Tattoo Sleeves in the Workplace

tattoo-sleeves-at-officeIf you have tattoo sleeves, must you wear a blazer everywhere at work?  Reader A asks a great question for everyone who had a wilder youth:  what to do about tattoos in the office?

As I’m now a law student, I’m worried about how to dress in order to hide my tattoos, which go from both shoulders down to right above my elbows; they’re dark enough to be seen through most lighter button-downs. Not that it matters, but they’re all very tasteful– I went to art school in my wild undergrad days. Now, though, I’m wondering whether I’ll be forever banned from wearing any sheer blouse or sleeveless shirt. Am I destined to wear collared shirts for the next thirty years of work? Any advice would be appreciated immensely.

We haven’t talked about tattoos in the workplace for years, so let’s revisit the subject. I will say at the outset that I think tattoo sleeves are in a very different category than the tiny tattoo somewhere noticeable (wrist, ankle) or the bigger tattoo somewhere generally hidden (lower back, shoulder blade).  As someone with tattoo sleeves (or half-sleeves) (tattoo ballet sleeves?), you should not only know your office, but I think should also know a) yourself, b) your boss, and c) your business relationships.  (Pictured: Shading, originally uploaded to Flickr by liquidnight.) Here’s what I mean:

In a conservative office with conservative clients, I’m sorry, but yes, your tattoos are likely something you’re going to hide, at least most of the time.  I would always hide them for interviews and first meetings, and honestly, for the first ten meetings.  Once you get to know someone (the boss, the assistant, the client, the opponent, whomever) you can show more personality, which can, in some circumstances, include showing your tats.  (You say they’re all “very tasteful,” so I’m assuming there’s nothing unsuitable for the office with your tattoos, such as nudity, foul language, etc.) In some jobs — where literally any day could be the first day you meet a new big client — this will effectively mean you have to cover your arms most of the time.  On the plus side, a blazer looks professional with so many outfits and will effectively hide your tattoos, so you should be fine; in many ways, your tattoos will be easier to hide than the small wrist or ankle tattoos that some women get.

That said, are you really the type of person who wants to work in a conservative office?  At least in my experience, the “I have tattoos from my shoulders to my elbows” person is far different from the “I got a butterfly on my ankle on Spring Break” person — it takes commitment (and I’m guessing a fair amount of pain) to get that much ink, and probably was not the result of one night of drinking —  but it also means that you probably dance to the beat of your own drummer and may have less respect for conventions and authority.  I’m going to guess that even if the work of a conservative office appealed to you (e.g., a big firm that has a great art law or entertainment law division), the atmosphere of the office would grate on your nerves after a year or two.

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So I think your approach to jobs should be thus:  If you’re going for a conservative job, consent to covering your arms for most of the time, ideally with a blazer.  Especially with a large law firm, this can be a great first step because of the connections you make, the experience you get, and the doors that are open to you afterwards (to say nothing of the salary) — so covering your arms shouldn’t be that big of a tradeoff, at least for a little while.  When seeking a less conservative job, though, I would advise covering your arms for the interview — and then seriously gage the interviewer and office to see how good of a fit you, your tattoos, and your personality may be for the office.  If it’s really important to you, ask about personal expression, the dress code, what kind of client interactions, and more — because the fit of the office is going to be key to a happy work environment for you.

Readers, what are your thoughts on tattoos in the workplace?  Do you think some tattoos put people in a different category than others?  Has anyone had experience with tattoo removal on a large scale, or covering tattoos on a regular basis for work?


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  1. Artsy Lawyer :

    To the original questioner – there is nothing wrong with having an art-school past. I think the profession needs more of us. ;)

  2. punk rock tax lawyer :

    I’m in the same tattoo boat as the OP — half sleeves on both arms. I keep mine covered pretty much all the time when I’m at work. I’m not a big fan of collared shirts so it’s long and three-quarter sleeve dresses and tops and lots of cardigans and blazers.

