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Millennials Leading Shift In Tattoo Taboos

10/28/2015 05:33 EDT | Updated 10/28/2016 05:12 EDT
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Walking the streets of Toronto on a daily basis, you begin to realize that there is a certain dichotomy that exists within the people you see. There are those with visible tattoos, and those without.

Tattoo culture as a whole is becoming more and more prevalent, especially among the millennial generation. Depending on who you ask, many young adults are of the belief that tattoos are becoming less taboo, both within society and the workplace. I recall a young, naïve 18-year-old me saying that in 10 years, we're going to see politicians with face tattoos. While this is clearly a comedic exaggeration on my part, are we heading in that direction?

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Over the last few years many celebrities (and millennial pop culture icons) have gone under the needle to get inked. That being said, recently some of these stars have had regrets about their body art. Teen heartthrob Harry Styles of One Direction has been widely quoted as saying he regrets many of his numerous tattoos. Britney Spears, Eva Longoria and Johnny Depp are just a few names on a long list of celebrities who decided to get their tattoos surgically removed.

Tattoo removal in and of itself is a massive industry, and numbers don't lie. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, removals jumped nearly 46 per cent over the last few years, mainly among millennials. The industry is expected to be worth more than $83 billion dollars by 2018, according to IBISWorld. This doesn't surprise me in the slightest, considering the cost of removing a tattoo is often four or five times the cost of the actual tattoo.

When discussing the acceptance of tattoos, the conversation naturally focuses on tattoos within the workplace, and the dynamic employability of tattooed individuals. Even though young people are of the belief that tattoos are becoming more widely accepted, we aren't kidding ourselves into believing employers are completely on board. A University of Tampa Bay study found that 86 per cent of students with visible ink believe they will have a tougher time finding a job after graduation, and 89 per cent of students said they consider how it will impact their career options when deciding where to put a tattoo.

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While I don't think it's a good idea to get a skull tattooed on your face, I do believe that a modest amount of ink is quickly becoming the social norm, whereas in the past, being inked was largely a mark of individualism. Jesse Borg, a 26-year-old writer from Toronto, says, "Getting tattoos is more about fitting in by standing out... There may, and probably will come a time when they are just as taboo as before." We as a generation have essentially appropriated tattoos as a symbol of inclusiveness.

Another interesting thing to consider about tattoos in the workplace is the fact that the first waves of millennials are advancing in their careers and moving up in the workplace. These younger, open-minded individuals are becoming the bosses. In theory, this could mean that as these people in turn become the employers, the hiring bias against tattoos could begin to decline naturally, and dramatically.

So, how much (if any) of the onus is on the tattoo shops and artists to educate potential clients about the hardships they may face whilst living life as an inked person? I spoke to an incredibly talented friend of mine, Alanna Mulé, who is a tattoo artist at Adrenaline (that cool shop near University on Queen, with amazing personable floor staff and über-talented artists).

Alanna moved to Toronto to attend OCADU, after which she stuck her foot in the door of the tattoo world and worked her way up to an apprenticeship. In regards to the demographic of people coming in to the shop for ink, she said, "In the industry itself, you get the full range from young teens to people in their 80s. Personally, I tattoo a lot more females in the 18 to 30-year range." There are our eager millennials.

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Alanna isn't a stranger to unreasonable tattoo requests, and has no problem turning clients away if it's in their best interest: "Other reasons I'll refuse clients is [tattoo] placement. If someone comes in and wants their hand tattooed, but doesn't have any other visible tattoos, there's a long process before I say yes... there's a reason hand tattoos are called 'job stoppers' in the industry."

Nearly everybody who works at Adrenaline have very visible ink, which is fine at their workplace, but what about elsewhere?

"Just because it is accepted in my industry doesn't mean it is accepted elsewhere. I still need to deal with banks, landlords and people in suits. And usually they don't like me when my tattoos are visible. I have been denied places based on my tattoos and discriminated against in so many situations. I one day plan to tattoo my hands, but not for a long time," she says. That's sound logic about discretion in getting certain tattoos, and it's coming from the mouth of a tattoo artist to boot.

Alanna's thoughts on tattoo taboo are fairly congruent with my own:

"Until there is a generation shift and people in their 20s take over the corporate world... tattoos will always be a bit taboo. Has it become less taboo? Yes. However, employers need to start realizing that tattoos don't make you a lesser employee. If the person is right for the job and highly qualified, their tattoos shouldn't have an impact on them getting the job over a non-tattooed, less-qualified candidate. Tattoos don't change you as a person, and once people start realizing that, tattoo acceptance will progress in a positive way."

It'll be years before we get a clear direction on tattoo acceptance. Until then, just convince your boss to get that neck tattoo he's always wanted. Then we're all safe.

All photos: Alanna Mulé

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