Chris Stevens has a secret.
By day, the Boone County National Bank relationship manager hides it well, blending into the bank’s executive culture and maintaining a well-groomed appearance.
But as soon as he goes for a swim at the local pool, the surprising truth comes out: This businessman is the proud owner of a new tattoo.
A shoulder branded with a 3-inch fleur de lis isn’t what you’d expect to see when a Columbia banker dresses down to swim trunks. Co-workers who spot him at the pool won’t say anything, he says, but others respond with amusement and curiosity.
“They give me trouble once in a while,” Stevens says, laughing.
Body markings are discouraged by the Bible and the Quran, but tattooing and piercing have long flourished in the American subculture, practiced by circus performers, sailors and punk rock musicians.
Times are changing, though, and tattooing and piercing are on the rise in every social group, according to a 2006 study conducted by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. The study reports that 24 percent of Americans now have tattoos. Of those, 89 percent of men and 48 percent of women have at least one exposed tattoo.
A 2001 Vault.com survey found that 58 percent of managers are less likely to hire someone with a tattoo, while a 2003 Harris poll found that 31% of Americans who don’t have tattoos see those who do as less intelligent. But love it or hate it, body art is getting hard to ignore.
Professional culture has traditionally emphasized a groomed, clean-cut appearance, but this value often finds itself at odds with the creativity and self-expression that fans of body modification hold in such high regard.
Shifting norms inevitably raise complex questions, and body art’s increasing prominence in mainstream culture is forcing local employers to rethink dress codes.
“Every company has a different policy,” says Dale Harris, manager of Job Finders Employment Services, but in general, the more structured the environment, the less likely a business is to allow tattoos or piercings.
“If you’re making pizzas or working at the sub shop, tattoos are fine,” Harris says.
Inked youth with higher career aspirations may run into trouble when they decide to enter the corporate world.
Harris recalls an especially bright twenty-something man he met several years ago. The man’s forearms were covered in tattoos and, in spite of his high level of education, he had difficulty finding a decent job.
“He couldn’t get ahead, even with a master’s,” Harris says.
In general, larger businesses employ stricter policies, and many big companies such as Starbucks and Blockbuster prohibit visible body art. Boone County Bank, on the other hand, maintains a formal dress code but tolerates small tattoos, although they ask employees to keep them covered at work.
Small businesses tend to be even more informal.
“Body art is fine as long as doesn’t interfere with customer service,” says Laurie Acison, manager of the Columbia Great Clips on Forum Boulevard. The salon is a franchise of Great Clips Inc., but the corporate office doesn’t set official body art policies, allowing Acison to take a relaxed approach.
“We prefer for it to be covered,” Acison says. But she won’t send an employee home for showing up to work with small tattoos or piercings.
The previous manager required her to cover up a large tattoo on her back, and though Acison sees Columbia as a body-art-friendly city, she, too, prefers that employees conceal body art that is large or potentially offensive to clients.
Justin Stuart also avoided setting an explicit policy on body art at his plumbing business, J & J Companies. “All I ask is that they be clean-cut and give a good appearance,” Stuart says about his staff. For their part, his employees have been respectful about covering up tattoos and removing piercings when dealing with more conservative customers.
To Stuart, dress policies are akin to discrimination. “I know it happens. ... I don’t want to be a part of that,” he says.