I have many tattoos. The number isn't that large, but they take up a significant portion of the visible space on my arms and legs. I am the most tattooed person at Snagajob by a good measure, and usually when people I work with have questions (or commentary) about tattooing, they come to me. After eight years of gainful employment with tattoos, these are some things I've learned.
1. There is no such thing as privacy
When I got my first tattoo (a quote from a little known author, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare) on my forearm, it never crossed my mind that anyone would give a crap what I had placed there. Boy, was I wrong. To add insult to injury, my tattoos are almost exclusively words. Do you know what everyone's natural inclination is to do with words? If you thought "ignore them," you'd be incorrect. People want to read words. It goes against every fiber of our beings to ignore the written word. I wasn't prepared for this. I've been verbally accosted by religious fanatics, grabbed by strangers, had my sleeves pulled up by crazy customers and fielded twenty-one questions from co-workers. If it's on your body and they can see it; it's public domain.
Because I am a non-confrontational person by nature, I can't be rude. This is especially true in the workplace where you are being paid to be friendly and professional. I have friends with visible tattoos who aren't so nice about engaging with complete strangers. I generally believe that most people don't mean to be rude and aren't familiar with tattoo (or social) etiquette. I have also been asked thousands of times, so at this point I just choose to let it just roll off my back.
2. With tattoos and job interviews, timing is everything
I made a conscious decision when I started tattooing visible portions of my body that I'd never get anything that couldn't be covered up with professional business attire (for me that means a suit). I still stand by that philosophy, as you just never know where you're going to end up. That doesn't change the fact that in some settings, it will be nearly impossible to cover up your tattoos.
For instance, I worked at Best Buy for many years while I was in college. Anyone who has ever been to Best Buy knows that the uniform involves a short-sleeve blue polo shirt. Since my forearms are tattooed, it would have been impossible to cover these up at work. Because of this, and in the interest of full disclosure, I inquired about their tattoo policy after I was offered the position. I find that immediately following a job offer is a good place to bring up body art and piercings. It's before you start (saves messy paperwork for them if it's against company policy), but you've already shown you'd be a good employee (saves you the frustration of being discriminated against). I've been careful (and lucky) about the companies I've worked for, and it's never been an issue.
3. The content of your tattoos matters
This is tricky. Lots of people have an "oh crap" moment with their tattoos, where you regret the moment you ever walked into the tattoo shop and said, "Yes, I'd like a permanent reminder of the girlfriend whom I will break up with approximately two years after I get this tattoo." At least I hope I'm not the only one who was that big of an idiot.
With that being said, your tattoos are a diary of your life, and they give everyone you meet a pretty good idea of who you are (or were). Tattoos with offensive language, gestures, illustrations and the like are no exceptions. Even if they're done as a joke, they likely won't be tolerated by an employer or their customers. If you feel strongly about something that could be offensive, it's best saved for a portion of your body not revealed in, say, a tank top and shorts.
4. One final note
I've been fortunate to work with Amanda Hite, the CEO of Talent Revolution. She recently built up the courage to commit to a visible tattoo of her company's (and personal) philosophy: "Be the change." Afterwards, she fielded questions like, "What will your clients think?" and "What if you decide to go back into the corporate world?" and "How are you going to hide it?" This was Amanda's response on her blog:
"It’s not about a tattoo.
It’s 2010, it’s about being able to be who you are...If I’m not accepted in the workplace for a tattoo, I’m pretty certain there will be other more important parts of who I am that would not be accepted. Look, sometimes we have to work a job we don’t entirely like, but in this day and age, should we still have to work in places where we can’t express ourselves and be who we are? I’ve learned that only when you embrace your own authenticity, unapologetically, can you really explore your talents’ potential. By being true to yourself you attract the kind of people in your life who share your values. Including employers and clients.
You do have a choice."
Amanda couldn't be more spot-on. If an employer isn't willing to hire you because of your tattoo, that's okay. There's no reason to get upset about it - it's their choice. It's their right (and responsibility) to represent their company and brand to their customers in a way they are comfortable with. Ultimately, you don't want to work for a company who doesn't embrace the way you identify yourself.