    That said, I keep my tattoos covered for the sake of clients and professionals outside my firm, not because of anyone I work with. I never know when I might have a meeting with a client or random networking event or whatever else, so it’s just easier. I work in a conservative practice area (tax) in a conservative state (Texas), but I work for fairly laid-back boutique firm in the weirdest city in my great state and have worked at the same firm for a little while now (5 years). At this point everyone at the firm knows about my tattoos and no one cares, so if I decide to take off my jacket and walk around the office in short sleeves in July, it’s no biggie if there are no clients around. That said, I didn’t show up on day one in a sleeveless top. I got to know everyone, and they got to know me and my work. Eventually, it became clear to me that it wouldn’t change anyone’s perception of me for the negative if they knew I had tattoos. Now, I’m fortunate that I work with in a laid back city with pretty laid back people. In a lot of firms, you aren’t going to be able to ever show your tattoos, and I certainly wouldn’t show them to clients unless you knew the client VERY well or the client was tattooed, too.

    Also, a little quibble. My tattoos aren’t the product of a “wild youth.” I got the lion’s share of my tattoos after I started practicing law, because I could finally afford the quality work I’d always dreamed of having. I spent years considering and planning them. Not all tattoos are the product of wildness, impulsive behavior, or immaturity. Some are quite the opposite.

    • Happy Anon :

      Thank you! I agree, and appreciate your last paragraph especially. I have one meaningful tattoo over my lung, where I had a massive surgery to donate a lower lobe of my lung to my sibling who later died. Wild? Immature? Thanks judgers.

    • punk rock tax lawyer :

      Also, one thing to add. If there are some casual but work-related activities you want to do, those raglan baseball shirts are the best. I wear them when I’m doing casual charity stuff with the local bar.

      • personally don’t care if people have them, just a taste thing for me: i think they look ugly, like tie-died t shirts or something. artistic preference. just like i’m sure some people wouldn’t like the art on my walls at home. point is, not assuming you did it while young or whatever, just personally don’t like looking at them. even really nice ones by tattoo standards.

    • Anon for this # 348573 :

      Thank you for all of this. I’m 27, a lawyer, and finally in the process of getting my tattoos now that I’ve saved up for them.

  3. No advice but this book seems like it might be relevant and interesting:

  4. Very, very anon :

    Ink-related threadjack. I’m in the process of getting a fairly large but very coverable one (starts on my shoulder and ends about mid-thigh), and posted on FB over the weekend that I was having work done. No photos, no real details, just that I was getting some ink. Only a few of my coworkers are FB friends, and I am generally really careful about what I post anyway (and rabid about the privacy settings)…but apparently yesterday someone who’d seen my posts brought it up at lunch with several of my colleagues. Ordinarily I wouldn’t care — I’ve spent about 15 years planning this tattoo and I think it’s going to be beautiful, and I’m certainly not ashamed of it — BUT I work in a fairly conservative office, I’m the only woman in my department, and I’ve seen too many issues of Inked Girls to pretend that there aren’t men out there who sexualize tattooed women. And we have some extremely sexist managers here that could make this a problem for me.

    I’ve done the damage control that I could — pointed out to the colleagues why I’m not really comfortable discussing it (they were actually cool about it), requested that it not be a topic, etc., but I’m at a loss for other courses of action. The friend who raised it was mortified and apologetic, and I don’t want to “defriend” her or do anything else that will cause drama, but I’m kicking myself for posting anything at all. Any advice, other than what I’ve already done?

    • Very, very anon :

      Oh, and should have mentioned — all of the colleagues at this lunch were guys, some at my level and some above me.

      • Honestly, I’d let it go and wouldn’t mention it again. I also would not post things like this on FB if I wasn’t comfortable with it being in the open. No matter how rabbid you are with your privacy settings, that information is not necessarily private.

