Monday, September 15, 2008

The Tattoo and modern racism

A few years ago I made the decision to cover one of my arms with a tattoo. I had already had a tattoo on my upper arm but having the bottom half done was a big step. Mainly, the job I held at the time would not allow visible tattoos. I knew there were other consequences but they did not seem all that important at the time.

My tattooist (Harry Ake of Headlight Tattoo in Deptford, NJ), of course was delighted to complete my arm but he also questioned my motives and resolve. I solidified my decision and went forth. My arm was finally finished.

Getting past the code of conduct issue of visible tattoos at work was easy. I was already wearing long sleeved shirts and suit jackets everyday. The one thing I did not consider was the reaction of my clients. Now, I am relatively sure that the majority of Americans have no problem with tattooed people, but most of those people are only accustomed seeing one or two tattoos on someone. However, when faced with someone covered completely in tattoos, that same majority looks a little differently at said tattooed person. Just by reaching out my arm to shake someone's hand, I go from respectable business associate to a punk kid in a suit. Mind you, I'm wearing long sleeve shirts so the only visible ink is on my wrist when my sleeve is extended. Often times the conversation would suddenly change into "what is that?". my usual answer was "nothing...just a little tattoo." and try to veer the conversation into its previous subject. No matter how hard I tried to steer some clients away, they still would refer to me as "that guy with tattoos", which on more than one occasion ruined a potential deal.

On my days off I still saw the same prejudices toward tattooed people. Once heavily tattooed you begin to notice people whispering to each other, trying not to point. You see mothers pulling their children closer to them. Some people will interrupt whatever you're doing to ask things like "did that hurt?" as if all of a sudden my time isn't as important as their curiosity. No one ever stops me on the street to ask how I liked Drexel or Rowan Universities, or how making over 6 figures a year affects my taxes and election year voting.

Now believe me, there is not one ounce of regret in me for what I've done. In fact, there are times when I enjoy the attention, or rather the isolation. It just bothers me that after all these hundreds or thousands of years, the common herd mentality attaches a negative connotation to tattoo work.

Today, in my blue collar job, its not much different compared to my previous white collar positions. I can wear short sleeve shirts and jeans now, but I'll put on long sleeves as long as the weather is comfortable. I still hear murmurs from co-workers about "that weirdo with the tattoos." I got the feeling from my boss early on that he didn't trust my judgement for some reason so I had to work a little harder than some to gain level of responsibility I wanted. Though there are no rules against visible tattoos, you can still see the hesitation in peoples actions and responses as they quickly pretend they weren't staring at your tattoo. This tells me that the colors of my body colors their opinion of me.

Its almost as if tattooed people are victims of a modern day form of racism. No one (especially in the company of) will admit their distaste for black or latino people, but they'll be quick to mention that tattoos are dirty or unprofessional. They never stop to realize that tattoos do not exist off of a persons body, therefore making the tattooed person dirty or unprofessional, Its ok to point and stare at the lone tattooed guy or girl at the supermarket but not at someone of a particular race. Maybe its a strange double standard. Maybe most people don't realize what they're doing. Maybe they do and they just don't care. Maybe this happens because a whole world of tattooed people never stood up and cried foul like so many people of color. I assume that this is because we don't care enough. I'd also guess that being tattooed gives you a different perspective on the color of someone's skin and their qualities as a human being. Who knows?

Maybe it would be worth it to rile up the tattooed population to fight for equal rights and combat this discrimination. Maybe not. While I think on this, I'm going to go get my other arm tattooed.

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