Tattoo nation

February 12, 2008, 10:43 PM UTC

Ask most people what they think of tattoos, and you get a pretty good idea of who they are. Impassioned rants abound on both sides of this unlikely hot-button issue, from former soldiers and athletes who wear their body art as badges of honor, to girlfriends and wives who cringe every time their partners expose a bicep, to mothers forced to acknowledge that their own daughters are in fact in possession of the hilariously named “tramp stamp.” (Joke all you want, but that last one so happened on Real Housewives of the O.C.)

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that if you ask a corporate executive what she or he thinks of the tat revolution, you get a pretty good idea of “who” his (or her) company is. A tad reductive, I know, but it’s something that first occurred to me last year, after a conversation with a very senior exec at a television network. He asked me about The Gig, which was launching right around then, and by way of explanation, I said something like: “It’s for our younger readers, to discuss everything from getting a raise from an obnoxious boss to incorporating tattoos into your corporate office.” He thought for a second, then asked, “So how do you?”

As it turned out, he wasn’t quite sold on the whole idea of tattoos in the office yet, despite working in the seemingly hipster-rife world of television. It also turned out that, after our meeting that day, I was heading down to Invisible NYC, to get inked for the first time. According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that I’d just written about, more than a third of 18- to 25-year-olds had a tattoo, and 30 percent had a piercing somewhere other than their earlobe. So I shared that with him. As for the anecdotal answer, I promised to let him know.

In retrospect, it must have seemed funny to him – a Fortune writer in her Sunday best on her way down to the Lower East Side for what amounted to a family field trip to a tattoo artist. (My brother was turning 18, campaigning for some ink, and big sisters couldn’t resist getting in the act.) But we weren’t the first suburban clan to grace the halls of Invisible NYC, and judging from stories like this one in the Christian Science Monitor last month, we’ll be far from the last.

But while the piece suggests that, at least in the short term, some concerned managers may be taking anti-tat measures, there’s more openness than one might expect. Recently, another senior executive at a major financial services firm told me that, if he worried too much about tattoos and piercings, he’d have to turn away too many otherwise stellar prospects. So he didn’t worry. Never mind that, in a few more years, he could see having more tatted and pierced candidates than not — “I’d never hire anybody, at that rate,” he said, laughing. So despite his company’s client-heavy business, squeaky-clean reputation, and notoriously high standards, body art in his mind isn’t – or better put, couldn’t be — much of a recruiting concern.

Now, I’m sure he isn’t going to be hiring anyone from Miami Ink anytime soon. And for those conservative clients who’d still prefer women in stockings and men in suits, his service professionals no doubt dress to accommodate – and likely wear too much clothing to show any real skin. (After all, we’re a reasonable bunch, and it’s good business that pays for our body embellishments, so I’d like to believe that most of us would suffer long sleeves to keep our clients.)

But given all that, when the financial services exec sees a young person — or any person, for that matter — with a tattoo or piercing, it doesn’t automatically scream, “Rebellious vagrant not worth the chair I’d put him in, which he’d probably steal anyway.” Sadly, I think that’s exactly what the TV exec was hearing every time he thought about it. Hence his struggle reconciling a seemingly decent and well-mannered me with the specter of a tattooed troublemaker.

Little did he know that my village-dwelling Indian ancestors have been getting tattooed for centuries. Sure, it skipped a couple of generations (way to go, colonialism), but what was a cultural rite of passage for them has become a meaningful form of expression for me, not a regrettable sign of teenage angst or a willful attempt at self-sabotage. And I think many of us, we of the much discussed funky T-shirt and blue jeans tribe, would say the same, whatever our ancestry.

Where for some of older colleagues, tattooed or not, body art was something to hide in polite company – the sign of a reckless weekend or questionable background – it’s become so ubiquitous that it borders on the mainstream. So much so that, as the New York Times’Ruth La Ferla recently reported, even the needle-shy can get a faux version, a sort of pop-cultural prop, for some extra wow on a night out.

In short, the accepted and acceptable aesthetics are changing, and it’s the higher-ups who can appreciate that shift in thinking, and get over it, who will ultimately reap its benefits. As the editor who brought me to Fortune told me when I came, “You look different, you dress different, you sound different, you are different, and I want you to be different here.” And all I had back then was an upstart attitude and a nose ring.

But then, as deputy managing editor Hank Gilman demonstrated to me just the other day, as I waxed self-righteous about my plight as a vaguely edgy young person, even different starts to fit in, fade away, and eventually work when you’re part of a good team. “You don’t have a nose ring,” he said, incredulous at the mention of this potentially transgressive piece of jewelry. And upon my inelegant Vanna White-inspired highlighting of the little diamond in my nostril, he replied, matter-of-factly, “Oh, that’s a nose stud.” And that, folks, is the wisdom of leadership.

So are Hank and I living in a media bubble, or are your offices feeling it, too? From tellers with full sleeves to teachers with ankle art, this seems to be becoming the norm, but it may take a while for corporate-types to acknowledge, let alone give in. Are they right, or are you already making a statement with your tribal arm band? As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts…