Photo (above): Andrew Collier with his wife Dr May and their son.
I was narrating my experience of how I got my upper eyelids tattooed to my workshop participants the other day, when someone asked:
“Why is it okay to have one’s eyebrows and eyeliners tattooed, but when it comes to other parts of our body, it’s still a big no-no?”
Hmm… I’ve never seen it from that angle before.
For something that has been in existence since the beginning of mankind (with the discovery of Otzi, the iceman with tattoos found frozen in a glacier some 5,000 years ago), body art has never quite made its way to becoming socially acceptable.
Unlike ornaments like headgears, used primarily to symbolise status and hierarchy, tattoos, which are also a form of accessory, have been labelled both good and bad depending on the cultures associated with it.
The Maoris in New Zealand, for example, believe that a person’s spiritual power or life force is displayed through tattoos, whereas the Japanese Mafia use tattoos to symbolise which Yakuza syndicate they belong to.
Those who are familiar with Chinese history would also know the words jin zhong bao guo (to serve your country with ultimate loyalty), carved on the back of a Chinese general Yueh Fei, by his own mother.
While I have not come across any patriots inking flags on their bodies, I certainly do see more and more corporate executives sporting tattoos.
Is body art now more acceptable in the workplace? Do they still impact a person socially and professionally, negatively in this time and age?
More than skin deep
Andrew Collier, head of sales in the automotive industry, got himself his first tattoo of a wolf and an additional Iban design at the age of 18, when he visited Sarawak some 10 years ago.
His job as a corporate professional requires him to be professionally dressed with long sleeves at all times. Therefore, the tattoos had never affected him at work.
His wife, Dr May Heong, a brand image consultant, actually finds it amusing for someone with such gentle character to opt for tattoos.
Thankfully, his body art never affected her, as she got to know him as a person first, before seeing them.
Hence, no prior stereotypical judgement was formed.
Heong remarked that perhaps in her husband’s case, with him being a Caucasian, having a tattoo is deemed to be more socially acceptable. People’s perception might not be the same had it been on an Asian.
Given a choice, she would also think twice before hiring someone with tattoos to represent her company, as it may invite negative perceptions.
The girl with the rose tattoo
Photo (above): Louise Phua
Photo (above): Phua’s rose tattoo
Louise Phua, a 23-year-old sales executive, got herself a red rose tattoo on the back of her lower neck, to symbolise her feminine, yet strong character (akin to a rose, always surrounded by thorns).
Phua was first inspired by her uncle, who wore a full body tattoo, and her uncle’s good friend, who happens to be a tattoo artist.
Phua never did need to cover up her tattoo in her previous job as she was given a uniform. As it was not visible, it wasn’t an issue with either her bosses or her subordinates.
Recently, she went for an interview and decided to wear a dress that had her rose exposed. This was also a test on whether people would form any stereotypical judgement about her.
However, as the job she was applying for was in the manufacturing goods industry, the tattoo was not a concern.
When asked whether it impacted her socially, Phua laments that with our modern times and age, she still gets comments and stares.
But she opines that most of the time, people are just curious over the tattoo design and they also wonder why she had it done. Once people hear her explanation, then the interest fades.
Phua also strongly believes that one should not judge a person’s character just because a person has body art. Nonetheless, she cautions those who are in the professional field as body art might work against them.
To ink or not to ink?
So, to the question whether tattoos are acceptable at work, I’d like to sum it all in one sentence: You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Like it or not, body art and body piercing still carry a stigma in this society, especially in the Asian context.
Bear in mind that when you are out seeking employment, it’s no longer about you, but about how you can fulfil your employer’s requirements.
You are the brand ambassador of the organisation you are working for. Companies like banks or financial institutions are not just going to brush away the “dragons” on your arm.
Even as entrepreneurs, where you have no one to report to, clients who look at your body art may conjure up negative images in their minds. People may have an issue when it comes to trusting you.
Thus, if you are someone who loves body art, do consider looking for jobs or venturing into businesses that allow you to have them.
My personal take
If you already have your body pricked and coloured, my suggestion is: Cover it when you can’t flaunt it.
Even if it’s just the name of your partner, or of your favourite football club, I’d suggest you don’t show it during the initial meetings.
You never can tell if your client is an ardent supporter of your competing team. Perception management is a big determining factor in your career or business paths.
To me, there are many ways someone can express him/herself as a unique individual – for example, trying various clothing styles, changing hair colours, and adorning different accessories.
If you really like to see how a tattoo looks on you, try it out with stickers instead.
An impulsive decision in getting any body art may cause you more harm than good. Furthermore, it is said that the process of removing it is more painful (and expensive) than having it done.
So, if you are still itching to get a tattoo, I’d say, please… ponder before you prick and think before you ink!
Wendy Lee is president of Mabic (Malaysian Association of Brand & Image Consultants) and a director of BII (Brand Image International Institute). She is a firm believer that with style… there must be substance! For more articles related to image, go to www.leaderonomics.com