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In 1980, when Lee Sido taught at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he had one tattoo, a simple wedding band around his left ring finger.
Then a student walked into his drawing class one day. He stood out not only because he was older, but also because he was covered in tattoos and already quite an accomplished drawer. Which made sense, since that student, Anthony “Doc” Baker, was (despite a lack of any formal drawing training at that point) already acknowledged as one of only 10 tattoo masters world-wide by aficionados in Japan.
Baker, with whom Sido still keeps in touch, ignited in him an interest in tattoos that placed him on the leading edge of mainstream American’s taking an interest in this ancient art form. Today, Sido, who is a professor in the NIU School of Art, where he teaches sculputre, has 22 tattoos adorning his body. All are black and most very traditional (a black panther descending) or tribal in nature.
“Back then, it was something that most people associated with bikers or sailors, or maybe some rock and rollers – but definitely ‘bad boys,’” says Sido who has researched the history of the art form and its evolution.
Today, much of that stigma has disappeared. According to a survey done by Pew Research this past spring, 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo,. What was once a back-alley undertaking has become big business., with an estimated 21,000 tattoo parlors across the country bringing in a cumulative $1.6 billion a year. And it is not just college-aged individuals who are getting inked. In fact, while 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 reported having at least one tattoo, that number jumps to 40 percent among those between the ages of 26 and 40.
Still, despite the ever-growing tribe of those with tattoos, even Sido remains cautious about how he displays his art work.
“I am very careful to keep mine covered,” he says. “The other day I was working in a studio classroom. I was wearing a short sleeve shirt and a colleague I have worked with for 17 years caught a glimpse of them for the first time.”
It is not his students he is concerned about when it comes to concealing his tattoos, says Sido, noting that many of them are already inked. But he is quite aware that outside of the very open-minded and accepting community in an art school classroom, there are those for whom tattoos are still taboo.
“Yes, there are a lot of tattooed bodies out there, and it is more widely accepted than it used to be. Even in retail jobs, some companies require that employees cover them,” says Sido.
“Employers tell us that, as a general theme, they try to look at a student’s credentials, and if they have tattoos that are discreet or easily covered (which means they likely aren’t visible during an interview) it’s not going to be an issue. However, if they are very prominent, it becomes more problematic. It doesn’t mean that the student won’t get the job, but it might move their resume a little further down the list.”
The conversation about tattoos, is something that career services covers routinely with students who are starting their job search as part of the discussion about how to dress and groom for an interview. “It’s all about first impressions,” says Lagana.
That approach would seem to be spot on, according to a survey conducted by Careerbuilder.com in July, which found that only 27 percent of hiring managers said that an individuals was less likely to get a promotion if he or she had visible tattoos. In was far less likely to impede career advancement than dressing provocatively (44 percent), a generally shabby appearance (33 percent) or visible, non-traditional piercings (32 percent).
A decade or two ago, any conversation with students about tattoos would probably have been conducted only with male students. That has changed dramatically. A 2014 Fox News poll, found that among people under the age of 35, women were nearly twice as likely (47 percent vs. 25 percent) to have a tattoo than men.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to Rebekah Kohli. In her role as program coordinator for the Center for the Study of Women, Gender & Sexuality, she sees a steady parade of women students who have tattoos, which she can relate to, since she herself is prominently inked. While it still may be shocking to some, she points out that just a few decades ago, the idea of a woman wearing pants in the workplace also was shocking.
She got her first tattoo in her thirties, a small button at the top of her spine, to memorialize her grandmother. Soon after, she got a robin and some flowers (another tribute to her grandmother) on her forearm…and from there it just blossomed. “Once I got my first tattoo, I knew that I wanted another one. Then, when I was encouraged by the acceptance I got at work, I had my forearm tattooed. Once I knew it was cool, I just kept going!” she says.
Over the last decade she has added to her collection of tattoos. Today she has a vine of flowers that extends up one arm and across her shoulders. Other tats include a large tree of life in tribute to the victims of the 2008 shootings at NIU, and the musical notes for “You Are My Sunshine,” as a tribute to her mother. Each has some very personal meaning, she says. They are also a very personal statement about taking control of her own body. “They let me sort of define my own sense of style and beauty in a very personal and permanent way. A lot of women I talk with about tattoos, feel the same way.”
While her tattoos can all be easily concealed, she doesn’t usually go to great lengths to do so and doesn’t recall an instance of them creating a negative reaction. However, that is definitely a concern among the women students she speaks with. “A lot of them are very hesitant to get anything very visible. They are thinking ahead to when they enter the job market and believe, rightfully so, that not all employers might be as supportive as mine.”
Still, she sees signs that tattoos are becoming increasingly common.
“My mom is in her 60s, but she likes my tattoos and is thinking of getting one of her own,” she says.