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Tattoo You

Vivia Chen

July 26, 2011

It's reader question day at The Careerist. This one is about pushing the limits of personal style:

TattooLady Dear Careerist,

I work in a prestigious boutique firm on corporate and commercial transactions. I am female, and I am heavily tattooed all over—and I mean all over. I wear very conservative suits that "cover up" and this has never been a problem, since I anticipated this when I got tattooed.  In more social situations I still insist on covering up, but I take care to dress well. 

 I have noticed that tattoos on male lawyers seem to be fine—something people admire, or a conversation piece if done tastefully. But tattoos on women are not so positively received. Does this depend on how brazen the piece is? Do you have any views on this?

Frankly, I'm not so sure that male lawyers with tattoos are accepted either. I think most lawyers—especially older ones—cringe at the sight of tattoos on either sex. Most lawyers, I suspect, see tattoos as antithetical to the image of the upstanding corporate lawyer.

But given the prevalence of tattoos these days, I don't think they are total career killers either. Ironically, I think young women professionals can get away with some artwork on their skin easier than men. (Is it because women have a bit more creative leeway in the way they dress?) In fact, I know a few young women lawyers (okay, just two) with tiny tattoos—such as butterflies—on their wrists or ankles, and they're not on probation at their firms.

It all comes down to the size of the inking (I'm also assuming the image is not offensive). So to answer your question—does it depend on how brazen the tattoo is?—the answer is yes. And if you're heavily tattooed, as you say you are, that's definitely brazen.

So if you want to make it in corporate law and have copious tattoos, you really have no choice but to cover up, even when it's 100 degrees outside. Stephen Lucin, a style consultant in Washington, D.C., suggests that you wear "layers of thin business clothing that are appropriate during the hot summer months." I'm not quite sure what that means, but I imagine lots of cotton shirts and pants, set off with some gauzy scarfs.

If it's any consolation, I think tattoos will gain more corporate acceptance—albeit gradually, and probably limited to ones that are "dainty" and localized. Even law partners who wince at them now might change their minds, especially if their sons or daughters come home from college sporting designs on their bodies.

In the meantime, though, I have a question for you: What's a nice, very-tattooed lady like you doing in a starchy law firm? You might perform your job brilliantly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the constraints of corporate culture might not be for you.

 Other posts on fashion: High Heels, Ladies Who Wedge, Fashionistas on the Leash, and Little Toe Peep.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

Photo: Monica de Moss/istockphoto



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sneaking suspicion?? So, because she has tattoos that leads you to suspect she doesn't belong in a "starchy" corporate law firm?? You probably wouldn't know enough about her to comment on that, and as a fellow tattoed female atty I am very offended.

The original article is proved to be wise by the diversity of the comments.
The author's main point is that your reception may vary depending on the luck of the draw as to who your client, boss or resume recipient happens to be.

I think most tattoos are far more interesting and appealing to the wearer than they are to the viewer, even if the viewer is not offended.

In my field, tattoos would be the kiss of death because I try to convince juries that my client's adversary party isn't professional enough. Juries include a lot of older, more conservative people who would think tattoos are either low class or repulsive. But even a lot of mainstream people like our author consider tattoos to signify unconventional lifestyle, if not an outright in-your-face attitude.

I knew a woman lawyer in my city 25 years ago with a blue crescent on her cheekbone - highly noticeable, kinda sweet and neutral in message, and evidently no hindrance to her professional career. I'd hire her, even then.

But she wasn't in my field of law. If I were tattooed (even though I'm male, which some are saying makes a difference), I wouldn't hire me, even now!

Julia, in answer to your question about tramp stamps:


I've known many inked women, most of whom are creative enough to get something other than the staple of the Jersey Shore.

Megan raises a good point. In my city which is full of artists and art majors, employers tend to take advantage of creative people. A well-known liberal weekly has such low salaries that it's employees have to work a second job. They get away with it because all the creative people (graphic artists, photographers, writers) want to work there because of its status.
The retail stores and restaurants in which creative people usually work while they do their creative thing in their free time also pay low salaries. It's almost impossible to make a decent living as an artist, musician, or actor. The market is so flooded with graphic artists that some haven't worked in their field in years. Also, art supplies cost a fortune. It seems everyone takes full advantage of those naive, dreamy creative types.
The creative types are not better off in these environments! Of course they want to do better.

