Christian Carden’s tattoos stretch from clavicle to throat, around his ears and up onto his head. He has a lotus flower printed on one side of his neck and a Japanese mask on the other; both stretch over his shoulders in a bed of waves, smoke, and fire. “I knew that people consider neck, face, and hand tattoos ‘job killers,’ and that's why I wanted them,” Carden says. “I never want to work at a bank again, and now I don’t have to worry about it.”
In a sputtering economy, highly visible tattoos like Carden's neck-and-head spread can mean the difference between a stint at the bank counter and a spot in the unemployment line. But in recent years, tattoo sales have failed to stall with the rest of the market. In many cities, they're actually thriving. And for some, opting for an above-the-shoulder tattoo signals a rejection of the recession rat race.
In fact, when Carden ditched the professional world and began apprenticing at a tattoo shop, his mentor encouraged him to cover his “smaller original tattoos" with the "better bigger images" that grace his neck today. As a tattoo artist, “you have to make a good impression," Carden says, and “the small poorly done pieces I had weren't cutting it.”
That's partly because tattoo artists are no longer the only ones inking above the collar. Phil Davidson is a 29-year-old software sales consultant who has a custom-drawn skull and rose etched onto his neck. The whole thing measures about the size of a handprint. “My appearance is definitely out of the ordinary for the corporate world, but by the time I moved onto public skin, I'd already got a few years of good experience behind me," Davidson says. Now, "it's more about who I am and what I can do, rather than what I look like."
As ink spreads beyond the button-up, the visible tattoo has emerged as a new middle-class status symbol—a stamp for those rebellious (and privileged) enough to pull it off. Davidson successfully navigated visible tattoo stigma at his UK company—he says that his current employer "immediately had a negative reaction to my tattoos when I walked in for interview," but hired him after she was wowed by his skills. Jessica Kilbury tells a similar story of expectation defiance. When Kilbury, 23, got a block of script tattooed on the side of her neck, “my tattoo artist told me that if I do not plan on working in a tattoo parlor, I should not get my neck tattooed,” she says. She's since climbed the ranks at an NPR station.
Dave Paul Strohecker, who sports both a cobra and a panther (pictured above) on his neck, has also landed a gig amenable to visible ink—he studies the sociology of tattoos at the University of Maryland. Working as an academic “has shielded me from many of the more damaging repercussions of this decision,” Strohecker says. “I am truly in a privileged space that allows me to be ‘deviant’ without as many of the consequences that other people may feel."
And Strohecker's research has shown that visible tattooing has increasingly "moved from the periphery to the center." Today, tattoo recipients are no longer just "bikers, servicemen, carnival workers, and other working-class men," but also "collectors" looking to distinguish themselves with “large, ornate, custom pieces specifically designed" and imbued with "deep emotional meaning," Strohecker wrote in one paper on tattoo stigma.
As a result, the divide between tattoos coded as "highbrow" and "lowbrow" is widening. Even as prominent tattoos have moved on up to Christina Aguilera's neck and Mike Tyson's face, perceptions of visible ink continue to cut across lines of race and class. “I have personally never had any trouble with the police or authority figures, but that is because I work really hard at managing my impression in institutional and public spaces,” Strohecker told me. “Unfortunately, I also think it has something to do with the quality of your tattoos. If your tattoos look like they were done by an 8-year-old with a magic marker, you are more likely to draw flack from the authorities. But if your tattoos are well-done and look like ‘body art,’ police are more likely to stop and ask you questions about them out of interest,” Strohecker says. “This is probably also influenced by race.”
For some enthusiasts, tattooing has emerged as a strategy for “expressing individuality in our late-capitalist, consumption economy," Strohecker has written. Meanwhile, many of the inked continue to file job applications at big businesses that nix tattooed candidates before they can even open their mouths. "Ironically, I reckon I'd have more problems getting a job in McDonald's than doing what I do," says Davidson of the software world. Online tattoo forums guide inked job-seekers with lists of the employers that allow visible tattoos (Whole Foods, Ticketmaster, Chili's) and the many that do not (Disney, Olive Garden, and yes, McDonald's).
And the trouble extends far beyond the drive-through. When 31-year-old Giovanni Ramirez touched up his neck tattoos this summer, his parole officer reported him as a potential suspect in a high-profile beating at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium—though Ramirez wasn't even at the game. In a police lineup, an eyewitness picked Ramirez as the guy who put a San Francisco Giants fan in critical condition after the contentious match. But when defense attorneys made efforts to control for Ramirez' prominent neck and face tattoos—wrapping lineup participants' necks in towels and applying faux face teardrop tattoos with a marker to match Ramirez' ink—witnesses failed to identify him as the assailant. "If you have a six photo lineup, and you see one guy with absolutely menacing tattoos—the Charles Manson tattoo on the forehead—you're more likely to believe that the person is culpable," says Jose Romero, Ramirez' defense attorney. "If you have a guy with a tattoo on the neck and the other five guys don't have any tattoos whatsoever, it's highly suggestive." Ramirez was later cleared of all charges.
The increased popularity of neck and face tattoos—and the continued stigma against them—has left tattoo artists to sew up the pieces. "When I'm approached to tattoo stuff in these 'job killer' zones, I always warn people of the risks, and try to talk them out of it," says Carden, who works at a parlor in Tempe, Arizona. "I love my very visible tattoos and think it was a great move to get them, but I'd hate to ruin an opportunity for someone else." In Des Moines, Iowa, 30-year tattooing veteran Sherry Sears won’t ink anyone above the shoulders. “I don’t think people should have tattoos on their necks and faces,” she says. “That cuts you out of just about every job you want to get. Employers are not big on that sort of thing.”
Sears blames visible tattoo enthusiasts for compromising the job market even further. “Tattoos have become a lot more socially acceptable, but now it’s starting to swing the other way,” she says. “The freaks started getting tattoos on their hands and faces, and employers got all put out about it. Now they’re demanding that employees not have any visible tattoos at all. They can’t just pick and choose what makes someone look freaky and what doesn't. And that’s thanks to the freak show.”
The swelling ranks of the "freak show" has posed another issue for tattoo artists. While McDonald's employees struggle to conceal their ink, artists must establish increasingly visible tattoos to distinguish themselves from their client base. "What was once the purview only of convicted felons has become an increasingly normative way of expressing one’s commitment to the subculture,” Strohecker writes of face tattoos. For many artists, facial work "is now the only way to differentiate themselves from tattoo collectors or other body modification enthusiasts who now sport full body suits, stretched earlobes, and other prominent modifications," he adds.
Even Carden's new-and-improved neck tattoos are beginning to look mainstream. "When I first got my neck tattoos I got the impression I intimidated people, but the industry has changed so much," Carden says. And the younger generation shows no signs of slowing down. Now, "instead of kids pointing and parents shuffling them away from me," parents say, "Hey, can you bend down so my kid can see your tattoo?"