2020 Update: We still think this is a really interesting discussion on tattoo sleeves in the workplace — but you may want to check out our more recent discussion on tattoos in the workplace.
If 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 tattoo sleeves in the workplace, particularly in a conservative office? How can you cover tattoos in general for work or interviews?
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 professional women and tattoos 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. 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?