I rarely comment on articles or blogs, but felt compelled to do so after reading the closing.

The closing reads: "What's a nice, very-tattooed lady like you doing in a starchy law firm? You might perform your job brilliantly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the constraints of corporate culture might not be for you."

Although the overall article is interesting, I felt that this particular comment is truly "judging a book by its cover." I think it is narrow-minded to think that because someone like this person who is covered in tattoos would be indicative to her not fitting in the "starchy" corporate culture.

Just because this woman has an interest in expressing herself with her tattoos has nothing to do with her ability to mesh or not mesh in a corporate culture.

Although the corporate world may have not fully embraced tattoos or any form of creative expression, doesn't mean that the tattoo or body piercing-type is better off in a creative environment.

In fact, I think the creative-type would excel in certain corporate environments, allowing a fresh perspective and out-of-the box thinking that may bring a unique competitive edge to the firm, that a "starchy-type" individual may not think of.

Hilarious comments overall. Regarding the author's "sneaking suspicion": I have my own sneaking suspicion that the woman who wrote the letter simply wants to earn a good living, despite whatever her choices are in personal appearance. Regarding the other comments: Quinn Emannuel attorneys wear sweats and shorts to the office, and routinely kick the crap out of "traditional corporate" litigators. If I were hiring a lawyer or a firm, I would care much less about visible tattoos when meeting with an attorney during off-hours, than credentials and intelligence. In other words, I wouldn't retain this Jeff Spangler person to defend me in a jay-walking case.

IF done tastefully and covered up at the office, there's no reason to object. No reason to shove personal belief in others faces.. Tatoos are a personal subject and fine however after hours.. for men and women.

"You might perform your job brilliantly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the constraints of corporate culture might not be for you."

"Sneaking suspicion" is embarrassingly cliched and this is a shockingly condescending statement.

It doesn't matter how well educated you are or how intelligent you consider yourself: whether it's right or wrong, tattoos are a class indicator. And those with visible tattoos are decidedly low class.

Exactly what is a tramp stamp? I've known lots of tattooed people for several years, but I've only heard that term once before.
I suggest you don't make assumptions about a lady's tattoo - she probably wasn't aware of your biases when she got it. :-)

Dirk, porn and strippers don't count as dates.

Mike C, tribal wire tattoos on guys are to douchebags what tramp stamps are to skanks. Just sayin'.

Jeff Spangler: I'll take your comment for what it's worth, since your website features a photo of two half naked men. How much patent work does that get you, BTW? I mean, besides the cheap colonial guy graphic.

Attorney tats remain an example of gratuitous self-mutilation and a poor attempt to "make a statement" by people who are capable of doing much better`it in other ways. The Marines require recruits to cover or remove ink, as many law enforcement organizations do. What "message" are they sending? Unless you're a sailor or inmate, think twice about this lower-class bit of culture. Respect yourself more.

C : I have a small tattoo on my hip. I am not trashy, and in fact I suspect that I am better educated and more intelligent than you are, based on the grammatical errors in your comment. I am a partner in my law firm, I am well published, and I have been mentioned as a possible candidate for a position on my state's highest appellate court. So shove it.

realist, what's wrong with tribal and/or barbed wire tattoos?

Tattoos are trashy, especially on females! So is body piercing- especially the face and tongue. We do not have any attorneys that display these items, but we do have some pierced tattooed female staff-very unprofessional

Realist: What about tattoos of naked women, like nearly all the women I know have?

Or wrist tattoos, that say "drop" one one wrist and "dead' on another, like this chick I recently dated?

Tattoos are not objectionable in an office environment per se, as long as: 1. women do not get a tramp stamp, 2. white men do not get a tribal/barbed wire design, and 3. black men do not get Asian writing. Just the way things are.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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