The economics of tattoos

By Felix Salmon
August 19, 2009
Drewbie left me a comment this morning talking about people interviewing for jobs and not getting them, just because they had visible tattoos. I can well believe it. But at the same time, precisely because of this discrimination, I tend to both expect and receive much better service from people with visible tattoos.

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Drewbie left me a comment this morning talking about people interviewing for jobs and not getting them, just because they had visible tattoos. I can well believe it. But at the same time, precisely because of this discrimination, I tend to both expect and receive much better service from people with visible tattoos. (Update: Thanks to Sebastian, in the comments, for spelling out the logic here.)

Businesses with tattooed employees are signalling to me that they have better service, and as a result I’m more likely to try them out. Given how well such messages work, how long can it be until the discrimination against the tattoos swings the other way, and it becomes easier to get a public-facing job if you have a tattoo? And if that happens, will the pendulum swing back to where we are right now, or will we just settle on a boring happy middle where no one cares about such things any longer?


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Right…This totally applies to waitresses in NYC as well. I can see Le Bernadin instituting this policy soon.

Posted by ab | Report as abusive

I’m a 54 year old woman. I’ve had a large, non-visible tattoo on my upper arm for about 15 years. Visible tattoos have never been acceptable in working environments until extremely recently. Certainly not in white or pink collar jobs.

Since I’ve been severely downsized from a well paying white collar job to a minimum wage blue collar one, I’m seeing tats everywhere. I really kinda like it to tell you the truth. In fact, I’ve been thinking about getting a visible one on my calf. Sort of my tiny blow against the empire.

Posted by vachon | Report as abusive

>> Businesses with tattooed employees are signalling to me that they have better service . . .

Felix, can you elaborate? Thanks.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Felix, this definitely needs further explanation, not sure if it’s tongue in cheek or what, but the expectation of better service when tatoos are throwing me. Is the expectation up for people with tatoos or down for those without?

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

the logic seems straightforward:
Assumption 1: People with tattoos are on average as qualified as without.
Assumption 2: Most businesses don’t hire people with tattoos.

From that follows that firms who do hire people with visible tattoos have a better talent pool to chose from (and thus on average better employees) and people with tattoos who manage to get a job are likely to be at least as qualified as people without tattoos. I haven’t modeled that formally, but I’m pretty sure that the two assumptions above are all that’s needed.

It’s along the same lines that, say, a woman who made it into the upper management of a company in the 1960s would be extra-qualified and the company who was willing to employ such a woman would likely have a better average quality of management.

Posted by Sebastian | Report as abusive


I’d challenge Assumption 1, with regard to visible tattoos. If only for the self-selection bias: People know that most white-collar professions frown on highly-visible tattoos. Thus, those who know they’re likely to enter said professions (and possessing any foresight), avoid them.

Tattoos don’t fit the typical “economics of discrimination” model, since you choose to get one (unlike your race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Not a random sample.

Posted by ab | Report as abusive

You don’t really need assumption #1. Just assume that employers have a negative bias against people with tattoos, so someone who gets hired must overcome that bias and likely is of above average quality compared to non-tattooed people who could get that job.

Posted by Dan K | Report as abusive

do not care if the tattoo beaer is the smartest person on the entire planet – visible tattoos gross me out and i take my business to tattoo – less businesses.

and what about people with METAL all over their faces ??? so disgusting.

Posted by Still Gross | Report as abusive

But what if assumption #1 is justified? That tattoos are a reliable signal for lower quality? A person gets a visible tattoo to signal society that they have certain traits, it is an important signal that shouldn’t be dismissed. Assumption #1 is a big one to make.

Posted by BJ Feng | Report as abusive

I would rather hear from Felix why he believes that businesses who have employees with tattooed employees signal to him that they have better service. I’m open to the proposition if he would only justify it (disclaimer: no tattoo on this body, visible or otherwise, but I don’t care one way or the other regarding others).

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

People from a certain moderately-liberal suburban background (visible in many of the comments) often assume that everyone with a tattoo is subhuman. The reality is that a high percentage of people in socioeconomic positions/professions that don’t actively discourage all tattoos have at least a subtle, concealable tattoo. If you talk to waiters even in fine restaurants (i.e. people making more than the average public school teacher), you find lots on the upper arm or leg. Ditto for nurses. These people have tattoos to express individuality and have something to show off, but they’re strategically placed to not show at work.

But something like a face tattoo indicates that a person prioritizes membership in a subculture over easy employability. Sometimes this person is awesome at making lattes and you should seek them out. Sometimes they are mentally unstable and you should avoid them on a bad day.

What I can tell you is that employment at a service institution of any degree of quality is highly competitive, and if a person is chosen out of a pool of 10 or 20 applicants without having the correct “look” for a waiter/waitress, he or she is probably pretty good at the job. On the other hand, some attractive service people are TERRIBLE at their job and you will get tired of admiring the back of their head as you desperately try to flag them down for service.

