- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

A tattoo taboo may be in the making, along with piercing prejudice. Beware “body art,” say occupational researchers — such skin adornments invite discrimination.

This could be vexing news for 42 million tattooed Americans — a population that includes one-fourth of those ages 18 to 50. And 14 percent in this age group also have body piercings, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

“Body art can lead to stereotyping, stigmatization and prejudices in the workplace,” said Brian Miller, a professor of management at Texas State University who has just completed a study examining the downside of this form of personal expression.

“Our analysis suggests that body art wearers have not yet overcome employment prejudices,” Mr. Miller said. “People tend to prejudge people with body art because it has created a stigma that is historically based. Tattoos were — to be really stereotypical — worn by motorcycle-riding outcasts.”

That does not ring true with “Sailor Bill” Johnson, an Orlando tattoo artist and body piercer who is secretary of the National Tattoo Society and vice president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists. Both groups are based in Florida and have a combined a worldwide membership of close to 4,000 artists and aficionados between them.

“Obviously, these guys haven’t been out in the world lately. Maybe 30 years ago there was some discrimination,” Mr. Johnson said. “Tattoos are pretty normal now. Lots of white-collar workers have tattoos and piercings, and dealing with them is usually a simple issue. Places like Disney ask their decorated employees to cover up if they’re dealing with the public.”

He is particularly fond of the pirate girls that decorate his forearms, noting they reflect his family’s seagoing heritage.

“Hey, my own doctor has four tattoos,” Mr. Johnson added. “It all matters how you present yourself and approach people.”

Mr. Miller’s study has opposite findings, though. He surveyed 150 people — some pierced or tattooed, some not — to share their opinions about the practice. The vast majority were put off by body art.

“People would rather not work with someone who has visible body art in situations requiring face-to-face contact with customers, even if qualified for the job. Also, people do not want to share sales commission with body art wearers, concerned they will negatively impact their own job performance,” the study said.

The complete findings will be presented before the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in April.

Mr. Miller said those who worked, say, in a skateboarding shop or the music business, could benefit from outrageous tattoos or piercings. But he agrees that the ultimate workplace solution is simple.

“Conceal body art. It’s a wise thing,” he said.

The medical community is not so forgiving, however.

Research at Ohio State University found that body piercing significantly increases the chances of gum disease and endocarditis, a serious heart infection. Tattoo inks, meanwhile, are under investigation by the National Center for Toxicological Research. Shoddy tattoo practices and body piercing have been blamed for spreading HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis and drug-resistant staph infections, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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