STOCKTON—Brenda Estrada has 12 tattoos. Although she’s comfortable with her body art, she wasn’t always accepted because of it.
Estrada, like many in today’s workforce, expresses herself with ink and piercings. Employers are more apt to hire workers with body art, but there is still discrimination against tattoos throughout the Central Valley.
“I’ve had my nose ring for years now, and I’ve had employers say I had to remove it if I wanted to work [in past jobs],” Estrada said. “I’ve had a past employer say that my tattoos were unethical, so I had to wear long sleeves all the time.”
These days, Estrada doesn’t have to worry about that. Her current job with Revamp Signs & Designs in Stockton allows her the freedom to leave her tattoos uncovered if she wishes, though she typically covers them without thinking about it.
Revamp’s owner Razi Pelaez said that four out of the six people in his shop (including himself) have tattoos. One of those employees, Graphic Designer Gary Jameson, said he believes society is becoming more open to those with tattoos.
“It’s not something I necessarily show off,” Jameson said, sleeve rolled up, showing a full forearm of artwork. “It definitely makes you stand out. But I think it’s more acceptable these days.”
People with jobs in a creative industry, such as Pelaez’s employees, feel more open to having tattoos or piercings.
“I have a tattoo on my hand and I have one my neck and a bunch on my arms,” Pelaez said. “When I first started doing this, I went out of my way to cover them up because I thought it was more professional. I feel I did that to build confidence, since it was a new trade I was entering.”
As he’s built a name for himself and his business, Pelaez feels that the tattoos don’t matter.
“Especially with the business that I’m in because we’re in art design and the creative field,” Pelaez said. “In the past couple of years, tattoos have become more acceptable in business to business, from doctors to a judge. It’s acceptable now. It’s not as frowned upon.”
Pelaez feels that when people take the time to get to know him and others with tattoos, those preconceived notions will disappear.
According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly four in 10 people born after 1980 have a tattoo. A Harris poll taken in 2012 found that one out of five adults (21 percent or 45 million) had at least one tattoo.
Statisticbrain.com, a website that compiles popular data, reported that Americans spend a staggering $1.65 billion on tattoos.
One industry that encourages its employees to have tattoos is the tattoo business itself. Central Valley tattoo entrepreneur Josh “Red” Hughes has built his empire on body art. Emerald Tattoos and Piercing began in a small shop in Lodi more than 10 years ago.
He first planned to move out of Lodi and open a shop in Sacramento, until he realized Lodi was about to go through a growth boom. He located in the southeast side of town with easy access to Stockton clientele. Eight years later, Emerald’s second location opened in Modesto.
Hughes now has Emerald Tattoo and Piercing in Lodi, Modesto, Elk Grove, Sacramento and Union Tattoo in Manteca, with plans to open another location soon. Each location takes in about $15,000 in sales every week. From Hughes data, tattoos are gaining in popularity.
About seven years ago, his business was doing about $300,000 per year. Last year Emerald Tattoo did nearly $2.3 million in sales.
Still, there’s discrimination.
“Elk Grove we chose because there was a moratorium on tattooing in Elk Grove; the whole town there are no tattoo shops,” Hughes said. The city leadership believed tattoo shops would cause blight, he said, and the only way to apply for a special use permit was to pay a filing fee of $10,100.
“After you apply, you have to provide zoning information, crime analysis and statistics. We had to have water run-off reports done on the [50-year-old] parking lot,” Hughes said.
He said they could fight to have the code repealed or pay the conditional use fee and be the only shop, which is what they did.
“So, we decided being the only shop would be the way to go. Five out of five councilmembers voted in favor of us,” Hughes said.
That’s not the only way Hughes fights to change people’s perceptions of tattoos. Though he understands why some businesses require certain tattoos to be covered—such as those in the food service industries—he will speak to management if he believes an employee is being asked to cover up ink that isn’t offensive.
Although many executive chefs themselves have multiple tattoos nowadays.
According to some, corporate culture is shifting its views on tattoos and other body art. Brenda Arnold, regional vice president of Robert Half for the Central Valley said their clients aren’t as concerned with body art as they once were.
“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. There was a time when we’d receive orders where clients would say something regarding the covering of tattoos, but now they barely mention it,” Arnold said in a phone interview.
That’s due in part because tattoos have become so commonplace, Arnold said, and because unemployment is at such a low level, especially among the millennial generation.
“Body art, tattoos and piercings have become more of the mainstream in society,” Arnold said. “Millennials have the lowest unemployment rate at 2.1 percent. As an employer you have to ask yourself how important is that [having employees with no tattoos] to your culture?”