Skin deep

 
 

As several organisations move to out rightly ban visible tattoos in the workplace, Victoria Sewell looks at the place of body modification in our society

Recently music retailing giants HMV made headlines when it was reported that they were banning “long hair and tattoos” on staff in their stores. While they later clarified that the move was meant to cover “extreme body art or extensive tattoos, to cover these with the uniform”. They were doing this in order to attract a broader range of customer, as the management felt that these “extreme” examples of body art and modification would put some customers off. This move was met with outrage by some, particularly those within the music industry, who felt that HMV should be cultivating an alternative, “rock n’ roll” image, and that this move may in fact out customers off the chain.

This move did not happen in isolation. During the summer, The London Metropolitan Police issued statements to its staff that visible tattoos on the face, hands and neck would no longer be acceptable, and all other tattoos must be covered at all times. Those officers with existing visible tattoos were required to register them, or face disciplinary action. This move was supposedly to avoid members of the public feeling off put or intimidated by so-called “thuggish” tattoos. However, both these incidences raise questions about the connotations, associations and attached to tattoos in modern society.

In the last 20 to 30 years, tattoos and other body modifications (piercings, scarification, sub-dermal implants among others) have become an increasingly popular form of expression, and indeed, fashion statement. A recent survey estimated that one fifth of the British population had at least one tattoo, and the likelihood is that this number is even higher. Tattoos are remarkably prevalent in celebrity culture, with David Beckham, Rhianna and Cheryl Cole being some of the most obvious examples. Indeed, the “Miami Ink” franchise and other related shows have been running for seven years now, and show no signs of stopping any time soon, making stars like Kat Von D household names.

While tattooing was once, in this culture anyway, seen as the preserve of sailors, bikers and outlaws, it has now very much become mainstream business, with tattoo studios moving from basements and back rooms to shopping centres and main streets in every large town in Ireland. Indeed, by their very nature, tattoos are permanent so the number of people with tattoos in any generation can only increase, rather than decrease. At its best, tattoos removal is only an opportunity to dull an existing tattoo in order to cover it up with a new one, as opposed to removing it completely.

Tattoos are nothing new. The oldest known example of tattooing was discovered on a preserved Caveman, nicknamed “Ötzi”, who is thought to be at least 5,300 years old. Examples of tattooing can be found in almost all cultures, both ancient and modern, all across the world. Indeed, tattooing is seen as a necessary part of many cultures, as a rite of passage, and a protection against harm. However, there is conflict over the subject in other cultures as well. While many, particularly in the west, would view Japanese tattooing as a beautiful, ornate and distinctive form of art (Japanese pieces are often designed for the whole body, incorporating aspects of the individual and mythology), in Japan things are slightly different. In Japan, tattoos and tattooing are closely associated with the Yakuza and organised crime, and there are many public baths and gyms that ban entry to individuals with tattoos on their bodies.

The deeper issue here revolves around what is considered socially acceptable, and on cultural standards of beauty. Within Maori culture, for example, tattoos are seen as both attractive and desirable. However, the actions of HMV, and the Metropolitan Police show that, even with the high prevalence of tattoos on display in the street, there is still a stigma attached to them, and an idea that many people may be put off by looking at them.

In contrast, the recently opened Abercrombie and Fitch store in Dublin used half-naked male models to promote their store in the days leading up to the opening. The brand has come under fire in other countries for their hiring policies, which have been described by some as discriminatory; requiring measurements for all staff, banning weight gain, and even removing a shop assistant from the shop floor when they discovered her prosthetic hand, as it did not match their aesthetic ideal, or “look policy”. They have accounted for this by referring to their staff as “models who serve” or similar, as opposed to shop assistants, in order to circumvent discrimination law, and hire staff based on their looks.

Abercrombie clearly have a pre-set notion of what is “attractive” and desirable for their brand, which they refer to as a “classic American look”. However many may not agree with their definition of what is attractive. Likewise, while HMV have felt that some of their customers would find tattoos and piercings off putting to look at, many more of their customers may enjoy the sight, and even prefer to see staff with body art. The Metropolitan Police felt that tattoos may look ‘thuggish’ and intimidate members of the public, however given the high number of British people who have tattoos, it is likely that there would be cases where members of the public may identify better with “decorated” officers, particularly in low-income and inner city areas, where attitudes toward the police force are of particular concern. And while these organisations are entitled to define their own notions of what is acceptable or what “presentable” means, in a general sense it is not for us to judge how others choose to look, as fashion, beauty and all things related are an entirely subjective ideal.

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