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Corporate ink: Perception of tattoos in the workplace is changing

Zach McLeaf is a web engineer with Andculture, a technology-focused design firm in Harrisburg. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

In high school, Zach McCleaf got the first tattoo in what would eventually become a seascape engulfing his right arm: an orange koi fish. As he added more tattoos over the years — an octopus, a treasure chest, swirling water — McCleaf wasn’t overly concerned about their effect on his job prospects.

After all, he could cover them up if he had to. And that’s exactly what he did when he worked for an insurance claims processing company before starting as a software developer at Andculture in Harrisburg two years ago.

“I never really got hassled for it, but I did feel like … some people get a little judgy,” he said.

At Andculture, though, McCleaf, 29, feels free to bare his colorful arm art. To him, that freedom to express his individuality via his tattoos is indicative of the general culture at Andculture, a technology-focused design firm.

Evidence of a shift in attitudes — albeit, a gradual one — toward visible tattoos in the workplace can be seen across the board. Hiring professionals, business owners and tattoo artists alike have observed a delicate uptick in the prevalence of tattoos, both in society as a whole and in the professional workplace, even in a relatively conservative place like Central Pennsylvania.

According to a 2012 Harris poll, one in five adults in the U.S. has at least one tattoo, up from 14 percent in the previous poll in 2008. While opinions on tattoos from hiring managers vary, a 2015 study in the International Journal of Innovative Research & Development found that 86 percent of professionals between the ages 21 and 35 did not think visible tattoos or piercings hurt job prospects. 

Workplace culture shift

Amy Spangler

Andculture and other companies, particularly startups, give workers a lot of flexibility in both how they work and what they wear to work — tattoos, piercings and all. What matters most is their contributions to the company’s overall goals.

That’s how Matt Ranauro runs his startup, Lancaster-based benefit management platform BeneFix, which is about one and half years old. Ranauro is heavily tattooed, most recently having memorialized of the most famous plays from the Philadelphia Eagles’ victory in Super Bowl LII. The tattoo, below his right elbow, traces the play in which quarterback Nick Foles caught a touchdown pass.

In his interactions with clients, Ranauro aims to defy stereotypes about people with tattoos.

“I go out of my way to be very personable and have conversations, and it’s more than just the stuff that’s on my arms,” Ranauro said.

Misconceptions disappear

For Ranauro and McCleaf, tattoos offer glimpses into their personalities and worldviews, and they say embracing that in the workplace enhances a company’s culture.

From the employee recruitment perspective, Masai Lawson, talent acquisition manager at Gannett Fleming in East Pennsboro Township, agrees that tattoos are becoming more acceptable in the workplace.

Gannett Fleming, which has about 60 offices in the U.S. and three internationally, doesn’t have an explicit tattoo policy, Lawson said, though the company’s dress code is business attire.

“Our culture is one where we really encourage people to bring their authentic selves to work … I do not think that [tattoos] would be an issue for many who are in a decision-making role in terms of who would be hired,” Lawson said.

She also manages diversity and inclusion efforts for Gannett Fleming. Part of Lawson’s job involves working with longer-established career professionals who may have more traditional views about workplace decorum. That includes reinforcing a focus on a person’s skills, rather than their appearance, and making sure people understand that young professionals expect to work for companies that value their authentic selves.

“I think the more opportunities these more-experienced managers have to engage with early-career professionals is the best education we could offer,” Lawson said. “Often those misconceptions disappear because you’re connecting with someone on a human level and you’re not so much paying attention to what they look like.”

The shift in thinking hasn’t quite bled into every corner of the professional world, however, so employees should be cognizant when interviewing for a job or meeting with clients. Ranauro and McCleaf work with clients on a regular basis and acknowledge that some have different expectations for workplace appearance.

Subcultural signifiers go mainstream

The general public’s view of tattoos, influenced by greater exposure and accessibility to them, is also changing, said Landon Lewis, co-owner of Black Thorn Gallery, a Hampden Township tattoo shop.

Around the world, “people have been putting marks on their bodies for as long as they could,” Lewis said. When electric tattooing was invented in the late 1800s and tattooing spread to the Western Hemisphere, it eventually became associated with various subcultures, like bikers and punks.

Lewis, who’s been tattooing for 14 years, has noticed a definite increase in the past 10 or 12 years in clients getting tattooed in places they can’t hide, like fingers. He credits social media, in part, for exposing people to more tattoo styles. Tattoo artists with large social media followings and images on lifestyle sites like Pinterest fuel the fire of rapidly changing tattoo trends, Lewis said.

But trends come and go. While Lewis is confident tattoos will remain symbols of independence for freshly minted 18-year-olds for years to come, he sees the widespread popularity of tattoos calming down eventually.

“I think kids are seeing teachers with tattoos, police with tattoos, and it’s becoming an establishment figure, and everybody always wants to rebel,” Lewis said. “You talk to some kids now and they say, ‘Oh, tattoos are dumb!’”

Becca Oken-Tatum
Becca Oken-Tatum is the web editor for the Central Penn Business Journal. She also coordinates and writes for CPBJ's monthly Young Professionals e-newsletter. Email her questions, comments and tips at [email protected].

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