In D.C. area, workers find tattoos are taboo from 9 to 5

In a city that sometimes seems to have a municipal dress code from Brooks Brothers, office culture constrains the wardrobes of the increasing number of tattooed workers.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The 26-year-old transplant from Florida knew enough to wear slacks, closed-toe shoes and a collared shirt to her job interview this year at a downtown Washington consulting firm.

There would be plenty of time, she thought, after she got the job to let her new bosses in on the secret beneath her clothes. (It's a pretty big secret: A cherry branch spreads down her back from her hairline; a Tinker Bell on her left foot sprinkles fairy dust; and hula dancers, waves and flowers populate her ankles and thighs.)

But months into her new life in the District, she wonders whether she'll be able to ditch the schoolmarm blouses and slacks of her weekday wardrobe. She sees very few tattoos around downtown and none at all in her office, and at a recent hallway bull session with colleagues on the subject of lavish tatts, the boss made one thing clear.

"She said, 'I just really don't like tattoos on people,' " recalled the woman, who asked not to be identified so as to keep her true colors under wraps. "I thought, 'Okay, it's not time to expose mine yet.' They would be very, very surprised. When I'm outside of work, I don't cover them at all."

Although people of Technicolor have been flooding the workforce for years -- almost 40 percent of Americans 18 to 40 have at least one tattoo, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center -- many denizens of Washington cubicles feel great pressure to keep their body art largely hidden, at least from 9 to 5. The button-down nature of government work and the stuffy office mores of law firms and lobby shops contribute to a less tatt-friendly atmosphere, they say.

"D.C. is culturally one of the most conservative cities I've ever lived in," said Sarah Graddy, 31, who lived in Seattle, Los Angeles and Gainesville, Fla., before coming to work for the Department of Agriculture. She has three tattoos, including a small tribal pattern that makes an appearance when she wears the rare scoop-neck shirt. "I just see fewer people displaying body art in the workplace here."

Plenty of Celtic crosses and barbed-wired biceps can be seen behind the counters of bicycle shops and video stores in the Washington region, or in the batik-lined hallways of hip nonprofits. But in much of office Washington, major tattoos are a minor taboo. For thousands of workers, that means long sleeves in the summer, leggings under skirts and the occasional big surprise at a company picnic.

"I hear a lot of comments like, 'I had no idea. You look so innocent,' " the Florida transplant said about acquaintances who encounter her inked side in a social setting.

Enoch Thomas, 40, a paralegal at the Justice Department, said his office has no specific prohibition on tattoos like his (tribal patterns covering one arm from the cuff line up, flames on the other arm and more on his torso). But a clear sense that the art on his limbs would be a jarring deviation from the office norm means he has worn short sleeves to work exactly once in his three years there. And that was on a holiday when he knew the office would be nearly empty.

"It was nice to just wear what I wanted to wear," Thomas said. "Usually there's only a certain part of my closet open to me."

'Covered at all times'

Responding to a recent query on The Washington Post's Story Lab blog, some office managers said that colorful tattoos can put a black mark on a worker's reputation.

"You have it covered at all times, I couldn't care less what dumb things you do to your body," said a boss who identified himself as Nosh1. "The second it is visible, it is my problem. I've also not hired otherwise qualified people because they had tattoos in places that weren't hideable, like their face or their hands. Your body art is certainly your business -- until it interferes with mine."

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