Generation Y means anyone between the ages of 18 and 25 and, according to Pew Research Institute, 36 percent of them in the United States have at least one tattoo. The tattoo rate among Generation Y-ers is higher than the national average of 15 percent, which means there has been an increase in the popularity of tattoos compared to older generations. Those same forms of body art — tattoos and piercings, that some still see as rebellious or even gross, are less surprising than ever before.
MSU is one of many campuses nationwide that has seen body art integrate into campus culture. Prof. Danielle DeVoss, director of MSU’s professional writing program, recounted stories of being shocked when she first began seeing Piercing Pagodas popping up at East Lansing malls. But while tattoos and piercings are becoming more culturally accepted, they aren’t always as popular with prospective employers.
Students who are just another MSU student now, will enter into the real world eventually, begin the process of trying to find a job, and put their tattoos and piercings under the scrutiny of potential employers. After leaving the fairly liberal atmosphere of a college campus, they will have to look for jobs in a possibly more conservative one. But people like Gabriel Davis from the Career Service Center aren’t so concerned. Davis says the way tattoos and piercings are viewed is changing.
Kelley Bishop, Executive Director of the Career Services Network at MSU, said that it’s up to job seekers with visible tattoos and piercings to ask themselves, “Do [I] want to be confrontational [by presenting my tattoo or piercing upfront] and embrace my uniqueness?” Bishop also said that employers assess someone who boldly displays their tattoo or piercing versus concealing it, saying the employer would question the person’s judgment. He said creating change in the workplace may require cooperating at first. “I would really hate for someone to leap too far ahead of companies’ abilities to progress and change,” Bishop said. “The two places that will be slower to change will be positions where the individual is out with customers or clients…the second is in a strongly established [conservative] corporate culture. I think students have to make a personal choice about things,” Bishop said.
To some extent, a person’s choice about whether or not to hide body art or get it in the first place has to do with its meaning. Sometimes getting body art is just done as part of a fad or done for aesthetic reasons, but other times they are carefully thought out and have significant meanings. Despite piercings and tattoos becoming trendy (just think “tramp stamps” and tribal tattoos), DeVoss said she didn’t think their popularity took away from the meaning of hers. “I don’t feel that less meaningful tattoos diminish the meanings of mine,” she said. She has tattoos of symbols for the word “and” to represent her multifaceted talents: teacher and designer.
One of the more popular tattoo shops in East Lansing is Splash of Color on Grand River Avenue. Andy Knagg, who has worked at Splash of Color for three years, said, “It’s something you love and then it’s the cool thing, it sucks a little bit, [but] after the first [tattoo] people start to get weeded out.” Knagg has both arms sleeved, and about eight different piercings. He thought a lot about all them, even waiting two years from the time he began thinking about getting his first tattoo to the time he actually had it done when he was 20.
Knagg said that the tattoos on his arms are fairly easy to cover with a long-sleeved shirt and that he could remove his piercings. However, Knagg hasn’t had to worry much about his job being in jeopardy because of his body art. He did say retainers, which are clear plastic studs or rings, can help hide piercings and that MAC Makeup offers a great line to conceal tattoos if someone needed to cover them up. Knagg’s friend had to cover her tattoos across her chest for a wedding and the MAC product worked well for her.
Carly Ross got her eyebrow pierced at Splash of Color. Ross, a pre-med freshman, also has a navel piercing and ear piercings. She also has a cluster of stars tattooed on her foot. She was inspired to get the piercings and tattoo for aesthetic reasons. She said part of her mother’s concern about the eyebrow piercing (that she decided to get herself, while her mother had taken her to get the tattoo and navel piercing on previous birthdays) was that it was highly visible and didn’t look professional. Ross, on the other hand, said she didn’t see the tattoo or piercings as issues. “The eyebrow [piercing], I’ll just take out [for career purposes], and the tattoo isn’t too visible,” she said.
After moving to MSU from her home in Holt, kinesiology freshman Miyah Williams got a tattoo of a monarch butterfly on her shoulder. She said the tattoo symbolizes her coming out of a cocoon and transforming. Williams wanted the tattoo from the time that she turned 16. “I’m glad I got it… because it’s a symbol of independence and it show that I’m one step closer to leading my own life.” she said. Her career plans are to work with children, so she said she wouldn’t get a tattoo in a visible place because, “people would be a little creeped-out.”
Discrimination against people with body art in the U.S. may not be a pressing issue, but what happens when an American with body art leaves the country to visit less diverse areas of the world? Would they be viewed under a different set of paradigms? In the U.S. attitudes may be changing, but in other parts of the world, there are still negative connotations associated with tattoos and piercings. Davis said location has a lot to do with how tattoos and piercings are perceived.
Sneha Grandhi, a molecular genetics freshman, lived in India until she was 12 and said , “[When I see people with tattoos and piercings] I think, ‘Oh, they must be kinda tough… badasses with piercings and they’re out there tagging [stuff].’” Grandhi said in India, nose and cartilage piercings are acceptable in villages and seen as traditional, but piercings in the Western manner are viewed as “rebellious.” She said tattoos aren’t accepted at all in India.
Grandhi also said that it was important to her mother that she didn’t lose her cultural identity. “[My mother] said, ‘I want you to look traditional, I don’t want Western culture to be presented when people see you,’” Grandhi said. Grandhi looks at the diversity in the U.S. as a “beautiful thing” that helps promote more acceptance. “I don’t think it’s fair to stereotype though, but there’s just things some people can’t accept… everyone judges on appearances… I’m sure you could compensate though with your skill if you had to deal with an employer,” Grandhi said.
Miguel Villavicencio, a marketing freshman and international student from El Salvador, used to have a tattoo on his wrist. “My mom didn’t talk to me for two months while I had it…I had to get it removed. In El Salvador we have a lot of gangs associated with tattoos, having them would definitely prevent you from getting a job. The police can even stop you and throw you into jail for it,” Villavicencio said. Miguel said that he didn’t have a problem with them personally a
nd sees them as artistic expression.
It seems that it’s really up to the individual with body art to present or hide their tattoos and piercings. They might question whether society as a whole has some responsibility to be more tolerant, but that probably isn’t relevant if they’re trying to get a job with a corporation. As Devoss said, “It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair.”
But people with body art might not have to wait too long though for their piercings and tattoos to be accepted in a corporate environment because soon Generation Y will be the employers. “They won’t be able to scrutinize [others] when they have tattoos and piercings themselves,” Bishop said. If the popularity of tattoos and piercings is here to stay, then those with tattoos and piercings definitely won’t have to worry.
Additionally, diversity has been an integral part of America’s history and culture. Tattoos and piercings could be viewed as just another cultural variant, similar to different ethnic foods or dialects, or even cultural dances that ethnic groups use to express themselves. “It’s art; a form of expression,” Williams said.
“The reason [tattoos and piercings] might stay is because tattoos and piercings are part of the rich tapestry of expression… Part of what makes societies diverse is their ability to accept expressions of uniqueness. [This is] quite different from the melting pot model… [I think] we will become more diverse not just physically but also psychologically,” Bishop said.
So we have evolved from a melting pot to a tossed salad where many different ingredients are visible, and maybe if the trend keeps up, there will be a little room in the salad bowl for some spicier ingredients — ones with body art.