When she lost her mom five years ago, Alicia Young wanted to have a remembrance sunflower tattooed on her wrist, but instead had the image inked on her hipbone.
A registered sales assistant for Wells Fargo, Young, 50, of Midwest City feared a more visible tattoo would be seen at work, where her clients might judge her.
Similarly, George Campbell, 63, of south Oklahoma City, who retired a year ago as a facilities and land manager for Oklahoma Natural Gas, kept his tattoos hidden. His body art runs from his mid-thighs to his neck and from his shoulders to a few inches below his elbows, Campbell said.
Though Campbell and Young followed historical business advice to keep their tattoos covered by traditional business attire, corporate policies and protocols are fading with today's proliferation of body ink, observers say. Just a few months ago, one large Oklahoma City-based retailer dropped its ban on visible tattoos for the some 600 employees who work at its corporate office.
Firms ease policies
Employers — even large corporations that are traditionally conservative with dress codes — are relaxing their policies to attract younger workers, said Gayla Sherry, an Oklahoma City human resources professional who writes employee handbooks for companies of all sizes.
Elaine Turner, an employment attorney with Hall Estill, agrees. “Employers still can, and should, have dress code policies,” Turner said. But federal and state law in Oklahoma prevents any size employer from discriminating against employees, and candidates, on the basis of seriously-held religious beliefs, she said.
Some religious beliefs, Turner said, involve tattoos and piercing. One Egyptian faith requires a certain tattoo around the wrist, and it's considered a sin to cover it up, she said.
“Employers must accommodate such seriously held beliefs, unless it's an undue hardship to your business,” Turner said.
Those who choose to ban visible tattoos must apply that ban consistently to everyone, regardless of gender, or to everyone in a certain group, Turner said, and any restrictions should be appropriate for business reasons. For example, banks may ban visible tattoos for tellers and others who interact with the public, but allow them for mailroom employees and others, she said.
One large Oklahoma City retailer still bans visible tattoos for employees who work at its stores, but corporate employees are allowed to show tattoos if they're conservative and inconspicuous, its human relations manager said. “Full sleeves of tattoos aren't allowed, and tattoos can't be vulgar or offensive,” said the HR professional, who herself has large flowers tattooed on one shoulder, which partially show when she wears sleeveless tops.
Meanwhile, other employees were wearing wide bracelets, Band-Aids and gloves to hide butterflies or other small tattoos they had on their wrists or hands, she said. “It looked worse than if they were visible,” she said.
Over the last year alone, Sherry said she's seen handbook policies changed from “business attire” to “business casual” and from banning tattoos to accepting tattoos that are in good taste. “Today's perception is tattoos are the norm rather than the exception,” she said.
Indeed, 21 percent of all U.S. adults have tattoos, according to an online poll conducted by Harris Interactive last year. Surveyors found 38 percent of 30-somethings have them, and 27 percent of those 40 to 49.
Professionals inking up
Jason King, owner of Atomic Lotus on NW 23, isn't surprised. His artists have inked tattoos on doctors, lawyers and soccer moms, he said. “It's a way for people to reclaim their bodies,” King said, “or bind groups together.”
He said his shop once tattooed four generations of women, ages 18 to 88, with a tiny Chinese symbol for mother and daughter on their shoulders. Other popular sites for artwork are ankles, calves and legs, he said.
Far from discreet, Joshua Coburn, a promotions specialist for Montezuma, Iowa-based Brownells Inc., a firearms parts and accessories supplier, sports two-inch gauges in his earlobes and is visibly, heavily tattooed — from ink and three-dimensional implants on the backs of his hands to Polynesian artwork on his neck and three dots on his forehead.
Ironically, the tattoos “took away any Plan B; I couldn't fall back on a retail job for example, and gave me a clear and focused path to my dreams,” Coburn, 32, said.
He co-owned a tattoo parlor for a decade, before he moved into his current job with Brownells two years ago — where he'd previously proven himself as a hardworking part-time worker, advancing from stocker to assembly manager to customer service and, finally, product development and marketing.
Brownells, Coburn said, also recognized that he brings outside marketing experience, having promoted his own business, record label, clothing line and books (The recently released “Inspiration on Demand” is a compilation of affirmations Coburn wrote and posted on social media about overcoming obstacles).
“People never forget me in a business setting and my appearance is always a good ice breaker,” Coburn said. “Others may know more, but they're already paying attention (to me) and I can begin a dialogue, or turn it over to a colleague if I need to.”
A personal style
Bryan Freeman of Bartlesville has worn half-inch, mostly wood, gauges in his ears since he was 18. Today, he's 35, married with three children, and works in finance for ConocoPhillips.
“Initially, it was about annoying people around me, but now I just like the way it looks,” said Freeman, who also sports a shaved head, full beard, stainless steel gauge in his tongue and large tattoo on one calf, which shows when he works out in the company gym. “I like to stand out, show up in a place that's very black and white and be what other people don't expect,” he said.
“Occasionally, I get looks from the old guard, but all it takes is a conversation or interchange, where I carry myself and interact professionally, for them to see that I'm knowledgeable and professional, only I look different.”
Freeman said on Tuesdays he dresses nicely and, with his pinstriped shirts, wears fun, bright ties, including one with rubber ducks on it.
“People at first thought I was going on a job interview,” Freeman said. “But I do it to stand out in a good way, because no one else does, and because it's fun. I call them ‘Tie Tuesdays,' kind of like Taco Tuesdays.”
Meanwhile, Alicia Young — after 15 years in the investment industry — recently took a job as an administrative assistant with an area high school, whose principal hasn't taken issue with her recent sixth, and visible, tattoo on the top and side of her foot. In large script, it reads “Forever Young.”
“I love that I can see it and be reminded of its double meaning — my commitment to my husband, Scott Young, and our shared attitude toward a healthy lifestyle,” Young said.
“It‘s not a symbol of anything bad,” she said, “but represents who I am and what I love.”
The view on tattoos
People with tattoos say they make them feel more sexy (30 percent), rebellious (25 percent), attractive or strong (21 percent) and spiritual (16). Meanwhile, those without view people with tattoos as less attractive (45 percent), less sexy (39 percent), less intelligent (27 percent) and less spiritual (25 percent). Half say tattooed people are more rebellious.