A trainee teacher has claimed she was sent home on the first day of her new job because she was covered in tattoos. Charlotte Tumilty said St John Vianney Primary School in Hartlepool told her the body art on her hands, neck and feet was unacceptable. She was sent away and told she could only return once her tattoos had been covered up – which Tumilty, a mum of two, says is impossible. She is claiming discrimination, but the school has argued that other inked teachers are also employed at the school. The vast majority of schools in the UK have formal dress codes because schools are, after all, considered a formal work environment. In this sense, St John Vianney is getting the balance right between individual freedom (have a tattoo if you like) and the right tone for the workplace (don’t have them on display in the classroom).
The issue would be a non-story if it wasn’t for the tattoos. The ubiquity of inked skin has eroded a once-powerful taboo surrounding such daubings on human flesh. In fact, few people disapprove of tattoos nowadays. Even St John Vianney, a Catholic primary school, has a relatively relaxed attitude towards its staff having tattoos, despite the fact that tattoos are strictly forbidden within Catholicism. The incident suggests that tattoo enthusiasts are keen to invite judgements (real or imagined) from the few remaining outposts that disapprove of daubed, inky flesh. It’s summed up by a meme that is doing the rounds on social media that claims ‘some of the nicest people you’ll meet have tattoos, while some of the most judgemental will go to church on Sunday’.
In the past, tattoos were seen as taboo because they were associated with lowlifes and criminals. Clearly, that taboo and prejudice has all but disappeared. Now tattoos are simply a fashion accessory, ubiquitous throughout society. For some, that’s part of the problem; it’s harder to present yourself as an ‘edgy’, alternative individual when everyone’s an ‘edgy’, alternative individual. So, for some, the fact that someone has expressed a mild disapproval of tattoos in a certain context is seized upon as proof that tattoos are still controversial. Either way, it’s hardly tantamount to racial or sexual discrimination, no matter how some secretly wish it was.
Tattooed types, though, still believe they’re bravely striking a blow against buttoned-up conservatives everywhere. In fact, to be part of mainstream society nowadays, you actively have to cultivate your inner hippie. From Tony Blair to Richard Branson, an adolescent disdain for formal dress in formal situations is the new orthodoxy. Good riddance, some may think; what people wear shouldn’t matter anyway. But the whole point of neutral and formal wear is that it’s meant to show that a person is putting the job first and that they respect the position of responsibility they hold. A demand for tattoos to be accepted in a workplace environment is a refusal to take your position or yourself seriously.
Sam Stevens is a writer based in London.