Billy Connolly once relayed the story of the moment he got his first tattoo, when the tattoo artist looked up at him after the first stroke: “that’s brilliant,” Connolly was told, “now there’s one more of us and one less of them.”
In the modern age, for many people with a tattoo this holds true. Tattoos can be a symbol of a person’s individuality, of their own personal style, thoughts, attitudes and life journeys. Alternatively they can be a drunken misspelling of a semi-famous quote (don’t even get me started on badly drawn portraits or cartoon hearts with the word ‘Mum’ in it). Whatever they are, they are pretty much irreversible and something which says something about the wearer.
A recent BBC article asked the question whether or not people with tattoos should be protected from anti-discrimination laws in the same way as other people who feel discriminated against either in the workplace or the hunt for jobs. The argument used within the article was one of capability rather than appearance: "If someone can do a job, they should be equal with the next person who has the same CV."
In local government I’ve not heard the arguments for and against such discrimination played out at any length or volume. It seems to be something of a hidden topic, not out of shame or fear but out of disinterest by many, though it may be one which is worth exploring. Should local government universally be able to restrict people with tattoos, visible or otherwise, from working for it if they so choose?
I'm saying tattoos in general – no way, but visible tattoos – yes.
Up front, I need to declare a bit of a conflict of interest in that I have a few tattoos of my own; some swirly designs on my upper right arm and across my shoulders, as well as a small family symbol a couple of inches in diameter at the base of my neck. None of these are visible when I’ve got a shirt on, which was a very deliberate choice I made when these were all done several years ago. I didn’t work in local government at the time, nor did I have any immediate plans to do so, but I felt that in any role which would involve regular interaction with people outside of direct work colleagues, i.e. the general public or other organisations, visible tattoos would carry a degree of stigma.
It’s a strange thing really. Obviously, when people meet someone of a different gender, ethnicity, age, physical ability or other attribute we’d like to think this doesn’t matter when compared to their ability to do their job. Yes, discrimination does unfortunately still exist, but as far as facts go none of these things make a blind bit of difference to competency, and therefore should not affect how you feel about someone you are interacting with. However, if you go into a meeting with someone sporting a large tattoo on their face, covering much of their neck or wandering down onto their hands this tends to cause far more reaction than it really should.
Unlike the attributes listed above no-one is born with their tattoos – they are all conscious choices made by adults at some point in their lives. Some are relatively banal; flowers, abstract shapes or numbers, whilst others say something far more personal about them or their beliefs. Having those beliefs is of course entirely their right, but as soon as they put ink to flesh they are publicly making a statement and projecting those beliefs outwards.
Even those more extreme tattoos, the Mike Tyson facial designs for instance, do not change who they are as a person; they would still be able to do their jobs from their perspective as well as before they got inked. What changes however is how they are perceived by others. Rightly or wrongly, obvious tattoos cause a sense of aversion in many people and distract from who the person is, focussing instead on what their tattoos say about them.
To provide an example, let’s put a situation out there. Imagine that you are a council tenant and are having problems paying your rent this month. After a lot of effort you finally manage to make an appointment to speak to someone at the Town Hall, so in you go with a mountain of paperwork and a story to tell. You sit down with a very nice young lady, go through things and are greeted in a friendly, sympathetic manner before working through your options.
Now, picture exactly the same scene but add that Mike Tyson tattoo. Would you still feel exactly the same about her? Would you be just as comfortable, just as trusting in their abilities? Of course all of us intellectually will insist we would be, but many people wouldn’t. They would be asking what life choices this person made to get to the point where they got such a tattoo, and whether they had sufficient judgement to be able to actually help them.
The Mike Tyson tattoo is certainly an extreme example, but others are also out there. I recall seeing someone in a short sleeved shirt at a number of meetings who had a full sleeve of tattoos, ranging from football crests to deaths heads and Christian crosses. He had the archetypal ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on his knuckles, which all juxtaposed wonderfully with the financial savings associated with managing health and safety which he was always talking about. I know I was often distracted by his tattoos despite the fact they made not one bit of difference to his work; I daresay that if I’d only seen him in winter and not paid attention I wouldn’t have even known about them. However, I did notice them and wondered at his back story.
Some may point to the fact that increasingly young people are getting tattoos in their earlier years as a fashion statement which they can then go on to regret later in life, rather than through any affiliation to a particular group, gang or culture. I know people with faux-religious scripture scrawled up their necks, stating that no-one but god can judge them despite the fact that they’ve not set foot in a church since they were in the Cubs. I know people with #YOLO tattooed on their hands. I know people with teardrops on their faces, not because they know the meaning of it but because it’s what all the men in their family have.
Yet each of these are choices that have been made which will perhaps one day have consequences. People make decisions all the time which have repercussions further down the line, positive or negative, though I struggle to think of an instance other than bonding with others who have tattoos where the repercussion would be positive.
Having tattoos is not a bad thing. They are a personal choice, and express something about an individual. Having visible tattoos, ones which are on display while wearing normal work clothes, muddy’s the water in that it depends on what the tattoo is of, how large it is and where it is positioned. A star on an ankle is one thing, whilst a badge saying ‘F*** the Police’ on the neck would be something different. There can never be a definitive line to be drawn for local government, saying that this tattoo in this place is fine while that tattoo in that place is wrong, but local government needs to retain the ability to make a judgement as to what it feels is acceptable for every role and every situation.
Tattoos are a personal, active decision made by people which will affect how others perceive them. Outside of a tiny number of instances nobody forces anyone to get tattooed at all, let alone where and what is delivered. Staff – both current and prospective – need to bear this in mind as they flick through the catalogue of artistic designs in the tattoo parlour. It may not change their ability to do their jobs but it will affect others opinions, and if that in turn affects their ongoing ability to perform then there will – and should – be consequences.
Councils must retain the ability and strength to decide what is acceptable for the people who are the face of the organisation. Some insist on uniforms for certain roles, others have dress codes all of their own, but they have the ability to decide which things are acceptable and which are not. Unless it is covered by anti-discrimination law or something which a person can’t help, it then becomes a case of the Council setting its standards and then applying them across the board. If it says that visible tattoos are unacceptable then that is entirely its own decision, to be supported or challenged by its staff. But it is their decision to make, not anyone else’s, and as long as it is made clear to existing and prospective staff then they can make their own decisions as to whether or not to get inked.
Now, I’m off to get the WLLG heart done across my chest…