Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Tattoos: What's All The Fuss About?

By Matt Murdock

I have tattoos; several of them in fact. I got my first during my first year of University. I wasn’t drunk and I don’t have an accompanying funny pub story about it either. I designed it, edited it, paid the money and got it done. Simple. Then I got another, and another, and another, and another and then I went and got a really big one to cover one of the originals. Five years down the line I’ve filled my arm. The complication? I teach.

I would guess that even the more liberal amongst you were at least mildly surprised that I was a teacher. Celebrity endorsements and shows such as Miami Ink have unquestionably brought tattoos much more into public consciousness, but I couldn’t quite say that they’re mainstream yet. Yes, your pop idol and favourite sports personality have them, but not your doctor and certainly not your lawyer. But why? What’s all the fuss about tattoos?

Tattoos have been around for almost as long as we have. Mummies have been dug up with tattoos. They can be seen on tomb paints and ancient temple engravings. For as long as we have been aware of our bodies we have altered them and tattoos are a well established part of the tradition. Not that that’s why I get them; I just like them.

The art on my right arm may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s in no way offensive. And yet for some reason, some people genuinely do take umbrage. Meanwhile others can’t understand why I’m annoyed at being expected to have my sleeve permanently rolled down, as if it’s a perfectly natural assumption that I would have to. Why? What is it about tattoos that offends people?

I’m a good teacher. I interact well with my students and they seem to genuinely enjoy the learning that takes place in my lessons. I’m also well respected by most of the faculty, and yet my credibility is somehow challenged by the fact of my tattoos.

Let me paint a picture: you’re in a pub, or party or club whatever. You get chatting to a friend of a friend… that civil slight awkward party chat. You talk about your boring job that you hate, you notice his/her tattoo. You ask him/her if it hurt, they give some half-arsed reply, you ask what they do, they say doctor, you say (audibly or otherwise) really? It happens, it happens to me at every party I ever go to. Sometimes much more openly, people will say “seriously, with those tattoos, you teach? Are you allowed to?”. Sorry what??

I have my own thoughts on the matter. That perhaps tattoos, like other art, divide people and that this is what we love about them. I remember Damien Hurst’s, plastic half shark thing, my un-apt description should tell the reader that I didn't think all that much of it. Others apparently loved it and were willing to fork out immense piles of cash for it. I don't get it, perhaps like many people just don't get tattoos. But here my logic fails, because although DH’s version of art doesn't much appeal to me, it didn't offend me and yet my tattoos apparently do offend people. I really don't get what all the fuss is about.

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  1. From what I can see, tattoos are so ubiquitous these days that I certainly wouldn't be surprised to find that my doctor or my lawyer did have one. Fair enough, it's their personal choice, and i certainly wouldn't question their professional abilities as a result. However, would it be appropriate for them to exhibit their body art when operating in a professional capacity? I would argue, no. The reason you're asked to keep your sleeves rolled down is probably the same reason that I'm not allowed to wear my favourite Motorhead t-shirt to work i.e. it's not offensive, it just doesn't present a very professional image.

  2. Rachel Surtees25 May 2010 at 16:06

    But isn't that exactly the point? Why does a tattoo call into question someone's professionalism? Particularly when other ways of adorning our bodies that hark back to tribalism (such as make up or jewellery) don't?

    The permanency of the tatto effectively makes it "you" so if we hold by it giving an unprofessional impression then we are by default saying that that person themselves, rather than just the tatto, is unprofessional. The motorhead tshirt is a little different, in my opinion, because it's temporary. Wearing something inappropriate in any situation doesn't cast judgement on your character, it just shows bad judgement.

    That all said, I do think that teachers are in a particular position of unusual and specific influence and responsiblity so perhaps there should be some limits? It's a tricky one because where do the limits lie? I think I'd feel quite uncomfortable if my child was being taught by someone whose entire face is covered in tattos - I realise that's extreme. Maybe that discomfort should be my issue rather than the teacher's though? Patently I'm undecided on this one!

