[SCMP Column] Much Ado about Tattoos

October 29, 2016

According to Johnny Depp: “My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” I can only assume he never had a job interview – certainly not one in Hong Kong.

I have to confess a bias against them. It’s not a matter of the pain. It’s just the permanence of it all. After all, a butterfly flirtatiously perched on the buttock of a bikini-clad teenage beachgoer may look wonderful – but what kind of vision will it provide after four more decades have ravaged those neat teenage curves? And what chances of a second marriage when a guy sports a heart on his arm with “Jane” inscribed across it – unless of course the prospective girlfriend is, like his divorced wife, also called “Jane”?

But it seems as usual that I am behind the times. Among our “millennials” there is an explosion of interest in body art. Pew Research in the US says 40% of millennials sport at least one tattoo. David Beckham may not quite be a millennial, but I understand he sports 34 of them. In the US alone, the tattoo business generated revenues of S2.3bn last year – 13% up on 2014, according to the American Medical Association. Amid more than 100 Tattoo conventions a year worldwide, Hong Kong just two weeks ago celebrated its fourth annual International Tattoo Convention, which organizers said attracted more than 200 tattoo artists from across the world, and almost 10,000 voyeurs – whoops, I mean visitors. That is more than double the number participating in 2015.

Since learning this fact, I am seeing them absolutely everywhere: delicately tracing a line around an ankle, creeping down over muscular arms, crawling up the neck out of sharp-buttoned shirts. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Again according to Pew, more than 70% of those millennials sporting tattoos make sure they hide them at work. Sometimes it is just a discrete precaution against possible prejudice. Sometimes it is in response to specific company rules (many airlines not only have rules that no tattoos can show, but also have rules on under-garments that cover any tattoos that might be visible through a white shirt).

The simple reality remains that many still fear that visible tattoos will either kill employment prospects in a job interview, or block promotion within a company. A 2011 study by the publication CareerBuilder found that 31% of surveyed employers would not promote an employee who wore a visible tattoo. In the US, a study at the University of Tampa found that 86% of students with visible tattoos believed they would find it harder to get a job because of the tattoo. Ironically, the danger is real: anti-discrimination laws in most western economies protect against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or colour, but give no such protection when it comes to tattoos.

In some ways, the corporate prejudice seems odd. After all, tattooing has been around for a very long time. Oetzi the Ice Man discovered high in the Alps a few years ago carried tattoos from 5000 years ago. Mummified remains sporting tattoos have been discovered from as far afield as Alaska, Siberia, Egypt, the Philippines and the Andes. And the earliest residents of the UK were called “painted people”, or  Pritoni – from which the word Britain comes. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word “tatau”, meaning “to write”. Through time immemorial, Maoris from New Zealand have carried their “moko”, or unique facial tattoo as a sign of their unique identity and bravery. They even signed treaties with faithful renditions of their unique moko. No wonder the New Zealand All Blacks sport so many acres of finely-honed body art.

So when and why did everyone get so “prissy”? To be fair, deep Chinese tradition tells you not to modify or mutilate your body in any way, which is why Hong Kong has always been among the world’s more conservative communities when it comes to decorating your body. So too was there strong prejudice in Japan, until defiant merchants and ordinary working people protested the elite’s refusal to allow them to wear exquisitely-decorated kimonos by deciding secretly to decorate their bodies beneath their clothes. It was this, and the obvious defiance of the Yakuza criminal class, that led to the remarkable all-body tattoos found today in Japan – and I suppose it is from here that the triadic secret societies in Hong Kong and China took their lead. In central Asia, Islamic proscriptions against body decoration made tattoos taboo in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

In the west, all of these tattoo taboos have played a part in modern prejudices. Tattooing came to be associated with brawling seamen, prison convicts, and rowdy disreputables like sports stars and DJs – basically the kind of young man that most anxious parents would prefer not to come dating their innocent daughter (ignore the inconvenient fact that more women sport tattoos than men).

From here, tattooing has become indelibly linked with extroverts and risk-takers, youngsters precociously independent from parents and conformity. From a psychologist’s point of view, there are further signals: someone decorating themselves with tattoos is strongly self-confident, idealizing youth, and individualism while at the same time keen to secure strong bonds to a “tribe” or community.

The paradox as I see it is that many of these characteristics can be positively helpful in certain careers, rather than an inevitable block on them. What merchant bank does not want individualism, risk-taking and aggression in a successful employee? Surely an entrepreneurial start-up needs these qualities in spades? What company encouraging diversity and inclusion should not welcome tattoos as a highly visible declaration of that commitment.

Despite the recent explosion of interest, my suspicion is that it may still on balance be better for your career to wear your body art discretely. As Forbes magazine recently advised: “Tattoo-flaunting is still probably best reserved for post-work hours.” Sadly, life is less colourful as a result.
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