Last year Justin Miloro had to wear long sleeves to conceal the Buddha curling around his left forearm and the yellow-orange sun rays on his right. Pants covered the depiction of Earth on one leg and wings on the other. The sun spreading across his back was under wraps. The plugs in his earlobes were obscured by bandages.
“I thought it was really silly,” Miloro recalled, “worse than seeing the tattoos.”
This year he has nothing to hide â€” even though the 32-year-old worked last year for Whole Foods Market Inc. in Boston, where he was a salesclerk, and now works as a manager for the same company in Los Angeles, overseeing health and beauty products departments at 25 stores.
The chain has looser dress and grooming standards in some parts of the country than others. Setting degrees of tattoo taboos is how Whole Foods handles the increasing attraction to â€” though definitely not universal acceptance of â€” body art.
Once associated with drunken sailors, felons and Hells Angels, tattoos have gone nearly mainstream, putting employers in a bind. How to write rules that won’t alienate un-hip customers on the one hand or eliminate talented workers on the other?
Different standards have emerged. A pink rose discreetly inked on an ankle might pass muster at a hospital but not a day-care center; an eyebrow stud will be viewed as charming at one store and a blemish at another.
In many cases, grooming policies are being set by members of a generation known for letting it all hang out.
“The baby boomers had hair out to the ceiling, cut jeans, ripped clothes that they washed sometimes,” said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey recruiting and consulting firm.
And now boomers are passing judgment on nose rings.
The irony isn’t lost on Fred Saunders, president and founder of FSPS Inc., which stages concerts and productions for companies including Nintendo Co. and Walt Disney Co. Some of them demand clean-cut crews: trimmed sideburns, long hair pulled into ponytails, no detectable tattoos.
Of course, Saunders, 57, doesn’t often take his shirt off during contract negotiations: On his back is a tattoo tableau featuring a samurai warrior skirmishing with a dragon.
“There’s a shock value to the art,” he acknowledged, and some people get a “negative vibe.”
Nearly 50% of Americans between 21 and 32 have at least one tattoo or a piercing other than in an ear, according to a 2006 study by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Men and women alike say their tattoos make them feel sexy and rebellious, a 2003 Harris Poll found, while the unadorned of both genders see body art as unsightly and think those with tattoos and piercings are less intelligent and less attractive.
I am not a big fan of tattoos or alternative body modification. I understand why some people might want to engage in some of this behavior. I once found myself in a tattoo chair but at the last minute pulled out. I opted out for two reasons, one religious and the other was a concern about how I might feel in 20 years. Would I still think that it was cool.
I know that as a business owner I would prefer to have non-modified employees interacting with the public, but that is based upon practical reasons. I’d rather err on the side of safety. Then again if I had a different sort of business I might feel otherwise.
In regard to my children, I’d prefer that they not get a tattoo, let alone any sort of outrageous body modification. Again that is based upon experience. You just don’t know what the future holds and I’d prefer that they have more options than fewer.