I also sometimes operate on the related principle that unattractive restaurants with poor service that have remained in business in competitive/expensive neighborhoods probably have good food. It works pretty well with certain exceptions (e.g. college neighborhoods will sustain pizza places and Chinese restaurants that are substandard in both food, service, and decor).

Posted by cgaros | Report as abusive

New York fukn City!

All this commentary sounds like a bad Seinfeld episode. What does that tell you about this blogger. Oooo, I should keep it down or he might come after me like I’m Ben Stein and gloat over my broken corpse after his final victory.

Also, try to post a picture that even remotely resembles your actual visage; saw you on BNN and did a long series of double-takes.

Sorry, but your ultra smugness gets tiring after a while. I’d rather you attack corruption in finance than blahblah about coffee-shops and your perception of their hiring practices.

Posted by Antagonist | Report as abusive

A little light-heartedness… “What your tattoo locations say about you” (contains potentially offensive words): our-tattoo-locations-say-about-you.htm

Posted by Gorgasal | Report as abusive

I follow the logic, but I think it ignores one thing: some buisnesses may be more inclined to hire tattooed workers than others. For instance, a shop like Hot Topic or Spencers would value the image an employee with wican tats on his wrists provides, while a shop like Hallmark or Abercrombie would likely be hurt by it.

I don’t understand this post any more than I would understand the assertion that you both expect to receive and do in fact receive better service from black people, so therefore you are wondering whether the hiring discrimination against blacks will eventually swing the opposite direction or achieve a happy medium.

Frankly, I think you’re ignoring the number of people who feel uncomfortable or even upset when served by a tattooed person. You may personally expect better service, but what about all those people who feel a little uneasy about that serviceperson? Like that person might be more likely to [insert bad thing here]?

I’m guessing you don’t feel that way, but are discounting the number of people who do. It’s like discounting racism in the customer population and then wondering if anti-black hiring discrimination will swing the other way over the course of a generation.

Anyhow, I’d like to hear clarification from you about why it’s rational to discount this consumer preference (which I’ll agree is bigoted and unfair to tattooed persons, but I won’t agree is nonexistent).

Posted by dds | Report as abusive

I think that there might be a bit too much aggregation here. Tattoos say a lot, but it matters which tattoo. Celtic curlicue: trustafarian or wannabe. Ballpoint work: prison. Other commenters have already mentioned hidden v overt. Barber pole stripes on penis? Uh, maybe I went too far.

Posted by Joe S. | Report as abusive

Businesses with tattooed employees are signalling to me that they have better service, and as a result I’m more likely to try them out.

If this is true, how come I always experience shitty service at Firestone?

Posted by Shnaps | Report as abusive

Make it idiot-proof:
It’s called post-humanism, or pre-humanism redux. It’s the boy at Starbucks with a coffee bean tattooed on his forearm; he’s a member of the “Barista tribe.” 
 It’s the public proclamation of loyalty to a subculture; documenting the need to belong; atomization and the rise of pathologically over-determined imagined communities etc.
etc. etc. It’s the sociality of baroque individualism.

We now have food geeks as well as science geeks, all with the moral philosophy of Asperger’s patients: so fixated on their mania for [tube amps/Pouilly-Fuissé/Ducati two stroke engines] that you’d be a fool not to hire them for your [high-end audio store/restaurant/Soho motorcycle salon]. Why be a well rounded adult when you can be an eternal [pre]adolescent and expert, and a happy cog and servant?

And the Captcha read “ikea”

Re: “I tend to both expect and receive much better service from people with visible tattoos.”

I very much doubt that the second part of that would stand up to scrutiny. I am not saying that people with tattoos give better or worse service than others: I have no opinion on that. I am saying that your observation, if properly quantified, would almost certainly turn out to be wrong and that the service offered by those with tattoos would turn out, on the whole, to be neither better or worse.

Posted by skeptic | Report as abusive

while i believe that not all people with visible tattoos are the best choice for any particular job, i still feel that they should have the same chances as anyone else with or without visible tattoos! i have been at the receiving end of this discrimination, i was “hired” at olive garden immediately after my interview, but when i shook the managers hand after he told me i had the job, he saw my tattoos on my wrists and told me if i could cover them with make up then my job was secure. needless to say i went out and bought special (100 dollar) makeup to cover these tattoos. and when i went back to show him they were covered, he told me i couldnt have the job anymore. i understand that some companies have tattoo policies, but they shouldnt give someone a job, tell them what to do to keep it, then take it away. this is why i think everyone should be given the same opportunities when it comes to being hired at a job, because i clearly was what they wanted, but because i have ink it was all taken back. STOP DISCRIMINATING AGAINST PEOPLE WITH TATTOOS! ty :)

Posted by tatgirl2486 | Report as abusive