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.

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?



  1. If I see them at work, I will judge. What I don’t see at work, I won’t judge . At my law school formal I saw all manner of hideous tattoos on girls on places that they covered for class… It was a nonissue. Im sure they cover their japanese words and anklet ink at work. When you start working ask your mentor at your firm if you have one or ask hr or just look around and do as people do.

  2. Amelia Adams :

    I have been practicing law for over 35 years. I am a sole practitioner in a loose association of lawyers, all of whom are also sole practitioners. I have worked as a prosecutor and public defender. My husband spent his practice with large, rather stuffy lawfirms. I can assure you that in our rather provincial city-Louisville, KY-someone with “sleeve” tattoos would not only be required to cover them in Court, but in a large lawfirm, should you she be hired, her arms would not be uncovered without consequences. Our loose association of very liberal, ACLU-type lawyers has not permitted large, visible tattoos to be displayed with our support staff, and those of my associates who do have tats, they take great pains to cover them in the office when clients may be around. I seriously doubt that any “sleeve” tattoo can be classified as “tasteful.” That is oxymoronic, kind of like “jumbo shrimp.” No, large tattoos are not appropriate in any office. It is a deal-braker in our office and the large offices with whom I have had dealings.

    • Tattoo > Misspelling :

      also a “deal-braker” – not proofreading your work. i’d much prefer tattoos to someone who can’t spell check.

  3. I know this was started yesterday, but I simply had to voice my opinion.
    I work in a very creative, free spirited field. I have a pink streak in my hair, multiple piercings in one ear, and wear black nail polish to the office regularly. My VP has gauged ears, 3/4 sleeve tattoos on both arms, and wears a Bob Marley tshirt on casual Fridays. One of the newer entry level associates we just hired has full sleeve tattoos and tattooed knuckles, and WE were hesitant to hire her, wondering if it was just too much. If we had to think about it, it just won’t fly in a conservative office.

  4. Lissa Davis :

    I was 50 when, in a state of severe clinical depression, I got a tattoo on my right forearm. Needless to say it has been nothing but trouble. I have resigned myself to long sleeves at work, even in summer. I suggest thinking long and hard before getting one, we women have a tough enough time as it is.

  5. There is an amazing product that is sold at Walgreens. It is a spray on foundation, and it would be a great quick fix, especially for tattoos in those places that clothing simply doesn’t hide. It is sold in spray cans (leg makeup), and they keep it by the pantyhose, because it is primarily intended to cover up scars, veins, etc on legs. It is completely opaque in its coverage, and costs $10 per can. ***Walgreens own brand is much more effective that the named brand that is sold in the same area!

  6. Just some comments: I’m 24, live in San Antonio, TX and until I switched laterally was a Manager-in-Charge at a large Grocery chain. At first I wore long sleeve collered shirts to cover up since I have the entire inside of my left arm tattooed. I would only roll up my sleeves when I was with trusted employees until I realized that this wasn’t an issue in the least for this company. I know where a polo where you can plainly see my arm tattoos (nothing profane at all) as well as another on my upper right bicep. Was a conversation starter a lot or a great way to redirect a conversation when a customer has a complaint or is upset. I haven’t gotten a single complaint. Then again this is a retail industry and I am extraordinarily nice.

  7. Bobby O'Shea :

    This guy’s a right wing ASSHOLE!!!

  8. Personally, I think you are screwed. We recently had someone fired (yes, fired) because of a sleeve tattoo on just one arm. There is a company policy against it – even if it just is noticeable for an instant. Because of your career path, I would strongly encourage you to have your tattoos removed. I did just that but my tattoo was on my hand. It hurt like hell to put it one and worse to take it off. It is almost normal looking but I am so sorry I ever had it done in the first place. Good luck.


  9. Question – I am a third year law student, about to graduate and have been seriously considering a tattoo for years. I planned on doing it after passing the bar and most definitely will have it somewhere that is generally hidden (I’m South Asian, and I intend to keep it hidden even in a sari blouse).

    My question is — many of my full-sleeved work shirts can be somewhat sheer in the right light (due to my dark skin). What about tattoos that are hidden but may be vaaaguely discernable through a long-sleeved shirt in certain light? Is this still considered unprofessional?

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  11. Tattoo Lady :

    I love tattoos, but my work doesn’t like them. Jessa Sleeves covers the shoulders and arms.
    This turned out to be a very entertaining blog!!
    Thanks to all!

  12. Happily tattooed Accountant :

    I am delighted to see so many tattooed professionals on one site. I am the financial accountant for the South African subsidiary of a multinational company. It is the typical stereotypical organization; men do the technical work and women the office work. We have had our American counterparts travel to South Africa and freely display their tattoos. I have a ¾ sleeve on my left arm and in the process of completing the matching sleeve on my right. We are a whole of 4 people in this office and it is dismaying to see the chauvinism here. The men that I work with are all old Afrikaners, who believe that women should be seen, not heard and definitely not sporting tattoos, regardless of size. I enjoy my job, I enjoy my pay, but I wish that they would be more open minded. I know that I am currently the most tattooed women that I know, and with that am aware of the negative stigma attached to it, both socially and professionally. I got my first tattoo at 28, after I had my child. I had always wanted to but worried about how people would react. After having my daughter I realized that ‘the lion does not lose sleep over the opinions of sheep’, and it’s kind of stuck. Fortunately I have the support of a wonderful husband, but can’t say that having these tattoos has not impacted negatively. Would I do it differently if given the chance? No. this is who I am , If I offend you by being a bit more colorful, wear sunglasses….

  13. It’s all about how you carry yourself.

    If you are able to be professional and approachable in whatever you wear then fine no problem let them show. Just have a blazer, etc.. on hand for meetings and clients.

    However, if you are rebellious, crude or just too casual in some attire, then stick with the conservative dress.

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