For Sharon Latour, the CEO of marketing agency Marketing Bee, shaking hands with a client can be more revealing than for most people. The 26-year-old entrepreneur has a tattoo on her wrist that reads ‘Infinitum Intergrita’, which translates to ‘Integrity for Infinity’ and she goes to no lengths to hide it.
“It demonstrates the culture of my company,” says Sharon. “We have a focus on transparency and authenticity in our business. If anything, it’s a great conversation starter and proves that, as a boss, I’m human and relatable.”
In corporate culture even a decade ago, arriving at a job interview with a visible tattoo was a fast track to rejection, but the cookie-cutter ideal of a CEO in a business suit with a Don Draper haircut is changing.
When Sheryl Sandberg recently collaborated with Getty Images, a global photo agency that licenses images to the media, to curate a series of photos to better represent modern, working women, one of the visuals she chose showed a mother in her home office with a toddler sitting on her lap as she typed – and she had a full sleeve of tattoos on her arm.
This change in mindset is partly out of necessity. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, 40 per cent of Millennials have at least one tattoo, half of them have between two and five tattoos and 18 per cent have six or more. If you ban everyone bearing body art from your company, you’re vastly restricting your talent pool. And while once a tattoo was seen as a sign of a rebellious, troublemaking attitude, you could now argue that so many people have tattoos these days, they’re a modern version of conformity.
Richard Branson says it’s “flattering” and a sign of dedication that so many of his employees have tattoos inspired by Virgin, including an engineer at his spaceship company who has a tattoo of Richard’s mother Eve on his arm (the same logo that is on the tail of Virgin’s Mothership Jet).
The online recruitment platform OneShift, where job searchers can create a profile (similar to that of a dating site) and be matched with suitable companies even has a section that asks if applicants have a visible tattoo (you can tick yes, no or ‘not specified’).
“For many people, even in the corporate world, tattoos are a point of pride,” says OneShift founder Gen George. “The separation between who we are at work and who we are in our private lives is becoming far less obvious, particularly with the popularity of social media. In fact, some Gen Y job seekers only want to work for employers that let them express themselves and don’t judge by appearances.”
Some CEOs are even using tattoos as human billboards for their businesses. Jo Davies is the CEO of ZAK Media Group, a creative agency that produces online videos and social media content for clients. She knows better than anyone about the importance of visual messaging, which is why, in 2013, she got a tattoo of the ZAK Media Group logo – a knuckleduster – on her neck.
“It’s a type of self-branding,” says Jo, whose partner Matt has the same design on his arm. “The logo is a sign of the company’s ethos – daring, brave, rebellious and challenging.
“We believe we are a strong creative agency, unafraid to say what we think and ready to take on the big agencies. We got the tattoos at a time where we wanted to show our commitment to the business and all it stood for, and we wanted to convey this commitment to the rest of our team, family and friends.” Some tattoos aren’t a public message but instead act as a personal reminder; the equivalent of a Kabbalah band reminding you to keep the faith or sticking a Post-it note to your computer screen with a motivational message.
Serial entrepreneur Nic Blair, co-founder of tech start-ups Search Factory and Brus Media, has six tattoos and never purposefully covers any of them. “I have the phrase ‘Motivation Reflects Reality’ below the back of my neck,” he says. “It’s my favourite motto when it comes to business, reminding me that I need to work hard to achieve my goals and that you get out what you put in. Nothing better than an inked reminder!” Unusually, he also has a large tattoo of Batman and the character Bane from the Dark Knight movie on each of his thighs, added in the last year.
“I look at my tattoos every morning in the mirror and still think they look awesome,” says Nic. “I put a lot of thought into the designs, researching them for years before I went under the needle.”
You could argue that whether a person regrets their body art could be a reflection of their attitude to business too. If you thought long and hard about your ink design and still love it in a decade, is this how you conduct yourself professionally? Alternatively, if you rushed into a tattoo and now regret it, are you the type of entrepreneur to make rash decisions and not stand by them?
As for Sharon, she also has a tattoo of an elf on her shoulder, which she got when she was 16, and proudly stands by her decision. “I see the leap of being an entrepreneur as my absolute right to be myself, and also pay tribute to the teenager I was then,” says Sharon. “I can still be professional and also wear my heart – or in my case my elf – on my sleeve.”