In D.C. area, workers find tattoos are taboo from 9 to 5
Many workers with body art feel pressured to keep their true colors under wraps at the office

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009; A01

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."

Lindsey Nedd, 23, well remembers the day when a broken air conditioner forced her to roll up her sleeves in her office at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. There was more to Nedd's arms than her colleagues had ever imagined, including Chinese symbols and a tribute to her late grandmother. The tattoos sparked interest from co-workers (one of whom admitted to having a small ankle mark herself), but not everyone approved.

"My boss came out and saw my arms, and she just got very quiet and went back into her office," Nedd said.

The debut of Nedd's art-enhanced arms produced no overt repercussions, she said. But she still feels the need to keep her tattoos covered most of the time, which can take a mental toll. "It kind of keeps me bottled up," Nedd said. "It's an art to me. It's who I am."

Tattoo artists say they spend a lot of time talking with clients about their workplace culture and dress codes when designing and placing a piece. Dee Dassen, a veteran of the needle at Great Southern Tattoo in College Park, said office workers around Washington have to be much more careful than the electricians, police officers and bartenders among her clientele.

"Usually, we put them where their clothes will cover it, but some use makeup, too," Dassen said. "You'd be amazed at how many people have them, and you never know."

Ink as an ice breaker

Some Washington area workplaces are fine with visible tattoos (although even the most lenient dress codes usually prohibit displays that could strike co-workers as obscene or offensive).

Daniel Kalbacher, 29, said his heavily tattooed arms have helped him on the job. The Fairfax County deputy sheriff said he noticed a change in his relations with inmates at the county jail as soon as he took his tattoo bandage off three years ago, revealing a panther where only bare forearm had been before.

"They started to shoot the breeze with me," said Kalbacher, who has added a tiger and dragon to his dermatological menagerie. "It has continually helped me build rapport with these guys, which can be really important. They usually refer to me as the 'dep' with the tiger on his arm."

There may be signs of a thaw in office scorn toward tattoos. In the Washington region's creative industries, at least, tattooed workers say they are beginning to feel more love, or at least less shock, as a younger generation moves into management.

When the Herndon Internet firm Network Solutions eased its dress code last month in part to foster a more relaxed culture, Lauren McMahon took the policy change as a green light to flash some of the color she had kept hidden from her colleagues.

For years, McMahon waited until she reached the parking lot before peeling off her year-round sweaters and turtlenecks to reveal some of the 50 hours' worth of detailed tattoo work covering most of her upper body. On the day of the Thanksgiving potluck, she wore a short-sleeve blouse with a low neckline.

"I figured if I was going to do it, I should go all-out on a big day with a gathering of people," said McMahon, 28. "People were pretty cool about it. Only one person stopped in mid-sentence and stared."

McMahon said she has merged her on- and off-site wardrobes and enjoys looking like the same person on both sides of the office door.

"I don't have to put as much thought into covering everything up every day," she said. "That's pretty big. I feel like I'm the pioneer here."

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