The odds are that if a military service member or veteran lifts their sleeve, they will reveal an impressive number of tattoos. For many veterans, their tattoos represent time in service, the sacrifices they made, and honor those who have fallen in the line of duty. In some cases, tattoos cover physical battle scars. As written in VFW Magazine, “Though for the modern veteran, tattoos from during and after their military service tell a story and can be used as a form of therapy or recognition.”
In previous generations, tattoos were signs of defiance and rebellion. Non-tattoo wearers might have seen the tattoo wearer as somehow “dangerous.” In recent times, however, even the military branches have lessened the strict regulations of tattoos for service members: Army Regulation 670-1 has been updated frequently in the past few years—most recently no longer limiting “the size or number of tattoos soldiers can have on their arms and legs.” (Army Times, April 10, 2015.) Air Force regulations (AFI 36-2903) allow tattoos if they are not excessive (defined as visible in uniform on more than 25% of the exposed body part). As of April 2016, the Navy’s current regulations allowed sailors to sport one neck tattoo and full sleeves (tattoos covering the entirety of a person’s arm).
Similarly, the negative perceptions of tattoos have also eased with civilian employers as many of them have begun to accept and embrace tattoos in the workplace.
Tattoos in the civilian workplace
In the U.S., it is estimated that 45 million people have at least one tattoo, with women being slightly more likely to be tattooed than men. Today, many employers have recognized that to attract and recruit the best talent, they have had to lessen their policies around the visibility of body art. In some company cultures, and in more traditional industries (e.g. law, finance, healthcare,) the rules around covering up tattoos remain in place. In deference to the sensitivities of their customers and clients, these companies may request their employees cover body art and tattoos.
Several national and international U.S. companies are promoted for their lax policies around tattoos, including:
- Whole Foods
- Best Buy
- Amazon (.com)
- Home Depot
If You Have Tattoos
In transitioning out of uniform, if you have (or intend to get) visible tattoos (for instance on your neck or arms), consider these tips:
- Familiarize yourself with the norms and acceptances of the company and industry you are pursuing. If you will wear a business suit to work, and the jacket and sleeves will cover your tattoos, then you don’t need to worry about them being visible. Similarly, if your job would require you to socialize (i.e. playing golf) with clients, and the tattoos would be visible, consider how you might work around this challenge. Or, ponder whether this is the company you want to pursue.
- Talk to other people who work in the company. While company policy might accept piercings and tattoos, ask if they are frowned upon when employees are considered for a promotion or advanced opportunities in the company. The people who work there, who might have real-world experience with the rules, can give you practical insights.
- Even if your body art is meaningful and personal to you, if someone else could find it offensive or disturbing, cover it up. For the interview, be sure it is completely covered, and on the job, continue to hide it from view if it could devalue your contribution or offend those viewing it.
Your body is your body. You are empowered to paint, pierce or change your appearance however you choose. Just remember that your employer can also make choices based on the presence and impression they seek to promote to their clients. If your tattoos limit your credibility or value in the mind of your employer, this could limit your career potential.