Tattoos and social norms

By Alice Corner

I don’t do drugs, I’ve never been in prison (or been a sailor), and I hold down a good job. And I’m pretty sure I’m not having a mid life crisis. So what makes a 30-something professional like me want to get a tattoo and still be career-focused? My mum would really like to know.

The fact is though, tattoos are no longer the territory of the twisted or incarcerated – they are everyday and everywhere, from pop stars to CEOs, people are getting inked and, as like begats like, one fifth of UK adults are now thought to have them.

I got a tattoo this summer – I could have got roses on my backside like Cheryl Cole or a dolphin on my ankle like Samantha Cameron (why didn’t I?). Better still, I could have followed the latest celebrity trend and got a poetical musing on my ribs. But I chose to get a picture of a bicycle on the inside of my right bicep.

For me, it was not only a beautiful little image but also something very personal – I love the simple form of the bicycle, I love its environmental statement, and I just love riding them; one of my proudest achievements is cycling across the USA. But the deciding factor in why I got this image etched forever was metaphorical – I was ill at the start of this year (and am thankfully all better now) – and having had a hefty tumour removed from my abdomen, I vowed to always get back on my bike, whatever was thrown at me.

And soon after I had it done I started noticing them more – I’d spot a small star on a friend’s leg or a shamrock on a client’s wrist – and every one of them would have their own story to tell. Out for dinner one night with four friends, it transpired that only one of the group was without one – and these weren’t rock stars; these were a surveyor, a publisher, an architect, a businesswoman.

Tattoos are increasingly popular amongst women, with a number of female celebrities leading the charge. The International Tattoo Convention in London last week reported record numbers of women getting inked. Tattoo studios across the country are seeing waiting times climb and you can even buy tattoo moisturiser in Boots.

We seem to have come a long way since scratching our heads over David Beckham getting Brooklyn across his lower back, and so has he – he has them everywhere. For him and other sporting or music celebs these tattoos actually help their career – they affirm and build their brand. But what about the little guy, the guy who just wants a job?

There is a growing acceptance that tattoos are not necessarily a marker of social or educational status. I was recently at a wedding and noted the lawyer next to me had a portrait of George Orwell on his arm, which is apt as Orwell himself was tattooed, on his knuckles. In fact, the list of intellectuals or public figures with tattoos stretches back – Roosevelt had a crest on his chest, Churchill had an anchor on his arm and King George V had a dragon on his arm. A dragon!

A dragon on your arm probably would still impede some job prospects today, especially in the service sector. Research from the University of St Andrews last month showed many employers fear body art results in a perceived negative service experience.

Of course, it depends on your job type. Whilst having a tattoo could land you that job in a bar in east London, if you’re applying for the Metropolitan police you can’t have any visible unprofessional tattoos. And rules in the NHS tend to vary but are generally around not having any visible ‘offensive’ tattoos. That all sounds fairly understandable. Disney parks are a little more Draconian – they may have lifted the 55-year ban on beards but visible tats are a strict no no.

In our modern, diverse and inclusive workplaces, should it really be about the professional skills and not the personal appearance? But it is the impression the tattoo gives, or rather the perception it gives others about your attitudes to discipline that can be damaging. A dragon tattoo might not convince a prospective employer that you are really hungry for a job as, let’s say, an accountant – won’t you just be thinking about dragons and not spreadsheets? Well, many more people are thinking not.

The lines between work and life are increasingly blurred, with the balance tipped in work’s favour – we are accessible 24/7 and often expected to check emails at weekends. But what about reclaiming some ground for ‘life’ and being able to bring some of that dragon-love to the desk.

The rising obsession of tattoos amongst celebrities is leading to a wider normalising of them amongst the public. For many, the media exposure to tattoos is their reasoning to get one – to be like other ‘normal’ people – and many perhaps do not think about their own personal motivations or the long term consequences. But as the younger more-heavily-inked generation gets older, they will be the ones hiring and firing. Tattoos may become as commonplace as pierced ears or offices without ties.

Social norms, by their nature, are not fixed – from body art and cosmetic surgery to views on gay marriage and sexual equality, all are in a state of flux and different audiences find themselves at a different angle to the prevailing social norm.

Many of the campaigns and clients we work on are active and vocal on the changing landscapes of social norms, most notably recently with Girlguiding and their very public and refreshing embrace of feminism and our ongoing work with BAPRAS on the debates surrounding the ethics of cosmetic surgery advertising.

The only sure thing about social norms is that they are subject to change, and the tensions, arguments and debates that take place around them create fascinating communications challenges.

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