manic monday – tattoos, architects, and the profession

I’m stealing this topic from Bob Borson at Life of an Architect – tattoos and the profession

The question being raised here is “do tattoos make someone appear less professional as a potential intern/architect?”

view of my left sleeve. line work goes all the way to about 1 inch above my wrist.

In my experience the short answer is NO. Which is as it should be. If we learned nothing from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it should be that we are to judge people by the content of their character and not by the color, or decoration, of their skin. But unfortunately there is still an entire generation of America still in charge of business that remember the 60s and 70s rebellion from “normal” society and so this question of the appropriateness of tattoos still comes up.

Here are my comments from Bob’s original post:

I have a full sleeve on my left arm that is in process. That is, I have the outline and just need the color (read “money”) to finish. I plan on crafting the right arm with a full sleeve as well. Then I’ll connect everything across my back and chest. I even have a piece chosen for my rib cage.

I like the comment below that:
“architecture = art
tattoos = art
architect with tattoos = perfection”

As a professional practicing intern architect living in Florida, long sleeves are just not possible or healthy 11 months out of the year. So I wear a lot of polos. I’ve had tattoos on my forearms since I was about 24-ish, so I’ve always had tattoos in view. Never once, to my knowledge, has it had an effect on my career. Oh, did I mention both ears are pierced with 12 gauge steel hoops?

On this topic I’ve even gone so far as to ask others, colleagues and peers, if the tattoos and piercings matter or change their opinion of me. The answer most often is “oh, you’re ears are pierced…didn’t even notice”. The tattoos similarly are more cause for conversation about meaning and intent rather than “what biker gang are you in”. Yeah, that comment below kinda got under my skin. This isn’t the 1950s, nor are we in Easy Rider. Though, Peter Fonda was awesome in that movie.

The assertion that perception is reality, while true, is also constantly changing. It not only changes from one generation to the next, but even day to day. If a client decides to fire me because of my tattoos when he/she has already been impressed enough with my work to sign a contract, this is not the kind of client I want to continue working with as this attitude shows much LESS professionalism than I would tolerate.

Lastly, Bob, you make a great point that circumstance has much more to do with it. If I’m covered in tattoos and show up for work wearing ripped jeans, a band t-shirt and spiked hair…yeah, not so professional. But, if I comb my hair and put on slacks and a button down shirt, and even with sleeves rolled up I bet you wouldn’t even notice the tattoos and piercings.

view of most of my left arm. when finished it will have almost all the colors in the rainbow.

As we move further into the 21st Century, I believe my generation and the one coming up after me are less concerned with the outward appearance of others and much more concerned with the content of their character. While this may never be 100% true, I would like to think that the definition of “professional” is much farther reaching than Brooks Brothers. Anyone can be made to look the part. It’s something much different to play the part as well.

14 thoughts on “manic monday – tattoos, architects, and the profession

  1. Architects can be artsy right? Although the notion of architects seems to be a bow-tie wearing businessman, with a drawing tube, I think the image is evolving. At least I hope it is. I haven’t carried a drawing tube in years and I have never worn a bow-tie. There are times we have to play dress up to meet client expectations and that is probably not a good point to show off ink, but overall I see no problem with it. Someday some of my ink may be a little more visible; I have a nice permanent reminder of a temporary feeling on my shoulder that needs to be over painted. S one day I’ll have a half sleeve once I too find that extra coin, but for now baby needs diapers…

    • Nick, thanks for stopping by! Ironically, I do wear bow ties. And wear round plastic specs. And wear black 9 days out of the week. And have tattoos. Not that I would remotely suggest that perhaps I am the new architect stereo-type. But hey, how much fun would that be, eh? 😉

      Client expectations are, I think, at the heart of the issue. But then, I still submit, as I did in the post, that a client that is impressed enough with my work to consider hiring me then either fires me or goes elsewhere because of tattoos is probably not the kind of client I want to work with anyway. This could be a naive thinking on my part, I admit. But then I’m still young enough to make those kinds of mistakes/decisions and perhaps learn from them. No?

      Cheers. And good luck getting that half sleeve. I love the sound of a tattoo gun. 🙂

  2. I placed the bow-tie comment just for you…forgot about the whole black outfit thing. I think expectations tend to go hand-in-hand with the brand of architecture you do. My firm is mainly residential and private commercial (our commercial is usually relatively small in scale although we have had the opportunity to get some larger scale projects on the boards). Most days our office attire is jeans, converse and a button up shirt or polo. Our clients never seem to be to put off by the lack of bow-ties, black and circle framed glasses. We work on matching personalities and producing quality design that meets their expectations. And we managed to keep the doors open doing so for the last four years.

