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Paulette Tobin, Forum Communications, Published December 30 2012

Mixing tattoos and the workplace

GRAND FORKS - Fifty years ago, most people with tattoos were ex-servicemen, bikers, circus folk or convicts, and some tattoos were the result of a drunken night of shore leave.

Today, Americans spend $1.65 billion a year on tattoos, according to Statisticbrain.com.

Kevin Boyer Sr., of Magoo’s Tattoos in Grand Forks, has been in the business for 50 years and says he once had the only tattoo license in North Dakota.

Now, there are at least a half dozen tattoo parlors in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area, and more than 21,000 across the U.S., according to Statisticbrain.com.

There are many reasons why more people are making their bodies a permanent canvas: the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, surviving a traumatic event, even acknowledging a beloved pet.

But what does getting inked mean in today’s business world?

‘I’m proud of them’

People in various professions: Doctors, nurses, lawyers and professors have been inked. Forty percent of Americans ages 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo. But having ink can still carry a stigma, more so in the corporate and business world than in other careers.

Grand Forks resident Tamara Hammargren, who works in construction, said she never worries about what people think of her. She has tattoos of her two daughters and her late brother.

“I’m proud of them," she said.

Wendy Swerdlow Pederson, Grand Forks, who works in an insurance office, has three tattoos. When she was about to get her third, she went to her boss to tell him her plans.

“He said, ‘I want to see the tattoo when you have it done and, as long as you keep it covered, I don’t have a problem,’” Pederson said.

In the workplace, co-workers and customers may be put off by body art. Pederson has hired and worked with people who have tattoos.

“If someone who talks to you about planning your future or selling you a car, if they have scary tattoos or tattoos of a questionable nature, that will affect the way I feel about them,” Pederson said.

“And I’m a tattoo person.”

But she does believe the idea of tattoos is changing. Permanent ink is becoming a way to tell your story. That’s the way it has been for her, she said.

“My first tattoo, I was mourning my father, my career was in flux, I didn’t know the future.” She got a five-pointed star as a symbol of perseverance.

Her second tattoo is of music notes on her ankle. (She has a music and theater arts education.) And for her third, she got the outlines of the feet of her pet chinchilla, Chester.

‘Too in your face’

Almost any skin on the body can be tattooed, although some spots tend to be more painful. (See graphic.) A growing trend is a tattooed sleeve, one large tattoo or a collection of smaller tattoos that covers most or all of the arm — usually from shoulder to wrist. There also are half sleeves and quarter sleeves.

“I like sleeves on other people, but they are not for me,” Pederson said. “I’ve seen people do them on legs too. For me, it’s too ‘in your face.’ My personality is too laid back for that.”

Bryon Burdick, one of the owners of Darkside Tattoos in Grand Forks, has ink that’s literally in his face — with New Zealand Maori tribal ink on one side of his neck and cheek.

“I’ve had people gasp before, usually the older people,” Burdick said of reactions to his tattooed face. “But I’ve never been in trouble in my life. I’ve never been in jail.”

He has a degree in architectural drawing, and says becoming a tattoo artist is a wonderful way of preventing yourself from becoming a starving artist.

If you’re going to get a tattoo, remember it’s called “permanent ink” for a reason.

For many, it’s easier (and cheaper) to get a divorce than to remove a tattoo. So, when you think about design and placement — said both artists and the tattooed — think about the future.

“Not every employer is going to think ‘It’s no big deal,’” Pederson said. “Not every person you want to befriend is going to accept your tattoo. Think about what kind of first impression your tattoo will make on other people.”

Bryon Widner had tattooed brutish symbols including a blood-soaked razor, swastikas and the letters “HATE” on his face and body during his years in the white power movement.

After he left the movement, he found he was shunned on job sites, in stores and restaurants, according to a story published in 2011 by The Associated Press.

Widner considered using acid to remove his ink when a contact in an anti-hate group, called One People’s Project, hooked Widner up with Southern Poverty Law Center. The agency found him a benefactor who paid $35,000 to remove the tattoos.

The procedures — 25 surgeries in 16 months — were extremely painful, and after the first couple, a doctor at the Department of Plastic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville decided Widner was suffering too much. The rest were performed under a general anesthetic. Widner’s story was the subject of a documentary called “Erasing Hate.”

Some tattoo artists will give their customers any kind of ink they want. Others, like Burdick and Arran Brown, another owner of Darkside Tattoos, said they wouldn’t give anyone a swastika. Even if it wasn’t offensive to them, Burdick said, it would reflect poorly on their business.