Last month, the mayor of Osaka decided to wage war on tattoos. Relatively new to power, 42-year-old lawyer Toru Hashimoto asked 30,000 government employees to voluntarily report any tattoos on their arms, legs, or any other part of their body that is visible to the public. They were also asked to provide information about concealed designs, including placement and how long they have had them.
Hashimoto requested the survey following complaints that a welfare officer had intimidated children by showing them his tattoos, and it was reported that 98 per cent of respondents – everyone from sanitation workers to public transport officials – had visible body art. Though not all employees agreed to complete the survey, with around 800 teachers and school administrators refusing to respond and citing it as an invasion of their privacy.
Nevertheless, the government is now considering a ban on tattoos within the public sector and asking existing workers to get them removed or face dismissal.
"Some workplaces may tolerate tattoos, but that shouldn't be the case for public servants," said Hashimoto. "If they insist on having tattoos, they had better leave the city office and go and work in the private sector."
While it may be the pet project of a renowned rightwing politician, it's not an entirely surprising move considering Japanese society's relationship with tattoos. Though the younger generation see them as nothing more than a fashion accessory, tattoos are still widely believed to be the mark of the yakuza, or Japanese mafia, by a large segment of the population. Giving further insight into his beliefs, both Hashimoto's father and uncle, now deceased, are thought to have been gangsters.
And it's not only government figureheads that take issue. Many major private employers ban staff from having tattoos, and most swimming pools and sentōs, or public baths, will refuse entry to tattooed patrons.
Even Westerners aren't immune. This journalist was on a recent business trip and staying at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, a US-headquartered chain. Dressed in a T-shirt on account of the humidity and with an upper arm tattoo showing, I was led up to my room by a polite and professional staff member where I was quietly told that I would not be allowed to use the hotel's swimming pool lest I offend the other guests. Despite offering to wear a long-sleeved T-shirt to cover it up, the answer remained a firm no and I was forced to instead visit the sentōs that are favoured by the yakuza on the outskirts of town. Which were, admittedly, far more interesting.
With Japan refusing to relax its cultural stance on tattoos in the workplace and beyond despite the changing times, other countries with a previously permissive attitude seem to be slowly joining their ranks. The US is one of them.
While many industries are still struggling to cope in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, one in particular has been thriving in recent years – tattoo removal.
Consumer reports indicate that there has been a 32 per cent increase in people seeking their services and practitioners are citing employment as a major factor.
Dr Jen Mundt of Delete Tattoo Removal in Phoenix told ABC News that she sees up to 22 people a day looking to remove their tattoos for prospective jobs, most of which the not-so proud owners of wrist and neck tattoos.
"The trend I've noticed the most is usually college students who have finished their education, and it's a mistake they made a few years ago, and they're looking for a job. And, people who have lost their jobs and are trying to get back into the workforce and gain an edge," she said. "A lot of businesses have a policy that does not allow tattoos that are visible. Sometimes you can't have them at all."
An employer has every right to request employees dress professionally in order to represent the image of their company.
It's also a growing trend in Australia, despite our strong economy. Requiring anywhere from six to 15 treatments and costing between $180 to $300 per session, the process of laser removal is as long and costly as it is painful – also, practitioners are often only able to remove 95 per cent of it depending on the age and colour of a tattoo. But, in spite of this, business is booming.
"People request tattoo removal for a variety of reasons. Commonly we have requests for removal of names of previous partners," said Dr Jacinta Keoghan of Sydney's Zecca Cosmedical. "I have had a few requests for tattoo removal for increasing employment prospects, and also people wanting to join the Navy with tattoos in exposed areas. Other people decide that they just do not like the tattoo anymore and others have had them done when they are young and feel they are inappropriate as they get older."
While the public and private sectors may be prevented from outwardly stating they don't want to hire employees with visible tattoos like in Osaka, Max Chater of Max's Village Tattoo studio concedes there are ways for employers to get around it.
"I don't think it would happen over here but employers may be influenced one way or the other by visible tattoos depending on the industry," he said, adding that most reputable tattoo artists will warn clients of any possible risks. "Face and genitals are a definite no. Necks or hands depend on how many tattoos they have. We definitely talk to them regarding possible repercussions of their decision. If we feel the request is too outlandish we refuse service."
Despite their growing popularity and increased social acceptance overall, tattoos remain an issue in and out of the workplace. But it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. Jane McNeill, director of recruitment experts Hays, says that while an employer should be allowed to dictate how their company is presented an impressive candidate can overcome it.
"An employer has every right to request employees dress professionally in order to represent the image of their company. This may mean covering up obvious tattoos while at work, such as wearing long sleeved business shirts to cover a prominent tattoo on your arm – particularly if an employee is in client-facing roles in a corporate environment," she said. "But, ultimately, it is professional know-how relevant to the job that determines success and the candidate's ability to add value to the company... We review all candidate applications and present the strongest short list to our clients based on skills, competencies and ability, not how they look or whether they have a visible tattoo."