    • Kontraktor :

      Honestly I don’t think you should do anything. Ultimately people probably don’t care, and the more you do to draw attention to this ‘mistake’ and make a big deal of it, the more people will probably make of it.

      If you are really worried, don’t include work people on FB updates. If people at work somehow continue to ask about it over time, just offer simple, watered down, meaningless responses like, “It’s going!” or “Thanks for asking, it’s on hold for now though,” or “It’s alright, thanks!” and don’t offer details. I feel like most people will get the message then you don’t want to talk about it. If they press you or start being suggestive, then it has nothing to do with the tattoo per se and everything to do with them being inappropriate, in which case they should be handled in a manner equal to the severity of the offense of their comment, just as they would be if they were commenting on your weight/appearance/anything else out of line.

    • Very, very anon :

      Grr! I’ve tried three times now to post and thank you both for your advice! It’s good to know that it doesn’t come across as a big a deal as I felt like it was — I think I was just really taken aback to have it discussed at work so quickly, since I’ve spent months planning clothing to make sure it didn’t become an issue. I appreciate the feedback, and will just let it lie.

    • I agree about just dismissing the issue and just minding who you share your Facebook posts with. Honestly, I work in an industry primarily dominated by males (and an industry that is still pretty traditional and conservative) and I’m already in a subordinate, support position, so I thought that when I got my tattoo it would be a HUGE deal, but it turns out, most people just think it’s interesting, ask what it means, and have already forgotten about it. I should note that my tattoo is on my neck behind my ear – and even when we had customer meetings and I had offered to cover it with makeup, there was no mention of it.

      Good luck with it!

    • Honestly, you should really give some thought to the facebook thing, especially if you have colleagues there as friends..

  5. trademark/copyright pro bono? :

    Do any of you ladies do trademark/copyright work on a pro bono basis? That’s not my usual practice area but I did a bit of that work during law school and would love to do some on a pro bono basis. Any suggestions on where I should start looking? TIA!

    • Former MidLevel :

      I knew people who did that kind of work for Lawyers for the Creative Arts in Chicago. There are similar organizations around the country – if there’s one near you, that might be a good place to start.

      • I’ve worked with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in Boston and have a friend who has worked with Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts in DC. Both great organizations (that need all the volunteers they can get); if you’re not in either metro area, I’m sure there’s a similar organization wherever you are.

    • In DC, there is a similar organization to what Former MidLevel mentions, which represents local artists. Can’t think of the name of it. But seems like a good chance you could find something similar in your city, wherever that is.

    • Happy Anon :

      Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in NYC

  6. I think that you cover up for interviews and initially (as you would anyway for most new jobs)and then figure it out depending on your job/office/day to day schedule. The tricky times will be if you have a work outting or have an office softball league you want to join, etc. For interviews, your arms should be covered by a suit jacket anyway. For when you’re hired, I agree with Kat’s advice – go slow and figure it out.

    I do agree that the tone was a bit judgy (there are better ways to make all those points), but I think inherently this is a judgy subject (as seen from some of the comments). Some people don’t like tattoos and will always judge you, that’s just a fact you have to deal with. But people are judgmental over all sorts of things, so I would not let it deter me from pursuing anything I wanted to do, I would just take the appropriate measures to deal with it. I have a friend who works in a very conservative office and while she has no tattoos anywhere, she does not leave her office without a blazer on. If anything, in our profession, hiding tattoos is easier than in most.

    PS: My own two cents is that well done full sleeve tattoos will get waaaaaay less judgment from me than a cheesy tattoo clearly picked off a wall on spring break. To the extent that it comes up in your career, don’t let anyone’s judgments affect how you feel about yourself, there’s nothing wrong with being an individual; if you act like it’s a terrible sin, though, that’s how people will perceive it.

    • Happy Anon :

      Very well said and good points. I agree that if you start apologizing in advance for your tattoos, or quirks, or whatever, people will assume they are thing that need to be apologized for and will think of them negatively.

