When I got my very first tattoo, I was twenty-one. I was still working towards my undergraduate degree in English, and I was working two jobs (one of which was a full-time child and youth working position) and I was volunteering part-time at a local high school. By all accounts, I was (and still am) a stand-up person in my community and my places of business, but of course, I still got comments about my tattoo and my future prospects (mostly from my 74-year-old grandfather).
Tattoos have had a significant cultural shift in the past few decades, I’d even suggest that tattoos, their meaning, and their significance have been ever evolving since man put ink to skin. With millennials and Gen Z coming into positions of power, we’re seeing less of an emphasis on the stigma that is carried around tattoos as more and more young professionals are deciding to get inked, however, old biases die hard, and we still see some old-school ideas of what it means to be tattooed affect young people who are in the market for a desk-job.
Before I continue with this article, I do have to stop and acknowledge my own privilege; yes, privilege affects everything including your ability to have tattoos. I will touch on this later in the article, but I have to say now that I understand my privilege as a white woman. I know that my brand of professionalism is already at an advantage because of my innate whiteness. Even with tattoos, the color of my skin gives me an advantage as I’m already assumed to be intelligent, professional, and capable by white supremacist standards that are upheld in many workplaces.
So, without further ado, here’s a small history of tattoos, their cultural and racial significance, and why hiring or not hiring on account of someone’s tattoos is a total joke that should’ve been left in the sixties.
A Very Short History of Tattoos & Their Cultural Significance
This is going to be a very, very short summary of where tattoos have originated, mainly because tattoos have roots in every culture and every country to some degree, and to write anything less than an entire encyclopedia about the origins of tattoos is bastardizing the history. I encourage you to read more and more about this topic (mainly because it’s just so darn interesting!)
Basically, there is nowhere in this world that hasn’t been touched by some form of tattooing or decorative scarring of the body. Darwin wrote in his 1871 book The Descent of Man that there was no country in the world that did not practice tattooing or some other form of permanent body decoration.
According to the Smithsonian, the earliest dated physical evidence of what we call tattoos comes from about 5200 years ago when an “Iceman” mummy was discovered near Austria and Italy with fifty-seven tattoos! We also see evidence of tattoos in ancient Egypt on mummies as well as hieroglyphics, we also see tattooed mummies in Asia and South America.
It’s believed that every culture has its own reasoning and methods behind their tattoos, which makes the practice more culturally individualistic and more significant to the wearers.
In ancient China, tattoos were often a sign of a criminal who was forced to get a body or even facial tattoo to warn others that this is a person who is not to be trusted, people with tattoos were highly stigmatized and frowned upon.
In contrast with ancient China, in BCE in the Philippines tattoos were a sign of rank and accomplishment to celebrate the wearer’s achievements, tattoos were even said to have a magical property for the person who wore them.
In 2000 BCE Egypt tattoos were considered acceptable and even beautiful! Evidence suggests that only women were tattooed as a form of decoration and art and even religious celebration. Tattoos were occasionally also used medically as a way to treat pelvic peritonitis! It’s suggested that tattooing was purely a feminine practice, as there isn’t any evidence of men getting tattoos until 300BCE.
With the awakening of Christianity in the 1600s and the movements surrounding missionaries, tattoos were seen as barbaric and unacceptable in Europe and therefore, in the countries colonized by England, France, and other western European countries. From there, we saw the world hush the use of tattoos as it wasn’t seen as acceptable in the eyes of the colonizers.
Eventually, after a couple of hundred years of tattoos being considered undesirable and a feature of non-white and non-Christians, sailors began taking up the practice. In the 18th through early 20th centuries, tattooing became a symbol of sailors and the lower class, however, this was the beginning of the tattoo revival in western culture, as white people were now getting American Traditional tattoos that were palatable to the (white) masses, tattoos started to make a comeback.
In the early 1890s, the tattoo machine came into circulation making tattoos quicker and easier than ever before to obtain. Eventually, prisoners began making their own tattoo machines from sewing needles, and this actually became the birthplace of fine line tattooing (the style we see most today).
From what I’ve been able to gather, tattoos go in and out of popularity with upper classes as the market for tattoos rises and drops. When tattoo artists are high in demand and to get inked becomes more expensive, upper classes tend to partake in the process and show off their new tattoos, and when tattoos are more accessible to the masses, we see the upper-class drop tattoos and look down on them as a status of poverty and a criminal past. We see this trend in almost every single form of counterculture, where people of the upper classes co-opt something that was originally made for and by poor people, and raise the demands and prices for this trend, effectively pushing lower classes out of their own counterculture.
Tattoos have an incredibly rich historic and cultural background, dipping into almost every country for better or for worse. Poor people, blue-collar workers, and incarcerated people made from the hard work and the culture of people of color and eventually popularized in the modern era tattoos. Tattoos were made by and upheld by people who are primarily discriminated against, people who are frowned upon in the eyes of white supremacy and capitalism, no wonder they’re synonymous with unprofessionalism and not the beauty and culture that they stem from.
What Do Tattoos Mean Today and Why They Shouldn’t Matter?
It was around the 1960s when the overall western idea of tattoos took a somewhat permanent positive shift in favor of tattoos. The hippie movement of the sixties sought out to normalize the taboo, and in some ways—as in tattoos, sex, weed, and fun skirts—they were very successful. At this point in time (as of 2019) 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo.
The sixties worked hard to destigmatize tattoos, but we definitely do still see the rigidity of the fifties rear its ugly head once in a while. I don’t think I know one person with visible tattoos who haven’t gotten the famous “you’ll never get a job” line. For some more old-fashioned and out-of-touch people, tattoos are still synonymous with criminals, high-risk lifestyles, and unprofessional people who don’t work well with others. There is also of course the horrible racism that is tied to tattoos on people of color, and specifically, cultural tattoos.
Racism affects every part of our world, and as I mentioned before, white people with tattoos are going to be regarded as more trendy and artsy while people of color with tattoos may be regarded as criminal or low-class. I know as a white woman that I pose significantly less of a threat with tattoos than perhaps a black woman with the same tattoos.
I will say that I do believe that as we go forward in time, and become more and more socially aware, professionalism and tattoos begin to slowly disconnect until they’re two separate entities with one not affecting the other. I see as people like myself and my friends come into positions of power and professionalism, that the “tattoo-taboo” as it were, is beginning to fade into obscurity. Human beings are artful and cultured naturally, and so are tattoos; there should be more and more acceptable spaces for tattoos in our world going forward.
Tattoos have never been unprofessional. A culture of white supremacy and hatred taught us this idea for the lower class. The way one decides to decorate and love their body does not affect their ability to put together a fuckin’ spreadsheet (duh)! Sometimes, we need to ask ourselves where our biases have come from and why we look down upon certain cultural traditions because usually; it stems from bias and pretty ugly history of hatred.