Are tattoo stigmas a thing of the past?

. December 1, 2014.
Feat

by Kelly Thompson & Marisa Rubin

Tattoos are no longer reserved for bikers and ex-felons. Professionals—doctors, attorneys, even police detectives —are inked underneath their suits and uniforms.

But it wasn’t always this way, and the common assumption persists in many workplaces that exposed tattoos are “unprofessional.”  Now more than ever, many professionals across career fields are sporting personal expression beneath the polished surface of corporate work environments.

Stigmas and acceptance

Life experiences often provide the greatest influences for tattoos. John Shumaker, 58, of Bowling Green, was a worker at the 1996 Olympics, and recalled that experience as the impetus for his first tattoo. “I worked at the Athletes’ Village in Atlanta, so I picked the Olympic symbol,” Shumaker explained. As a police detective, he had to be discreet. “At the police department, you couldn’t have tattoos that show, or else you had to wear a sleeve or makeup over them. Being a cop, tattoos that could be seen weren’t openly accepted,” he said.

Another professional, 41-year-old Keith Sykes of Toledo, is now an engineer. “I got my first tattoo when I was 23. I was about four months out of college and working at my first ‘real’ job,” he said, recalling his first stint in the tattoo chair. In his younger years, Sykes didn’t appreciate tattoos as a physical reminder of experiences past. “When I was younger I didn’t see many, so I never had an opinion or interest [in tattoos],” he said.

In the past few decades, the negative connotations of body art have relaxed, but it has been a slow process. “People with tattoos were looked at as thugs or outlaws. By the time I got mine, they were just starting to be more common, but most people who had a lot of ink were laborers, or blue-collar men. It wasn’t something ‘professional’ people did,” Sykes explained.

In the early 2000s, as veterans were returning home from the Persian Gulf, more visible tattoos were incorporated into the engineering world. “After the economic downturn of ‘09, you didn’t see [tattoos] anymore. The old stigma had been brought back, as least to corporate life, because employers could be more selective,” Sykes said.

Memories made permanent

For Sykes, his tattoos are reminders of personal beliefs and life experiences. At 23, his first tat was influenced by a Bible passage, Ephesians 6:12 (“For our fight is not against flesh and blood. . .” ). He explained that the verse became a rallying cry to keep him motivated and focused while in school.

Sykes’ succeeding tattoos are Asian-influenced, inspired by Eastern culture during a business trip overseas; one of a dragon and another of a medieval flag with the Chinese symbol for ‘warrior.’

As professionals in two different career fields, Shumaker and Sykes have both experienced firsthand the change in perception of tattoos over time. Current tattoo culture emphasizes acceptance, regardless of socioeconomic status or profession—but this is a recent development.

‘Criminal, biker, or both’

Dave Ziegler, 51,  has been a tattoo artist at Infinite Art Tattoo Studio for many years. At age 18 he got his first ink. “I went to Toledo Tattoo on Summit Street. It was one of two shops in town then. That store had a good reputation, everybody knew it. I went to talk to the [tattoo artist] first. He seemed pretty cool, and he showed me how they sterilized the equipment, and I just picked a design. I wanted to get tattooed, and I had $35 dollars to get tattooed with,” he explained.

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Ziegler’s first tattoo is simple: a cross on his right arm, bearing a banner with his first name. Since then, Ziegler has trained as a tattoo artist under several greats, including Brian “Monk” Taylor, who started Infinite Art in 1994. Championing the blurred line between professional and tattoo culture, Ziegler also works as a dental technician at Dresch Tolson Dental Lab in Sylvania.

He’s accumulated countless tattoos since his first, but like Sykes and Shumaker, attests to the change he’s experienced in tattoo acceptance. “People who got tattoos 15, 20 years ago were labeled criminal, biker or both. The guy that owned Toledo Tattoo at the time was a biker, and was affiliated with a biker gang in town. That’s just what it was back then. Now, anybody and everybody gets tattoos,” he said.

Heart-colored

Merinda Marcinkowski-Tippett, 47, owns Creative Excellence Salon, LLC in Toledo. As a hairdresser, she encounters people from all walks of life—much like a tattoo artist. “I think the art of tattooing has come a long way,” Tippett said. “People are more open-minded now. . . and the art itself is different. You don’t have to have big, bold black lines anymore; they’re colorful and more artistically done, to better reflect what a person believes or how it makes them feel,” she said.DSC_0557

Tippett’s first tattoo is on her shoulder, inked 19 years ago. “It’s a flower from my kid’s coloring book,” she explained. “My first one was to show people that I could do this and be professional.

I wanted it because I’d just gotten divorced, so it was about simplifying life. Coloring in a coloring book is what we all do when we’re young. This is what I was doing when I started life over again–coloring between lines,”  Tippett said.

The next one was done on her leg, an experience she recalled as hurting “almost like being in labor.” Now, Tippett has her childrens’ and grandchildrens’ names, as well as a tattoo that memorializes her father on her chest.

“A tattoo shouldn’t label you,” she said. I ride a motorcycle, and that surprises people too, but you know what? I respect people if they want tattoos,” she said. “They should respect me, too.”

For a generation that saw tattoos go from being the tell-tale mark of a criminal to an accepted way of remembering lost loved ones, body art has taken on a new and powerful role in self-expression. As the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

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