  7. I hired a paralegal, only to find out on his first ‘casual Friday’ that he has large tattoos on his right arm, below the elbow. We work in a conservative small litigiation firm. I told him the next Monday “I noticed your tattoos, you’ll have to wear long sleeves.” Done. He is fine with it (I think) and said as much and that “each office is different.”

  8. TJ – can someone offer me advice on networking? Here’s the situation: in my department, there is an area that I really would like to make a lateral move to. Unfortunately, the department is pretty isolated, and I don’t know a soul in the department. Any advice on breaking in? I sent my resume over to one of the managers when they had an opening (the opening is on hold until budget issues get resolved), but I would like to work some networking magic. Unfortunately, I sent my resume over a few months ago and feel as if the opportunity to stop by and say “oh, I sent my resume and wanted to put a face with a name” is long gone. Ideas?

  9. Midwest Lawyer :

    As a corner office lawyer with a (big) voice in hiring, tattos are a non-starter for me. I don’t care if you’re the brightest legal scholar since Learned Hand, if you’re showing ink to me it says “incident of questionable judgment” and I don’t hire you.

  10. Amelia Pond :

    If only the people in my office covered their tattoos. Despite being listed in the dress code as no visable tattoos, several of the clerks have multiple tattoos showing. It has actually hurt one clrek from a promotion that involved more client face time because she has tattoos that can’t/won’t be covered up. But it did prompt a conversation for one of the clerks who has her brother’s name tattooed on her right breast!

  11. I actually just saw a woman walking down the street in downtown Denver who had a tattoo covering most of her right arm. She had on a short-sleeved suit (it’s 85 here today!), but her outfit was very chic and professional and so I didn’t really think twice about the tattoo except because I just read this post! But I agree with everyone that I would cover it up for interviews/first meetings so that doesn’t become your “thing” and people get to know your work first.

  12. Is this a “know your part of the country” issue? (Similar to “know your office”?) I’m in San Francisco & wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a full sleeve (or tattoo in general). I’m also not under 35. Personally, I like seeing a variety of people at work — creative, not all cookie cutter in pearls all the time.

    • That’s a very good point. I’m north of the golden gate and wouldn’t bat an eye (in that I wouldn’t judge their work performance, I still somewhat cringe because I just don’t think it’s professional!) at my coworkers coming to work in Birkenstocks for the obvious reason (also, my boss does occasionally too, but she’s awesome and the top of the heap so she can do anything!)

    • DC Lawyer :

      I think Emma makes an important point. Some towns are far more conservative. Today’s thread made me reflect that I never see anyone, male or female, in the DC lawfirm/government affairs/corporate office environment with a visible tatoo. Given recent trends, that may change for new lawyers, but I suspect it will take quite awhile before the tatoos seem consistent with the traditional lawyer’s appearance in this town.

    • California Love :


      If there’s anything that I’ve learned from this blog, it is that I could never work on the East Coast. I’m far to casual.

      • California Love :


      • Kontraktor :

        Funny story. Despite my visible piercings (and lipstick), I have been told by people in my new CA work area that I drip “East Coast” and that I need to loosen up. But I guess if I pointed out my piercings as evidence of my simultaneous loosened up nature, I’d suddenly cease to be the same person I was 2 seconds ago and turn into an untrustworthy vagrant with bad judgement. Who was wearing Brooks Brothers slacks, a long sleeve blouse, and pearls.

      • momentsofabsurdity :

        I grew up in California and moved out East for college/career. People in my East Coast city tell me I’m crazy liberal and super casual (I only own one suit. If I had a job where I had to wear a suit every day, I would cry). My friends back home in California think I’m so conservative and buttoned up now.

      • Left coaster :


    • Huh, I’m sitting in a corporate office right this very minute in SF, and while I’m sure plenty of my coworkers have tattoos, I can’t remember the last time I saw one at the office. (Not to mention a full sleeve of tattoos on display at something like the staff meeting.) Maybe it’s my industry – finance, not google or facebook – but it’s really, really not done here.

