Changing workplaces in Colorado: Tattoos no longer taboo

Carolann Mohrman, 75, perched behind an artist’s booth at the sixth-annual Denver Tattoo Arts Festival last week as the buzz of tattoo needles filled the air – slightly out of place because she doesn’t have any tattoos nor does she plan to get inked.

“I don’t like having my skin punctured,” the Lakewood resident said. The first-time attendee instead walked through the doors of the Colorado Convention Center at 700 14th St. on Sunday, July 23, in a show of support for her niece, Eva Mohrman, a tattoo artist and co-owner of Constantly Custom Studio in East Brunswick, N.J.

As a child in the 1950s, Mohrman was taught by society at large to view tattoos as “very demonic,” she said, adding that “only Navymen” boasted the body modifications.

“Now, everybody has them except me,” she said with a laugh. When asked whether tattoos affect a person’s reputation in the workplace, she answered with a resounding “no” – “not here in Denver.”

Today’s office culture has evolved beyond the norms that baby boomers would have found common when they started their careers, as white-collar professionals stroll through cubicles with body art that ranges from discreet designs to full arm sleeves – when tattoos cover the majority of the arm.

“Nearly 3 out of 4 employers say they don’t mind hiring tattooed workers,” according to employment website Indeed. Even executives, such as Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and former 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch, and public figures such as NASA astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad sport ink.

Last year, the U.S. Army relaxed its regulations for tattoos, although face tattoos are still barred and annual inspections are carried out. “This directive makes sense for currently serving soldiers and allows a greater number of talented individuals the opportunity to serve now,” said Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, then-director of military personnel management, in a news release.

In recent years, corporate giants Disney and UPS revised their tattoo policies. “We’re updating them to not only remain relevant in today’s workplace, but also enable our cast members to better express their cultures and individuality at work,” wrote Josh D’Amaro, chairperson of Walt Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, in a news release.

But the U.S. legal system still lags behind society’s broadening acceptance. According to the Princeton Legal Journal, “under current legislation, employers are allowed to use tattoos as a basis to distinguish candidates, and can require employees to cover up tattoos while on the job.”

The ultimate takeaway for 29-year-old Elizabeth Bowman of Long Live Tattoo Collective, 864 Santa Fe Drive in Denver: “How I look is not a representation of how I work.”

“I tattoo moms. I tattoo principals. I tattoo doctors. I tattoo lawyers,” she said at the festival. “It’s for everyone.”

Christina Crawford of Berthoud checks on the progress made on her new tattoo at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Christina Crawford of Berthoud checks on the progress made on her new tattoo at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A brief history of tattoos

In 2021, 26% of Americans reported having at least one tattoo, according to a Statista survey. Although a quarter of the country’s population openly claims tattoos today, the practice carried harsh stigmas in the U.S. until recently.

The technique can be traced back thousands of years to various cultures. “The very word tattoo comes from the Samoan word, tatau,” said Ryan Matsukawa, a tattoo artist at Pa’u Tattoo in Haleʻiwa, Hawaiʻi.

He pointed to tattoos as a crucial aspect of Polynesian culture. In Hawaiʻi, “it was so revered that, when we were being illegally taken over, the ones who tattooed went into hiding,” he said on Friday. And yet, “the art of tattooing survived,” Matsukawa added.

The practice was initially embraced in the Western world by scrappy types, like sailors in the 18th century.

By the late 19th century, “tattooing began to be seen as an art form,” according to Certified Tattoo Studio. The brand includes locations in Colorado and Hawaiʻi. Credit is largely given to tattoo artist and German immigrant Martin Hildebrandt, who ran a shop in New York City.

But even in the early 20th century, tattoos were still largely associated with criminals, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One Idaho prison official estimated that, by 1993, “90 percent of … Idaho inmates receive tattoos while in prison.”

Twenty years later, “you go to a grocery store, and you’re almost guaranteed to see someone with leg tattoos, arm tattoos – things that are very, very visible,” Bowman said. “It’s widely more accepted than it’s ever been.”

The Denver resident credits millennials for having “really, really pushed the boundaries of that” by rebelling against preconceived notions about body modifications. With six years in the industry, she still encounters middle-aged customers who sit in her chair and say, “I was never allowed to do this.”

Andrea Warmington, front, has a new tattoo done by tattoo artist Elizabeth Bowman at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Andrea Warmington, front, has a new tattoo done by tattoo artist Elizabeth Bowman at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Growing up, 30-year-old Andrea Warmington – a client of Bowman’s – was told by relatives that she’d be disowned if she got a tattoo. Her Pennsylvania family’s definition of professional didn’t include body art or unnatural hair colors.

