When Lt. Mike Brinkman first joined the Woodstock Fire/Rescue District in 2004, he was the only person in the workplace to have forearms almost completely covered in tattoos.
“I got them all when I was in the Marines,” Brinkman said, showing the flames circling his right arm and the “Mama’s Boy” design on his left – two tattoos of 11 total. “I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking when I got them. That was 16 years ago.”
Upon joining the district, superiors scanned the tattoos to make sure there was nothing inappropriate, but Brinkman said he has yet to encounter work-related restrictions past that.
Now, there are a handful of firefighters with arms similar to Brinkman’s – decorated with permanent body ink.
“I think the whole stigma of having tattoos has gone away,” he pondered. “It’s definitely more commonplace to have them nowadays.”
While Brinkman’s ink hasn’t raised issues at the fire station, Jeffery Poynter, director of the McHenry County Workforce Investment Board, said he believes tattoo tolerance in the workplace will vary based factors including “what population that business is serving and if they have to be sensitive to customers.”
“If you’re working in a factory, it’s going to be different than if you’re working in public,” he said.
Generally, Poynter said he has noticed more tattoos among prospective employees and throughout the general public within the past 10 years.
About 32 percent of adults in their 30s and mid-40s have at least one tattoo, based on a February 2010 Pew Research Center study.
That same study shows nearly 40 percent of millennials have tattoos, and about 50 percent of those with ink have between two and five designs.
In general, public perception of tattoos is split, according to a separate Pew Research report.
Of the public at large, 45 percent said they are not concerned with a growing number of tattooed people, whereas 40 percent said it’s a change for the worse.
In Crystal Lake School District 47, tattoos are seen as a form of self-expression, according to a statement from Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Greg Buchanan.
“District 47 is a proponent of diversity and inclusion in the workplace,” Buchanan stated. “Our policy supports creative forms of self-expression as long as messages do not interfere with the maintenance of a positive teaching and learning environment.”
Carlos Arévalo, a partner and municipal attorney at Crystal Lake-based Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle, said employers have the right to decide for themselves as there’s no blanketing rule about tattoos in the workplace.
“It depends on the industry and the individual company,” said Arévalo, whose practice area includes employment policies. “If you work at an office or bank or anything considered white collar, it may not be the kind of thing they allow.”
At Centegra Health System, tattoos are perfectly acceptable – just as long as they’re covered up.
Berni Szczepanski, vice president of human resources for Centegra, said a provision that calls for concealment of tattoos is included in the health system’s overall appearance policy.
“For us, it’s really just to have a consistent professional appearance because we’re serving our patients and they’re at different ages and of different cultural backgrounds,” Szczepanski said. “We want to make sure we have that consistent professional image because they’re coming to our organization ... and we want them to feel comfortable during their time with us.”
For Carrie Zbierski, assistant director of Critical Care Services at Centegra Hospital - Woodstock, covering up her two tattoos is easy with the right clothing, which is what she intended when choosing locations.
“When I got my first at 18, I probably wasn’t really thinking about that, but for my second in my early 20s, it was a concern,” she said. “I carefully chose where to put it.”
And Zbierski isn’t alone in her strategic placement, according to a March 2010 Pew study.
According to the study, 72 percent of adults and 70 percent of 18 to 34 year olds with ink said their tattoos are in easily hidden locations.
Walking on the side of cautiousness is the smart way to go, even if tattoos are becoming more mainstream, said Jennifer Neuman, president-elect of Stateline Society of Human Resource Management in Crystal Lake.
“What we’re seeing is there’s definitely an increase of people using that as a type of expression,” she said. “The issue, I think, for employers is whether or not that kind of thing is representative of values they’ve set forth in their businesses.”
Still, Neuman said as a human resources representative, any ink or lack thereof shouldn’t be the sole determinant during the hiring process.
“There are people who might not share values of expressing themselves, but what’s really important is the individual’s ability to contribute to the job,” she said.