Body language:

Sounding off with tattoos


Although he’s never been really ashamed of what he does, Ronnie, of Ronnie’s Tattoo Studio in Providence, admits that he told his kids to tell people he made signs.

“I told them to say I was a sign painter or that I drew pictures for signs,” said Ronnie. “It [tattooing] wasn’t quite as accepted back then. There was always something disreputable about it. It was sailors, and thugs and bikers who got tattoos.”

As much as that image of the “illustrated man” has changed, there are still many Americans who feel that tattoos are a sign of some sort of social maladaption on the part of the wearer. Last spring, an assistant manager at a local Walgreen’s was fired after he refused to cover the tattoos not obscured by his clothing with make-up. Most personnel managers still insist on a well-defined and consistent policy on “body art” and people still doubt if being “discriminated against for the color of your skin” applies when you are not born with the color your skin is. Nevertheless, an increasing amount of Americans in all walks of life are getting tattooed, in case you haven’t noticed, and most of them are getting them applied to areas normally covered by conventional clothing, which is perhaps why you haven’t noticed. That’s an accommodation that is increasingly accepted, even in the military.

“Judges, lawyers and CEOs are getting tattoos,” said Mark Jordan, of Irish Rose Tattoo in Cranston. “I’ve even done a Navy Chief who has tattoos under his uniform.”

In an article at, "Tattoos in the Workplace: What's an Employer to Do?," the writer and human resources expert Barrie Gross wrote:

"Depending on what and where the tattoo is, there may or may not be an issue for employers. The laws still tend to support employer dress code/appearance policies in general and employers retain some flexibility in creating rules that require employees to present themselves in a way that is consistent with the employer's image. But that doesn't mean that banning tattoos altogether is appropriate…an interviewer who notices a tattoo on a man's arm may have no reaction…and the same interviewer may have an adverse reaction if a tattoo is visible on a female applicant's ankle. In this situation, an employer can be exposed to liability for sex discrimination if the presence of the tattoo was an issue in making the hiring decision…The key for employers is to have a written policy that employees are required to read and sign, and then to enforce that policy consistently. That way, employees are not able to claim that the policy was applied differently to them. And the policies should be based on sound judgment that is in the best interest of the business.”

Ronnie’s Tattoo Studio is well aware of the lingering prejudice against tattoos, especially with women.

“Sometimes I get a young woman, a pretty, intelligent, educated woman who asks me to do some kind of dragon or something on her neck,” said Ronnie. “I try to talk them out of it. I mean, if you are going to work in a law office or some other place where that just isn’t appropriate, I ask them if they really want to make that kind of commitment.”

Which brings us to the subject of commitment. How many people are walking around with the names of all but forgotten sweethearts indelibly inscribed on their skin that have to be explained anew every time you meet a new sweetheart? Quite a few, apparently.

“I am constantly dealing with people who want me to cover up old names on their tattoos,” said Jordan. “Often the same people several times.”

Jordan has been doing tattoos for about 15 years and has been surprised at the growth of his own practice, which includes body piercing as well.

“It has probably quadrupled since I started doing it and it has mostly been females that are the new customers,” he said.

Ronnie’s Tattoo Studio has been on Eddy Street in Providence for around 53 years and he has seen the market for permanent marking go to levels he never dreamed of. In fact, his biggest concern is that the sort of apprenticeship that he and other tattooists have gone through will cease to exist.

“People can go online, buy the stencils, buy the needles and start doing tattoos out of their apartment,” he said. “It hurts the guys that took the time, the years to learn the business.”

Jordan has served his apprenticeship and believes that most of the really good tattoo artists have done the same.

“You start off by working in someone else’s studio and, as you get better, the word gets out,” he said. “It’s actually kind of surprising that you actually become a celebrity yourself, with people recognizing you on the street and telling you they like your work.”

Without actually stating exact figures, Jordan said a good tattoo artist may expect to bring in between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, depending on where and how much they work.

Just how much Americans are spending on tattoos is a hard figure to pin down but most economists now include it as a significant part of the $12 billion-plus that people spend on cosmetics and other “appearance-altering” activities like tanning and body-piercing. Anthropologists have made a study of tattooing as well.

Evidence from ancient Egypt, Greenland, Siberia, and New Zealand shows how global, and how old, the tattooer's art is. In fact, tattooing had existed for thousands of years before English sailors encountered it in the South Pacific in the 1700s and spread the art to Europe and America. Its meaning varies from culture to culture, but it often served as a sign of social status or rites of passing.

The Iceman, a mummified human body dating from about 3300 B.C. discovered in the Alps in 1991, has tattoo-like markings (58 of them). Tattoos found on Egyptian mummies date from about 2000 B.C., and classical authors mention tattoos among ancient Greeks, Germans, Gauls, Thracians and Britons.

It was rediscovered in Polynesia and on American Indians. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tattau, “to mark.” Because tattoos were considered so exotic in European and U.S. societies, tattooed Indians and Polynesians drew crowds at circuses and fairs during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Instruments possibly used for tattooing during the Upper Paleolithic - 10,000 B.C. to 38,000 B.C. - have been discovered in Europe.

Just after the Second World War, archeologists digging in the Altai Mountains in Siberia found a well-preserved chieftain with tattoos; the oldest known picture-tattoos.

In North and South America, many Indian tribes routinely tattooed the body or the face by simple pricking, and some tribes in California introduced color into scratches. In Polynesia and Micronesia, pigment was pricked into the skin by tapping on a tool shaped like a small rake. The Maori of New Zealand made shallow, colored designs on the face and buttocks by striking a small tool into the skin.

There is really no telling how long the current mania for tattoos will continue but the basic impulse to permanently mark your skin for personal, devotional or artistic reasons is permanently part of being human. Ronnie and Jordan agree that, if you do decide to get some body art; go to someone with a certificate from the local health department in a permanent studio; ask to see their portfolio; ask for references; talk with people who have used the artist and ask about how cooperative he or she is when it comes to complaints or do-overs.

“Just remember,” said Ronnie, “you should go with someone who has experience and a track record. Always ask for the certificate and always ask around. People have reputations that are good or bad. If you are looking for heart surgery, why would you want to go to a foot doctor?”


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