  3. I couldn't agree with this blog more. As someone with plenty of tattoos (both arms are covered) I have had no end of having to deal with other people's opinions that affect my freedom on a day to day basis. Tattoo acceptance in the workplace is so long overdue, it's farcical. There is nothing about having tattoos that denotes an unprofessional disposition. It's not the same as wearing a t-shirt to work. It's not clothing, it is skin.

    I have had, in the past, to wear long sleeves in sweltering heat, so as not to "offend" the customers and clients of the places I have worked in. I feel, very, very strongly, that this is an unacceptable imposition on my right to be physically and emotionally comfortable in the workplace.

    It should be illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace, just because they have ink in their skin.

    As for walking around on a day to day basis, I really don't want anymore unwanted opinions from random strangers. How is this deemed acceptable? I wouldn't go around stopping people in the street to tell them they have too many freckles or that the color they have chosen to dye their hair is ugly or offensive, so why should I have to put up with the equivalent?

  4. where do you draw the line? tattoo's on the face? a skinhead with 'H.A.T.E' on his forehead teaching your kids maths?

    there's a man down at the Arsenal with 'Arsenal' tattoed across his face and a big spider's web. a 40 something year old man.

    what about that cat woman, or the lizard man? what if they walked in and presented themselves as your lawyer. or what if a Hells Angel with tats on his face and a ring through his nose introduced himself "hi, i'll be performing your open heart surgery today."

    not sure what my point is and i'm probably sounding quite old fashioned but i think they should be somewhere they can be covered up. especially as a teacher. can you imagine how distracting it would be for a class - especially as the tatoos in question are bloody good ones. if i was a kid and my teacher kept pointing to the board with amazing tats down his arm i certainly wouldn't be concentrating on the lesson.

    some tattoos are nice, some aren't but, no matter what people say, there will definitely come a time in every tattoed person's life when they look at their arm, arse, ankle, forehead whatever and just go...."why??"

  5. No Rachel, I am not saying that "we are by default saying that that person themselves, rather than just the tatto, is unprofessional". I am simply saying that displaying the tattoo in a work environment is unprofessional.

    You talk of tribalism, but I'd wager that the decision of the blogger to have multiple tattoos has nothing to do with tribalism of any kind. Ultimately, this is a fashion statement. As such, the analogy between the tattoos and my Motorhead t-shirt is entirely valid.

  6. Rachel Surtees26 May 2010 at 18:19

    I think you missed my point Anonymous, it was quite simply, why are tattoos seen as unprofessional? Professionalism is a social construct and I think this ponder questions the building blocks of that construct, rather than just accepting the end result.

    As for the tribalism bit I don't think we need to wager anything as Matt himself says in the post that he just gets tattoos because he likes them! That doesn't change the point though. Some forms of tribalism have been adopted into the remit of acceptable - even desirable - mainstream society, Whilst others have been held up as the symbol of something more rebellious, unprofessional - it's curious.

  7. I don't really like the idea of responding to my own ponder, especially as I am clearly biased on the issue...but I just thought I'd address a point Josh raised about children being distracted.

    In all honesty it is not a big a problem as you'd think, or perhaps more accurately tattoos are no bigger a distraction then anything else my students focus on. If a student wants to get distracted they will, they might focus on my accent, my skinny tie, i had a student yesterday point out how polished my boots were!

    Students have in the past asked questions about my tattoos but saying "yes i do have them, I'm not going to talk about them though because they are personal to me" is 99% of the time met with "ok sir, fair enough" or some variation of that.

    keep commenting I am enjoying the debate...I have actually used it in a lesson!!

  8. unfortuanalty, i agree that having tattos doesnt affect any proffeshional ability ect.. i have two now and am desperate for another and im aiming to be a proffeshional psychologist! However, the blunt and unfair bottom line is that if an 'average middle class couple' are looking for a finacial adviser, natuarally they would pick the clean shaven, no earringed, no tatto's person as appose to someone with tattos that are visable - even if they are better!!! it does seem stupid but i think you would all agree that even if you had tattos - you would pick the financial adviser without - because we are all human.. and that is just the way it is.. doesnt seem very fair and i am pashinate about them - im even going to do a qualification based around them!
    The bottom line is weather you agree or not... there will always be a prejudice surrounding the topic of tattos..