“I kind of bought into it, and I think for good reason, because, really, only in the past five, six years have I noticed the difference in people kind of accepting tattoos in the workplace,” Warmington said in a Thursday interview. Almost a decade ago, she opted to get her first tattoo, and it sparked a love for them.

She debuted her arm sleeve at her first job in Colorado, and “one of my coworkers gave me a very surprised look,” the Denver resident said. “I definitely felt it – the judgment – a little bit.”

Warmington, who serves as a quality assistance manager at a medical device company, is working on two leg sleeves. And she now receives more compliments than silent side-eyes from her colleagues, who tend to skew younger.

“With work, it should be based on merits, not by what you look like,” Warmington said.

As for her family, “they try to be cool with it,” she said. They’ve moved past scoldings, but remind her: “No more tattoos.”

On vacations, she makes an effort to wear leggings and long-sleeved shirts – “just for the sake of their sanity.”

Andrea Warmington, right, checks design of her new tattoo with artist Elizabeth Bowman at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Andrea Warmington, right, checks design of her new tattoo with artist Elizabeth Bowman at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

An employer and a tattoo artist

As the owner of Denver’s Lucky Rose Tattoo at 4241 Jason St., 36-year-old Rick Lohm is the epitome of both worlds: an employer and a tattoo artist.

The New York native opened his own shop in May 2022 after settling down in Denver three years ago. When a business vacated a site near his home, “something just told me it was time for me to go out on my own and do my own thing,” Lohm said in a Thursday interview.

His studio consists of four artists and one apprentice – the level he started at in 2007. As a high school student, he played in bands, with a few tattoos already. Once Lohm graduated, he took on a tattoo apprenticeship, and so his career began.

Lohm first entered the tattoo industry during a time of “transformation” as social media began evolving from its nascent stages. He’d travel to the artists he admired, and pick their brains while they tattooed him.

Lohm gained experience at what he called “some of the best shops in the country,” learning the history of the practice from a “tight knit” community of professionals. And he hopped across continents in the pursuit of his practice, once hiking Mount Fuji in Japan and getting a hand-poked tattoo of a volcano in commemoration of it.

“I don’t think that many people quite realize that it really is just like another art form,” Lohm said. “I put a lot of time and thought into my drawing. I put a lot of time into actually tattooing it on you, and, then, when you leave, I never see it again.”

In 2023, up-and-coming artists can instead teach themselves from videos online. “There’s a little bit that’s been lost with that,” Lohm said.

He pointed to another change in recent years – servicing clients of all ages, from “all different sorts of professions” and, most notably, with more requests for visible tattoos on their hands, necks and more.

For example, on Wednesday, two customers asked for face tattoos.

Over a decade ago, “if you weren’t heavily tattooed, you told those people no,” Lohm said. “I could potentially be ruining that person’s future, just because they want something cool on their hand at the moment.”

Ultimately, he’s watching the country grow more open-minded toward tattoos, pointing to the popularity of TV shows like Ink Master.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late to get tattooed,” Lohm said. “People buy new furniture, a car, something just to make themselves feel good – and tattooing has that equal kind of power.”

Tattoo artist Elizabeth Bowman works on a piece for Christina Crawford of Berthoud at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Tattoo artist Elizabeth Bowman works on a piece for Christina Crawford of Berthoud at Long Live Tattoo Collective in Denver on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Generational changes

Lindsey Jackson, 31, grew up hearing that a hand tattoo meant saying “goodbye to an office job.”

“Now, it’s not the case,” the Denver resident said at the festival.

In a recent job interview, the question mark inked on her arm did come up, but it spurred earnest conversation between the two. “If anything, it’s like a part of an interview,” she added.

Beyond that, her tattoo serves as a reminder of the bond between her and her mother. The matriarch’s upbringing on a farm with nine siblings in “the smallest German town” of New Ulm, Minn., didn’t exactly encourage body modifications.

But when Jackson got her question mark last year, her mother – now nearing 60-years-old – joined her, committing to her first tattoo: a symbol representing musician Prince on her back.

“And she loves it,” Jackson said.

Kelly Goldman, 36, pushed a stroller with her 10-month-old baby through rows of vendors at the tattoo festival last Sunday, with her husband and two other kids, 6 and 14, in tow. Her eldest, an 18-year-old, aims to become a tattoo artist – a dream since elementary school – and sat for her second tattoo at the event.

Goldman notes that both of her shoulders are tatted, and “my husband is pretty much sleeved up.”

He’s worked as a manager at several companies, including Coca-Cola, she said. He dresses and acts professionally, and ultimately keeps the mindset that “a tattoo isn’t going to change my workability,” Goldman added.

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