For many students at the University of Cincinnati (UC), tattoos can be a personal way to showcase their interests, passions and significant memories. The decision to receive this type of permanent body alteration can often be seen as controversial.
Many parents and mentors for young adults have advised them against getting the ink, as it will often be labeled as “unprofessional.” Yet, more and more students are gladly going under the needle to receive this permanent form of art.
For many students, tattoos shouldn’t be seen as a determining factor of their capabilities and workplace attitude, yet there is often the looming idea that tattoos signify a lack of professionalism.
For third-year biomedical engineering student Mckinley Addington, getting her tattoos was a special occurrence. She currently has 11 tattoos across her body, which include everything from Roman numerals to a frog to vines wrapping around her arm. For Addington, tattoos were a way to uniquely express her values. Not every tattoo she has is “meaningful,” but each one holds special value to her.
Addington has expressed fear of being judged based on her appearance because of her tattoos. “I'm always scared to be seen as ‘less than’ because of my tattoos; less intelligent than my peers, less capable of performing in a co-op position,” Addington said. “I always wear long sleeves and cover my tattoos if I have an interview.”
Addington’s parents were the first one to bring up concern over how her tattoos would affect her professional life. Her mother worried about Addington getting jobs, and her father discouraged her from getting more. But Addington stuck by what she wished to do with her body nonetheless.
“It hurt a little bit, but my brother also has tattoos and I think my parents eventually understood that it is my body,” Addington said. “I'll never mark it with anything vulgar or offensive, so just let me make my decisions; I can adorn my body as I please.”
For fourth-year nursing student Brianna Reedus, tattoos have been a regulated part of her dress code for clinicals for nursing: no facial piercings, no nail polish or fake/long nails, hair must be a “natural color,” you can only have one set of small stud earrings, and no tattoos.
To Reedus, tattoos do not equate to whether or not a student holds the qualifications for a role. Reedus also noted that for many nursing programs and clinicals outside of UC, tattoos are not deemed a pressing issue in dress code. In fact, there are many doctors and nurses with visible tattoos.
Reedus yearned for a tattoo based on an infatuation with seeing other nurses, and even some of her professors, with tattoos. Addington had a similar experience, admiring professionals in her field that were also heavily tattooed.
Addington has seen project leaders with full sleeves and has been interviewed more and more by people with visible ink. This visible shift in how tattoos are perceived in a work environment is comforting to Addington when she thinks about her future.
“It definitely makes me feel more confident in my body and showing my full personality by showing my tattoos to others,” Addington said.
Shifting points of view in the way tattoos are received in the workplace is easy to see among the students of UC. Most students either have a tattoo or know someone who does. Reedus notes that the destigmatization of tattoos can also be rooted in ideas of decolonization of what people view tattoos as. She points out the cultural significance tattoos have for the Māori people in New Zealand and the Kākau of the Hawaiian Island.
“I genuinely believe that the association of tattoos with unprofessionalism is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy; tattoos and many other forms of body modification are prevalent through history and across cultures,” Reedus said. “However, these things were and are viewed as weird and savage by people who do not belong to those cultures.”
When Reedus chose her tattoo, she spent a great deal of time crafting a piece with significance to her. She has one of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh and an angel behind a ribbon of sheet music with a Bible verse that correlates. Her choice for these tattoos carried personal value to her. Having these images on her body is a source of comfort and memory.
As for Addington, she plans to continue adding art to her body as she pleases. Knowing that she can separate her own value as a professional from her tattoos and art is a source of confidence for Addington.
Reedus believes that there will soon be a majority switch in how tattoos are viewed in a professional manner.
“I do believe that the general attitude towards tattoos is shifting, but it will take time before everyone else catches up with the millennial and gen-z viewpoints,” Reedus said. “I don’t think that having a tattoo makes you any less qualified than someone who chose not to get one; it’s very short-sighted to let the presence of tattoos be a defining factor in your analysis of a person.”