      • Ditto. in my experience working in finance in nyc, the firms are *extremely* conservative. Tattoos are a no go, along with many of the other fashion / apperance choices debated here.

  13. I judge people who have tattoos. and I’m only 26. I don’t know why, I try not to, but I do. And I’m fairly non-judgmental about others’ life decisions in many respects. If anyone has any insight into why I, along with many otherwise progressive people, react so negatively to tattoos, please enlighten me. I just can’t put a finger on it.

    • Well, lots of them are terribly done. There’s actually quite a bit of art direction that should go into a tattoo – the composition itself, the thickness and placement of the black lines, the coloring (if any), and the size and placement of the tattoo as a whole all contribute to the overall effect. A poor tattoo artist won’t do as good as a job with all of these factors. And someone who picks a badly drawn, mis-translated piece of kanji of a tattoo shop wall and gets it on their arm probably *was* showing poor judgment.

      nb: I have three tattoos of, honestly, average quality. No flash, though.

    • I’m also 26. I don’t judge everyone who has a tattoo, but I do judge people who get them and then complain about the consequences when they were easily foreseeable. My tradesperson mates who can reasonably assume they will never be limited by their tattoos? Fine. 20 year old hipster students who get full sleeves or leg tattoos and five years later realise that it’s limiting their career potential? Well, maybe you should have thought about the fact that it’s a lifelong thing and your life never really turns out the way you think it will when you’re 20.

  14. I am related to someone who worked admin for a conservative consulting firm who had love and hate tattooed on his knuckles, I kid you not. He is not a young guy (retired now, actually) and has told me he never had a problem. I also know a guy who had those ear disc things (plugs? no idea what they’re called) + tattoos and worked as a paralegal. Maybe things are different for professionals v admins, or maybe it’s regional (I’m in the west), but tattoos are fine for most people, I think. That said, if they were easily covered I’d do that for interviews and such.

  15. Come to think of it, I judge all people who dress in such a way as to communicate to others, “I’m unconvential.” (Goths, etc.). I acknowledge that for some people, getting a tattoo is not an attempt to buck convention (see poster with lung tattoo).

  16. I am heavily tattooed. My whole chest and quarter sleeves on both arms. I also have a cherry blossom on the back of my neck and a symbol on one of my legs. For the first six months at my current job, no one knew that I had any tattoos. I kept them all covered all the time. After that I let them peak out a little bit and started wearing skirts but I would absolutely never ever go sleeveless at the office. A few of my coworkers know how much ink I have but not all of them and certainly not the higher ups. I am moving to a new position and will have to start hiding them all again. I don’t want people to judge me because of my tattoos and unfortunately, as a lawyer, you will be judged.

  17. henna tattoos :

    Wow, people are pretty darn judgy around here. I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t have an issue with them, but I do think they best be covered up in a professional environment — for your own sake. You never know who is judging you or subconsciously holding it against you.

    I’ve worn henna tatoos to work after a friend’s wedding but I limited it to my palm. I don’t think my job is worth giving up all of the beauty and enjoyment that life has to offer and I enjoyed my henna tattoos. I limited them to my palms and only people standing very close to me ever saw them. People were curious and wondered when they would wash off, but no one even the head of my BigLaw department, seemed to hold it against me. Discuss.

    • Yeah, I think it’s kind of disrespectful to compare henna tattoos to real tattoos. Firstly, just because a henna tattoo was an exciting “cultural” vacation for you doesn’t diminish its importance and normalcy as a cultural (and sometimes religious) phenomenon to millions of people across the world. I mean, it’s like comparing Native American tattoos to Spring Break tattoos.

      The people in your office didn’t judge because they aren’t small minded backwards hick xenophobes.

