Is it time for an update? Your restaurant's tattoo policy could be harming your business.

Is it time for an update? Your restaurant's tattoo policy could be harming your business.

The appropriateness of tattoos is a topic of debate among business owners. For the service industry and restaurants in particular it is of special concern. The popularity of tattoos has increased over the years. As employers, we need to decide what our restaurant’s policy on tattoos will be.

A Tattooed Generation

We are constantly surrounded by individuals who have tattoos. Some we can see easily, others we are not even aware of. Tattoos started to become more socially acceptable in the 1970’s as the counterculture became mainstream.

Millennial Americans have more tattoos than any previous generation. 42% of adults in the United States have at least one tattoo. Children of baby-boomers with less aversion to skin-art—the oft-maligned “millennial generation” (now in their 30’s) are a big part of evolving attitudes towards tattoos in the workplace.

Since they are now managers and business owners themselves, it would seem a bit hypocritical to have harsh anti-tattoo policies in the restaurants they run. In 2015 alone, more than 520,000 companies changed their dress code policies to allow visible tattoos in the workplace.

In addition to changing tastes regarding the acceptance of tattoos, there is a practical reason behind the changes to dress codes. It gives managers more hiring options.

Although many restaurants have changed their policies regarding visible tattoos, many have not. So, should visible tattoos be allowed in restaurants?

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Tattoos Are An Ancient Tradition

To help decide if tattoos are acceptable for restaurant employees, let’s try to understand the history of tattoos.

Tattoos have been around since the beginning of human history. All it takes is a sharp stick and some black ash from the campfire to make a rudimentary tattoo.

The earliest discovered human remains with tattoos is “Otzi the iceman”.

In 1991, German hikers on the Oztal Alps near the border between Italy and Austria discovered the mummified remains. And carbon dating proved that Otzi had been mummified for more than 5,300 years.

Otzi had no less than 55 tattoos on his body, from his upper neck to his ankles.

Tattooing by the Greeks and Romans

Accounts of tattooing are preserved from when the written word began to be recorded. Greek writers in the 5th century documented tattooing and Greeks and Romans used the technique to mark slaves and prisoners.

The Greek word for “sticking” (as with a needle) is “stigma”. Which may be why tattoos still carry a stigma in modern society.

Tattooing in America

Tattoos did not begin to appear prominently in the United States until 1891 when the patent for the first tattoo machine was issued to an Irish Tattooist named Samuel O’ Riley.

Samuel opened the first tattoo parlor in the United States in New York City.

At this time, tattoos were most common among sailors, prison inmates, motorcycle gangs, and gang members. Only about 6% of the population had tattoos.

How Did Tattoos Become Socially Acceptable?

The tattoos used to be the mark of rebels and individuals who were living on the outskirts of society — those who operated outside the society and the law.

But what changed? How did tattoos become acceptable to mainstream society? How did the number of Americans with tattoos jump from 6% to 42%?

Tattoos in World War II

Tattoos have been part of sailing culture for hundreds of years. With hundreds of thousands of American troops joining the Navy and Marines many of these young sailors adopted this cultural tradition and got tattoos.

Returning WWII vets earned the respect of their peers in business and industry, despite their tattoos. Views toward tattooing had to change as well.

60’s and 70’s Counterculture

Beginning with the Beat generation of the 1950’s America’s counter-culture movement embraced association with society’s outcasts.

As bikers (many of which were military vets and or prisoners) joined up with the hippies the aesthetic bled over and became part of the look for a new generation of socially conscious rebels.

Modern-Day Mainstreaming of Tattoos

In 2005, the first reality-show began featuring tattooing as a profession, Miami Ink. This marks a peak in the wider acceptance of tattoos in our society.

Actors like Johny Depp and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson openly display their tattoos. Being mainstream media icons, they have helped wider society to view tattoos as acceptable.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

But Are Tattoos “Corporate”?

There are issues that concern employers when hiring individuals with visible tattoos.

Will managers with tattoos be taken seriously? Do employees with tattoos fit the brand image of the organization? Will an employee’s tattoos are be perceived as offensive or hostile towards customers?

An Expression of Self

While tattoos are considered a form of free expression, protected by the U.S. Constitution, it does not mean that an individual’s tattoos can’t be discriminated against by employers. Tattoos are not protected by anti-discrimination laws.

Meanwhile, as employers wrestle with their dress code policies, a Fox News survey found that 96% of Americans claimed that employee tattoos would not change their satisfaction with a business if they received quality service.

Finding the Most Qualified Candidates in a Sea of Tattoos

Restaurant employers with strict tattoo policies can find themselves at a disadvantage in a competitive hiring market.

The millennial generation is now the majority of young workers. And they have the most tattoos compared to older generations.

Your restaurant business could miss the chance to hire qualified, experienced, and skilled employees because of strict regulations on tattoos.

Even Disney had to change their recruitment policies and dress code due to not finding enough qualified individuals sans ink.

While it may seem ironic, since the U.S. Military has the highest percentage of employees with tattoos, the Navy had to update their tattoo policies to allow larger and more numerous tattoos in order to meet recruitment quotas.

For restaurants, this is especially important to note. It’s hard to find qualified people period. Limiting our search by being overly-discriminatory regarding skin-art can mean losing out on hard working valuable employees.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure


Sailors, prison inmates, and motorcycle gangs are not the only ones with tattoos anymore. CEO’s, bankers, business owners, lawyers, doctors, and even pastors have tattoos now. The social perception of tattoos has definitely changed in recent years.

Workers with a strong work ethic, character, and values are in high demand. Adapting your restaurant’s dress code toward a more lenient policy on visible tattoos can give you access to a potentially valuable workforce you would not have otherwise.

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