Tattoos as a branding statement: Art or desecration?

Getting ‘inked’ today can have adverse professional repercussions in both the near and short terms, especially when you’re working in foreign cultures.

Here’s a startling statistic: 40 percent of millennials (those born after 1980) have tattoos, according to research done by Pew Research Center in 2010. That’s twice the number with tattoos in the general population.

Tattoos are trendy. Harris Interactive surveyed adults in 2012 and found that 20 percent of American adults have tattoos, up from 16 percent in 2008 and 14 percent in 2003. Although Pew found that 70 percent of tattooed millennials cover their tattoos with clothing, that means that 30 percent do not, or, multiplying by the overall percent of millennials with tattoos, 12 percent of millennials have had themselves tattooed in places not usually covered by clothing.

As a member of the Baby Boom generation, I find it hard to fathom why tattoos are so popular. Tattoos were definitely a taboo when I was growing up. They conveyed attributes that most middle-class people perceived negatively: A tattooed person might be seen as deviant, freakish, impulsive, lower class, unprofessional, immature, or less intelligent, and as a heavy drinker, rebel, biker, or gang member. As far as women with tattoos, you only saw a “tattooed lady” in circus sideshows.

Tattoos among younger Americans are meant to be a kind of branding statement. They are seen by some people as “body art,” a way to demonstrate individuality and express something about a person’s identity. However, a lot of those who get tattoos these days are trend followers, not trendsetters. Tattoos no longer say much about individualism, given that so many people have them.

Tattoos have definitely become more mainstream in America, and perceptions of tattoos aren’t as negative in general as they once were, mainly because so many people have inked themselves. That said, there is still social stigma associated with tattoos.

The wrong kind of attention

Tattoos aren’t acceptable in white-collar workplaces, just as suggestive clothing is not acceptable. Tattoos shout, “Look at me!” For anyone who wants to be well regarded professionally, they’re counterproductive.

Tattoos don’t attract the kind of attention that helps build positive personal branding. There’s a reason most people conform to societal standards for appearance and dress in the workplace: Not doing so is a distraction that’s seen by most bosses as a negative branding statement.

Tattoos are a form of expression that has existed for thousands of years. They have held different meanings for people in different cultures, ranging from spiritualism to self-expression, aesthetic body enhancement, conformity with cultural norms, rebellion against cultural norms, and membership in groups.

Among Maoris in New Zealand, tattoos are an expected part of tribal culture. In military service in the U.S., they’ve been popular for many years.

However, there are extremely negative perceptions associated with them in some cultures. In Japan, they’re a sign of membership in the Yakuza, a feared, dangerous Mafia-like group of criminals. Because only the Yakuza in Japan cover themselves with tattoos, people with tattoos who visit the country find themselves being stared at in a very negative way. Tattooed people aren’t allowed into public baths, swimming pools, saunas, etc., because they violate policies set by the management of such establishments meant to keep the Yakuza away.

In Muslim countries, tattoos are rare because they’re prohibited under Islam.

As millennials consider this form of branding statement, they should think about the long-term consequences:

  • Even if negative societal perceptions of tattoos aren’t a deterrent, the appearance of a tattoo years later should be. The look of a tattoo changes with age, as skin begins to sag and wrinkle, and also with weight gain or loss. (Those under the age of 30 can’t imagine ever aging, I know.)
  • Tattoo removal doesn’t always work. I’ve read that certain colors, such as yellow, are practically impossible to remove. The process of removing a tattoo takes multiple visits to a doctor and, although it may take just a few weeks, it can also take many months. It can be very expensive, and there are no guarantees it will work.
  • Like it or not, tattoos are not widely accepted in the business and professional world. This isn’t likely to change soon.
  • This form of body decoration may be fashionable and trendy now, but trends change. Ten years from now when they may very well be unstylish, getting rid of them isn’t like buying the latest style of clothing or jewelry or trying a new hair style.
  • The world is getting smaller and smaller as more people travel, both for business and leisure. A 20-year-old with a tattoo may not be affected now by international perceptions of “getting inked,” but later on tattoos could be a big impediment to making a good business impression and forming positive relationships when traveling overseas.
  • With regard to cultural differences, the meaning and significance of tattoo symbols is different from one culture to another. The tattoo that means something beautiful to the wearer may mean something very negative in another part of the world. For some reason, Japanese and Chinese symbols are popular in the U.S. but in Asia they’re often either meaningless or convey something totally unintended. See some examples of this “lost in translation” effect here.
  • People change over time. It’s not unusual for people who feel a tattoo is a great way of self-expression when they get one to feel they made a big mistake in 10 or 15 years.
  • There are health risks in getting tattooed. A tattoo machine punctures the skin with needles many times per minute. A machine that hasn’t been properly cleaned can transmit serious diseases such as hepatitis. The punctures can also become infected. Some people have allergic reactions to the pigment used in tattoos; this can happen right away or years later. (People can suddenly develop allergies as they get older).

A version of this article first appeared on the BridgeBuzz Blog.

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