      • Kontraktor :

        The problem with this argument though is that one person’s “cultural standard” is another person’s “offense.” If mehndi is okay, is an ink tattoo design that looks like mehndi okay? Some Indian women wear nose piercings because it signifies marriage in their particular cultural/religious group, but other Indian women wear it in a more “just because” sense. Is one okay and one not? If an Indian woman can wear a nose piercing to work “just because” (ie, because she so happens to like it and it doesn’t signify marriage or religious ritual for her), why can’t anybody else? If you say that body jewelry is inappropriate, why would the Indian woman with the nose piercing be poentially acceptable, but my extra ear piercing might not be? Either way, they are simply both instances of wearing body jewelry, and it’s really difficult to say the instances when this sort of thing is okay and when it is not.

        Cultural significance or not, a piercing is a piercing and body art markings are body art markings. What does anybody do in any instance if a firm says “no body jewelry” or “no body art markings”? This is why it’s hard to write objective standards about this sort of thing. Plus, once you start making exceptions for certain conditions, it’s harder to justify excluding other conditions. I wrote a longer comment about this on the previous page, but I think issues like this are completely at the heart of the point I was trying to make and make it difficult to have 100% clear and fair standards on what should be/is acceptable.

    • anon... again :

      in fact here’s a better example. I have a complicated ethnic name made up of words in a foreign language. It’s hard to pronounce. It stands out. However, if you choose to change your name to Xenu the Flower Princess, you don’t immediately get to complain that you are judged more that I am. Just because our names would both stand out doesn’t mean it’s the same.

  18. Anonymous :

    Networking question, particularly for any of you DC ladies. During my second year of law school, I externed at my government dream job and had a great supervisor who said she’d be happy to be a reference, etc. I’ve kept in minimal contact with the externship supervisor – mostly using her as a reference for clerkships and bar apps. During my third year of law school, I took a 12 person class with an adjunct professor who is a supervisor in the same division/agency. I haven’t been in touch with him since. I graduated last year and I’m clerking this year in another state. Due to a hiring freeze, working at this agency after my clerkship wasn’t an option, so I am going to BigLaw in the same field – just on the other side.

    Given that my professor and supervisor currently have my long-term dream jobs, I would really like to cultivate them as mentors and contacts. But I feel like given the fact that I externed and took their class 1-2 years ago, it’s a little awkward to just email them out of the blue. I know they are both also really busy, so I am unsure if asking if they have time for coffee or a chat some time is going to be a huge imposition. They are both in fairly senior roles. Do any of you have suggestions on how to connect with them?

    I will have some time in DC post-clerkship and pre-job, so I was thinking of sending either (both?) of them an email then updating them on what I’m doing and asking if they’d be willing to meet sometime for a kind of informational interview/catch up. Is there a better/less awkward way to connect again?

  19. A very good friend of mine has two full sleeves, tattoos up and down one leg, on both feet, and is slowly working on the other leg. He is also a lawyer at a prominent ip firm that does mostly transactional work and the occasional bit of litigation that pops up for important clients. His bosses don’t care, his clients don’t care, he never goes to court, so there’s no big stress to go out of his way to cover his tats up; it’s really no big deal. I think, ultimately, it comes down to the particular office and what sort of law you practice. Obviously, if you’re a busy bee litigator, you’re going to have to cover them up every day, which may be a hassle, especially in the summer. It seems that the stigma is against large tattoos, as opposed to tattoos in general (why people will overlook the occasional butterfly here or shamrock there but scoff at a real piece of art on someone is beyond me), so as yours seem to be particularly large, I would definitely cover them up for the interview and at your job place until you get a good read on your environment.

  20. If you go to court, particularly if you appear in front of juries, tattoos are problematic. You don’t want the judge or jury thinking about your appearance…you want them focused on your case. Your job is not to express yourself but to make sure your client is in the best possible position. Obviously there is some room for creativity but I think tattoos are seen as negative by a big enough portion of society that you would be doing your client a disservice to have visible tattoos during a jury trial.