    When I do get the ink I would never go below my wrist, or neck, or head, but that is personal taste. I have a habit of pushing up my sleeves, so if I get anything on my forearm it will be visible. I see no problem with architects who have tattoos. Although 18 year old college kids who think they will spend their post collegiate years snow skiing should think long and hard about what they put on their body…tattoo ink doesn’t erase easily.

  3. J – I’d like to think these things don’t matter, but you know in some respect our appearance will always matter. It does depend on the circles you run in and the type of clients with whom you work. I lost the shirt and tie thing years ago and my hair is much longer than it used to be. I generally wear nice jeans and a button down shirt. I even wear a sport coat at times to have the artsy professor thing going on. I went to lunch the other day with a new client and the one thought I was from NYC because I had on a sport coat, button down shirt untucked and a bright t-shirt underneath…with jeans.

    I almost grew a pony tail, but I have to admit, the same questions/reservations about tattoos went through my head so I didn’t let it grow that long. The tattoo culture is expanding outward, so the associations aren’t as stereotypical. However, one has to begin to wonder about choices, right or wrong, prejudiced or not. What is your motivation is the real reason? It is nobody’s business, but that doesn’t stop what people think. It takes a lot of money to pay for tattoos so your choices for spending your money may be more evident than mine. It doesn’t make me more fiscally responsible, but I may be able to hide it better.

    I think architects need to look more artsy, but I wonder if that is helping us or hurting us? Contractors still wear the same clothes and plumbers still show their…you know. So how do we want to be perceived as a profession? That’s the bigger question. As for tattoos, I don’t really care if you have them. I just hate needles.

    • Lee, great comments. And I think you’re touching on a corollary here with respect to appearance. While I have some very visible tattoos on my arms and pierced ears, I still wear a button down shirt and dress slacks to work everyday. Though, this is not my chosen, but required, uniform. Is an architect thought less professional because he shows up to a client meeting in jeans and a button down shirt versus someone like me show would most likely show up wearing dress slacks, button down and blazer? Perhaps.
      I personally think that appearance is important. But I also think that visible tattoos (within reason as I’ve stated before) have little to do with appearance and more to do with personal prejudice. Because, again, if you and I showed up at the same client meeting wearing our own typical “get-up” do you think either of us would be thought more or less professional based on our clothing choice? And, if so, would that be the kind of client you would want to work with?
      For me, the important things in a professional, even a client, are:
      content of character
      ability to compromise and think critically
      ability to communicate
      These are paramount hallmarks of a professional in my mind.

      And there is nothing more thrilling than the sound of a tattoo gun. 🙂

  4. Good questions you’ve posed. I think at the end of the day, it allows for more conversation on the topic, and good conversation leads to deeper relationships (hopefully relationships that turn into paying clients). Our church recently did an art show on tattoos. Anyone interested in getting a tattoo was encouraged to get one representing one of the stations of the cross. Everyone who participated was photographed and the images are hanging in the gallery in our worship space. The idea alone really challenged a lot of preconceived notions, and I think the conversations that came from it were really enriching. (Read more here ). Hopefully your tats will allow you to spark conversations that are meaningful (about design or otherwise).


    • Brinn, that is awesome! I’m going to have to check out that link. My own tattoos are extremely personal to me. They are not vulgar nor trivial and I am always eager to share in conversation the meaning behind each one. 🙂

  5. This is intended as a genuine contribution to the discussion not a wind up.

    I have a question for you

    Under what circumstances do tattoo’s earn the right to be called “art” ?

    I recently spent 3 very long days sitting in a tattooist’s chair having some of the color redone on my full Japanese style upper torso body suit.

    During that time I watched over 100 people come into the shop and inquire about getting / or actually got a tattoo.

    I would guess that 75% of them ended up making an “as is” selection from a “tattoo design book” / designs on the wall / in hand printout from some tattoo website or celebrity copy tattoo – most just wanted a “price” and “how quick can you do it” discussion

    Another 10 – 15 % talked about wanting to modify these stock design to some degree – usually something simple like colors or adding or removing small items usually text

    Only about 10 % where approaching the experience with anything like what would to me define an attitude that this needed to be rightfully called an original “art work”.

    So as such are tattoo’s really art ?

