washingtonpost.com  > Business > Columnists > Life at Work > Career Track

CAREER TRACK : Advice for Twentysomethings

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page K01

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Other people hide their hearts under them -- bright red

"I H Mom" tattoo, anyone?

More than a third of young adults have tattoos, according to a 2003 survey by Harris Interactive. And contrary to our grandparents' dire warnings, our employment options haven't been limited to bank robber, prison warden or the merchant marines.

The judgmental attitudes are still there, though, and I can't help wondering to what degree this aggravates the generation gap in the workplace. Only 16 percent of Americans across all ages have a tattoo, compared with 36 percent of those 25 to 29, indicating a big shift in attitudes towards body art among younger people. The Harris poll didn't break down attitudes by age, but it did find that people who don't have tattoos think that people with tattoos are less attractive (42 percent), less sexy (36 percent), less intelligent (31 percent), and more rebellious (57 percent).

Now, I don't care whether the people I work for think I am "less sexy" because of my tattoos, but if they think I'm dumb because of them, that's a problem. However, I figure there's no point in trying to argue there's nothing in the tattoo ink that damages my brain cells; I just keep my two tattoos under wraps most of the time. I admit that the longer I have been at my current job, the more relaxed I have become about it. Whether this is to my detriment, I guess I will never know.

As comfortable as you are with your body art, you still have a decision to make come job interview time. You have three basic options:

Flaunt it. The wisdom of this depends on where you're trying to work. If you're a barista, for example, it's practically part of the uniform. (I used to be one, so I'm not just ignorantly stereotyping here; all of my co-workers had tattoos.) Other careers where I've seen heavy saturation of ink: video game developers, Web developers, graphic artists, bartenders, professional athletes and rock stars (duh!).

Cover it. This is easiest to do with clothing, but whether that works depends on where you put the tattoos. I chose the locations of my tattoos in part for their ease in hiding under clothing. If I'm in a suit, no one's the wiser.

Rachel Ulrich, 23, a first-year law student at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, has taken a similar approach. "I actively chose my locations because they're so easy to cover," she said. She loves her body art, but her ambitions ultimately guide her decisions. "I really want a huge back piece of Lady Justice but I won't get it because when I'm president, I'll have to wear a backless evening gown to my inauguration ball and although it'd be neat, it would also gives the Republicans more fodder to hate me."

Perhaps. Except for all the Republicans who also have tattoos. That same Harris survey found that 14 percent of Republicans (across all age groups) have them, compared with 18 percent of people who identified themselves as Democrats.

You can also use makeup to cover a tattoo. Color-corrective stage makeup works best, but a good drugstore concealer can also work in a pinch.

Actor Johnny Depp supposedly smeared dirt over his many tattoos to cover them while filming "Pirates of the Caribbean." I can't say I recommend that for a meeting with the senior vice president of finance.

Remove it. Most people don't regret their tattoos, according to the Harris survey. But if you do, options for erasing them have gotten better in the past few years. It's still painful and expensive, though.

(Incidentally, the No. 1 reason for regretting a tattoo is not job-related; it's because a person's name was in the tattoo. Just ask Depp. Winona was not "forever," it turned out.)

Just because removal has become easier doesn't mean you can be casual about getting tattoos, however. If you find yourself tempted, thinking you can just get it removed if you don't like it, perhaps you should keep in mind at least one part of grandma's advice about tattoos: "Wait till you're older."

Join Mary Ellen Slayter at 2 p.m. April 15 for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/jobs/careertrack. E-mail her at slayterme@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company