The mayor of the Japanese city of Osaka recently caused a kerfuffle by banning tattooed people from working in local government. “If they want to have tattoos, they should quit working for the city and go to the private sector,” he declared. He took action after it was reported that a city employee with lots of tattoos had scared children at a welfare centre. It is now reported that cosmetic-surgery clinics in Osaka have seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of people asking for tattoos to be removed, most of them “recent graduates” who clearly have an eye on getting a cushy city job. This week the Huffington Post claimed that such official hostility to tattoos is becoming a global issue: “Job-seekers all over the world are finding that their tats may be costing them a job opportunity.”
Why is this even a talking point? It would have been utterly uncontroversial just 15 or 20 years ago for government bodies to insist that their workers be clean of tattoos, or at least that their tattoos should not be visible to the public. But today, when virtually every young person has a tattoo, and when virtually every young person believes that being asked by an employee to look and dress a certain way is the modern equivalent of fascism, an official can cause a stink simply by saying “No Tats”. A little more grown-up thought on the part of 18 year-olds who get their arms covered in daft Sanskrit drivel, à la David Beckham, or in pictures of drunken sailors, à la Amy Winehouse, could prevent problems like this from arising. The alleged tattoo crisis facing “job-seekers all over the world” is a product of young people’s inability to think long-term, to conceive of themselves as adult beings who will one day have to enter the job market and be respectable, not of any hotheaded tyranny on the part of Japanese mayors or corporation bosses.
However, the mistake that the mayor of Osaka and other officials and employees make is to believe that tattoos are evidence of deviancy. They aren’t. They’re now symbols of conformism. Indeed, it is those who withstand the social pressure to get a tattoo, those who see all the endless photos of celebs sporting body art and who still refuse to join in, who are the true deviants today. If a deviant is one who “departs from usual or accepted standards”, then it is the non-tattooed, the unbranded, who are exercising deviancy in the 21st century. In an era when, in Britain, more than a third of 16- to 44-year-olds have tats, when PM's wives sport them, when there has been, in the words of one newspaper, “a massive boom in body art led by celebrities, footballers and other high-profile figures”, it requires Herculean levels of self-possession to refuse to be tattooed. Once, a tattoo marked someone out as a rebel, as an individual who had voluntarily cast himself out of the mainstream; today, when you can’t walk down a high street without seeing scores of branded people, being tattooed is the mainstream. And to not be tattooed, to have what is known as “virgin skin”, is to thumb your nose at the mainstream, to demonstrate your ability to read celebrity magazines and listen to “high-profile figures” bang on about the glories of body art without feeling the need to copy them. To reject body art is to rebel.
So while the mayor of Osaka and other official figures around the world might be justified in their old-fashioned dislike of tattoos, maybe they’ve got things the wrong way round. If it’s respectable, decent, conformist workers they want, then they should look to the tattooed, whose body art is evidence not of deviancy but of its opposite: a willingness to comply with cultural norms and to bow and scrape before social pressure.