visible traditional Maori tattoo; Maoris of course being the first people of what became New Zealand. The applicant, Claire Nathan thought the company ‘would be quite proud to have someone with a ta moko working and representing New Zealand’. Instead the company stated that  ‘We want all of our customers to feel comfortable and happy when travelling on our services and this has been a key driver of our grooming standard which, like many other international airlines, prevents customer facing staff from having visible tattoos.’

Long held attitudes to tattoos seem to both continue and change. I grew up in a family of seafarers. My father and uncles all went to sea in the merchant navy or aboard fishing trawlers. They stoked ships’ fires and hauled ropes and nets. They travelled the world from the warm southern oceans to the icy northern seas. They had ‘girlfriends’ in every port and pockets full of jangling cash when they came home. The other thing that they had in common was tattoos. Their anchors and odes to badly missed mothers were literally inscribed on their arms.

In an era without global satellite positioning and light-touch occupational health & safety legislation, these tattoos were the insignia of working class men employed in tough, often dangerous jobs, as Jeremy Tunstall found out researching The Fishermen and which epitomised  the  occupational communities described by Graeme Salaman in his classic book.

As the British merchant and fishing fleets shrunk, some of these men, my father included, came ashore to take up other work. With a close connection between the seafarers and railway workers’ unions, some went to work on the railways. In time the state-owned British Railways that they had joined became privatised. The new rail companies wanted a new customer-focused approach to doing business. Some of the older workers left, taking early retirement. Those that remained had to change their attitudes and behaviour. As part of the bright new shiny image of these companies, these workers’ tattoos had to be covered up.

This issue has becoming particularly salient in police forces wanting to improve public perceptions of their service. In San Jose in the US, police officers have been told to wear long-sleeved shirts or remove any tattoos. In 2006 five officers went to court to argue that their First Amendment rights were being violated – and lost. ‘Nobody is restricting their rights of how to express themselves on their own time,’ said Police Chief Rob Davis, ‘When working for the San Jose Police Department, we have to regulate appearance. My belief is that the community expects that of us.’ Last year the New South Wales police force in Australia sought to implement a new policy on visible tattoos that would help ‘clean up’ its public image. ‘It’s about professionalism,’ said Assistant Commissioner Michael Corboy, ‘It’s about proper discipline and how you carry yourself in public.’ Again the solution is to cover up tattoos with long sleeves and long trousers.

But here’s the irony according to my colleague Sally Wright of the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University.  ‘In earlier times,’ she remarks, ‘tattoos were common amongst workers in dangerous jobs. In some cultures, tattoos are protective symbols. It seems only fitting then for police officers to get tattoos as they work extremely dangerous jobs and need all the protection they can get – real or symbolic.’

At the same time as this hullabaloo in policing, tattoos have shifted from marginal occupations to the social mainstream. In the US a quarter of the population is now tattooed. In Australia too, tattoos are ubiquitous. Everyone under thirty seems to have them. These tattoos are no longer hidden or able to be hidden under shirt sleeves. They are often large and inscribed across the faces, necks, chests and legs of young men and women.   Even in the police force, more recruits are coming into the service with more visible tattoos – hence the response in New South Wales according to Assistant Commissioner Corboy.

But here’s the rub.  Companies and public service organisations claim that customers and the public are frightened by tattoos. This claim might have once been true when tattoos were associated with bad lads in dangerous jobs. Now though little Johnny and even posh Jasmine have them.  It’s no longer First Nations such as the Maoris that have tattoos, countries are becoming tattoo nations. And if more people are having tattoos then it’s likely that we’re all more used to seeing them and they lose their fear factor. Plus, if more youth are becoming tattooed then more workers will be coming onto the labour market with tattoos.

So what should companies do about tattoos? Two issues need  to be disentangled. First, all tattoos can feature as part of companies’ and public service organisations’ image projection. Visible  tattoos would likely clash with any company’s appearance code that emphasized neatness or tidiness, particularly when kitting out staff in smart, designer uniforms. It’s understandable therefore that these companies would seek to proscribe tattoos. On the other hand tattoos aren’t incongruent on surfies working the beach stores at Bondi or grungy record store workers. Store owners might even regard staff having tattoos as part of the organisational aesthetic and so adding intangible value to the company.  In such cases owners might implicitly prescribe tattoos. It is the bona fide business strategy that takes precedence in these cases. Second, particular tattoos can cause offence, even fear and so interfere with job effectiveness. These are the nasty tattoos, those with racist or anti-Semitic allusions for example. If after dialling for help for whatever reason, a person of colour might feel distressed if a swastika-tattooed police officer turned up on his doorstep. If tattoos are an expression of identity then in this case the victim’s distress is likely to be compounded not alleviated. Employers then have a right to intervene because those tattoos negatively impact on job effectiveness In such cases bans on tattoos might therefore be prudent. In other cases, companies are simply going to have to move with the times and the changing acceptance of tattoos.

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