If you are looking for a job now it might be a wise idea to ditch your tattoo. Just when tattoos seem to be everywhere, there is a growing shift toward employer intolerance for body art.
The U.S. Army, a major employer in Hawaii, is getting ready to impose the strictest tattoo restrictions in its 238-year history. A new rule under final review will prohibit all tattoos below the knee and the elbow.
“It’s draconian,” says tattoo artist Lance McLain.
McLain has been inking tattoos at Dragon Tattoo Wahiawa for the last 28 years. “Tattoos are part of the new hip, iPhone lifestyle. Everyone has them. The new tattoo ban might backfire. Army recruiters are going to be forced to turn away many good, qualified people.”
Raymond Chandler, the Sergeant Major of the Army, broke the news about the new tattoo rule in Stars and Stripes, saying, “the appearance of tattoos distracts from a uniformed service.” With the Iraq War over and Afghanistan winding down, the Army is downsizing. It can be more selective about who it hires.
And the Army isn’t the only employer cracking down on tattoos. The Honolulu Police Department July 1, 2014 will require all police officers to conceal their tattoos with makeup or wear long-sleeved uniform shirts to hide their inked skin.
Add to the list Hawaiian Airlines. The airline, which has been actively hiring all year as it adds more routes, forbids visible tattoos on all employees dealing with the public. Hawaiian’s tattoo ban isn’t new, but in the past when most job applicants were tattoo-free, there was seldom reason to impose it.
Hawaiian Airlines says its tattoo prohibition is because of customer complaints. Air New Zealand, Qantas, Virgin Airlines and all the major Asian airlines also forbid employee tattoos for the same reason: complaints primarily from Asian passengers. In Japan, China and Korea, tattoos are still widely associated with gangsters.
With the new Army tattoo crackdown coming, some soldiers are going to tattoo parlors to get more body art before the expected October 2014 imposition of the ban. Tattoos below the knees and elbows will be grandfathered in for soldiers already serving. The Army currently prohibits tattoos above the neck and tattoos that are obscene, sexist, racist or otherwise offensive.
Reeda Martin, sales manager of Skin Deep Tattoo in Waikiki, says soldiers want to get covered up with more tattoos while they still can.
Hawaii Army National Guard spokesman Maj. Jeffrey Hickman says soldiers will have to register their tattoos with their units to be allowed to keep them. After the ban is imposed, potential recruits will have to have below elbow and knee tattoos removed at their own expense if they hope to be hired.
But while some soldiers are lining up to get more tattoos, others are headed in the other direction — to tattoo removal clinics.
Nikki Kerney, the owner of Way Gone Laser Tattoo Removal in Waikiki, is offering soldiers and Army enlistment hopefuls a 50 percent discount on their first tattoo removal session. She says the average black ink tattoo takes between one and five sessions to remove. Kerney also has police officer customers and men and women who want to become Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants.
Kerney said one woman was so worried about getting hired by Hawaiian she had a tattoo removed from the middle of her back. “The tattoo was in a place nobody would ever see,” said Kerney.
Kerney says she also removes tattoos from hotel workers who are fed up with employee dress codes that require them to use makeup or elastic bandages to conceal their tattoos. Halekulani, Waikiki Parc, and many other Waikiki hotels prohibit visible tattoos on their employees. Starwood Hotels Hawaii prohibit employee tattoos above the neck and sleeve tattoos. A man who parked my car at the Halekulani last week had a big elastic sleeve around his arm he said was to cover up his tattoo.
Tattoo removal can run as high as $2,000 and as a cosmetic procedure it is not covered by health insurance.
And there is a caution. Even though the new laser procedures are getting better, some tattoos just won’t come off. Graphic artist Shayna Kusumoto told me she spent about $1,000 on four different attempts to remove a small black sun tattoo on her ankle.
Kusumoto says “my tattoo is still right where it was when I got it in the summer of 1994. Four laser surgeries and four infections later it’s just a little blurrier than before. Maybe when the technology improves I’ll try it again.”
Kusumoto describes tattoo removal as extremely painful. “Imagine a rubber band being held over your skin, then being pulled back about two feet, and then released to snap over the area that’s already snapped 40 times. That’s what laser removal feels like.”
Kusumoto said she asked the surgeon what the white stuff was he was putting on her skin with the laser gun. “He said ‘That’s your skin exploding.’”
“My recommendation to people wanting to get tattoos is to think long and hard about it, to make sure you really want a tattoo,” she said. “Think about how it will affect your chances for getting a job, about what it will look like when you are 70, what your grandchildren will think about it. And don’t count on the fact that you can always get your tattoo removed. Laser removal is extremely painful and it doesn’t always work.”
Hawaii prison guards can have as many tattoos as they want even on their faces and necks. I was told — but have not yet confirmed — that an adult correction officer in Honolulu has tattoos over half his face.
Hawaii Public Safety director Ted Sakai says many employees in the prisons have visible tattoos. Sakai says it would take a lot of effort to tell the employees to cover up or remove their tattoos.
“We would have to show that the tattoo interferes with the employee’s ability to do his or her job or is offensive to others or some similar reason,” he said.
Hawaii inmates, however, are forbidden from making new tattoos after they are incarcerated or from having tattoo-making kits in their cells. Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz says if a prisoner is found with a tattoo kit or a tattoo they didn’t have when they entered prison, they can face up to 14 days in a solitary cell in a special holding unit as well as the possible loss of telephone and visitor privileges.
Actor Alex O’Loughlin, who plays Steve McGarrett on “Hawaii Five-0,” has five tattoos; one on each bicep, one above each nipple on his chest and a large tattoo on his lower back that wraps around his hip and can be seen from the front.
How do I know this? Tattoo lovers frequently post O’Loughlin tattoo sightings on the Internet. Recently, “Hawaii Five-0” has allowed more of O’Loughlin’s tattoos to be shown. Before, some of his tattoos, usually the small gecko and sun on his chest, were concealed with makeup.
Here’s what O’Loughlin said about his tattoos in the November 2013 Gentlemen’s Quarterly Australia:
Man, tattoos are cool! They’re something that I started in the folly of youth and there’s been a progression ever since. I love the outward expression, but there was a period where I was judged, because they weren’t part of the popular culture, like they are now. Back then, tattoos meant you’d either been to prison or you were in some sort of gang. I had that conversation with so many girlfriends’ parents, explaining that I wasn’t a felon or a Hells Angel.
Another unrepentant celebrity proud of his tattoos is chef Ed Kenney, the owner of Town restaurant in Kaimuki. Kenney has large tattoos on each arm.
“We don’t have a tattoo policy at Town,” Kenney says. “You got me thinking, so I just surveyed our staff and found out that out of 46 employees only six are not adorned with ink.”
Kenney says almost all of his tattooed workers are less than 30 years old.