    It does make one reflect on the fact that if people stepped into an Architects office and picked a design out of a plan book – is that design ? Most would shout no !

    What about a few modest changes to a stock / pre-exsiting plan ? – a reality that happens more than many “Architects” would ever admit.

    How much does “inspiration” needs to be changed in design to earn the title “original” or “art work”

    It seems that if you are in the tattoo game at least – not very much.

    On reflection I would suggest that very very few tattoo’s are deserving of the title “art” – even my own tattoo’s are really only pieces of separate tattoo’s I liked and modified and then joined together to make something appear to be new and unique but that doesn’t really make them “unique”

    Maybe there is a lesson for Architects here,

    Taking a piece of that and a bit of that and gluing it all together in a sutbly different way isn’t really new or innovating except in the mind of the customer.

    Real, truly unique “design” is very very rare and its even rarer to see it actually built /done – like “tattoo artists” I think most “architects delude themselves

    • John, thank you very much for your comments. I truly appreciate your point of view and even agree with you to a degree but perhaps come to it in a different direction.

      I agree that there is a large sector of the current generation that goes out to get what I call “stamped” with a tattoo. That is, as you describe, pick something off the wall and yell “gimmee that!”. While this may or may not be considered “art”, which I believe is debatable, is this not still an expression of that individuals character and personality?

      The same test can be put to your own tattoos. While the images and motifs may not be “original” in your mind, I would venture a guess that no one else has thought to put the same images in the same configuration or with the same colors and shading as you. This makes your own work extremely original and unique and dare I say “art”. My own tattoos are varied. I actually have 5 tattoos that are “off the shelf”, so to speak. On my back are three zodiacs – 2 Greek and 1 Chinese. On each bicep I have images that I took from an artists book, but they were from a book that was about 20 years old. Could there be someone else with the same work? Sure. Do I care? Not really. Does it make my tattoos less a expression of who I am as an individual? I would argue no. Even my sleeve uses motifs common to eastern Buddhist and Japanese work – water, fire, the lotus, combined even with christian and Arabic imagery. The “art” comes in the way these common images are combined and arranged by me on my body creating a individual work.

      The truth about architecture is that there really is nothing new in design, similar to tattooing. It truly has all been done already. We are simply taking the old forms, materials, colors, textures and even functions and using/arranging them in new and interesting ways. Does this make architecture less unique? I don’t think so. Just because the parts are familiar does not mean the overall result can not be unique. This is neither delusion nor justification, but a simple reality of perspective.

  6. I recently got a fairly large quote tattoo on my right inner forearm that takes up about 3/4 of the length of my arm and 1/3 the width, it is something that means a lot to me and I put it on my forearm to remind me everyday that no matter how bad it gets there is a purpose for everything that has happened.

    I am only an architecture student, but I am wondering even though in the working environment it wouldn’t and shouldn’t matter, as a student starting out do you think it maybe harder to be taken seriously by lecturers by having a visible tattoo? I also wonder if it would harder for women with visible tattoos to be taken seriously?

    • Kate, thank you for your comments. I’m glad you found your way to my site.

      Obviously, being someone with a considerable amount of visible ink, it’s been a fairly moot point in my own experience. My first internship was for a rather conservative and well-established (i.e. OLD) firm and even there my piercings and tattoos were not really an issue. The only time it was ever mentioned was when I was being asked to attend client meetings for a church we were master planning and it was mentioned that I might want to take out the earrings for the client meetings and site visits. Which I completely understood given the conservative background of the church. Since then it hasn’t been an issue at all. I’ve interviewed with potential employers, clients, product reps, etc all with almost no mention of either my piercings or ink. Those that have commented have all been positive opportunities to talk about my ink and what some of it represents.

      For a student, and perhaps a female at that, I think you may have much the same experience as me. It sounds like your work is probably more a cause for conversation rather than concern as it is personal and carries a story with it. Like I mention in the post, there are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed. But just because you have visible ink does not mean you won’t be, or can’t be, taken seriously by colleagues and peers. If your presentation and address are up to par, the little bit of ink that peeks through your shirt sleeve really won’t matter.

      Good luck to you and when you get out of school let me know how the job hunt and interviews go.


  7. hello all. I’m a romanian student in architecture and just got a tattoo on my forearm. It is a spontan decision that i like so much. My fear was, until i red this article, that my professional life in architecture was close to be compromised… I’m glad to find the thoughts of my generation about the connection between career and tattoos.

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