Tattoo Wars: Indelible Unprofessionalism Or Unfair Discrimination?

“Professionalism” and “client perception” are the buzzwords most often bandied about in response to the budding enthusiasm for ink at all socioeconomic levels.

Kirra MacDonald

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I recently exceeded my friends’ and family’s expectations by crossing the 40-year mark with no ink on my person. In spite of a prolonged skate-punk phase, I’d somehow escaped this particular depravation of the flesh.

But let me be clear: It’s not that I consider tattoos tacky, déclassé or ugly. My reticence is more to do with the assumption that the ink wouldn’t evolve as gracefully as the rest of me. (It’s long been my view that tattoos age less well than the skin it tints.) And what image would I care to live with forever, anyway?

Alas, puerile image selection and sagging skin aren’t what most practice managers cite when they grumble over the recent scourge of tattoos within our ranks.

"Professionalism” and "client perception” are the buzzwords most often bandied about in response to the budding enthusiasm for ink at all socioeconomic levels.

Which can be problematic … and not simply because some people like tattoos and some don’t.

Personal Preferences

Though it’s true that personal style preferences are typically at the heart of this issue, that this trend’s limits seem strictly generational means those in charge are more likely to make taste-based management decisions that can rub some the wrong way.

The reality is that most practice owners and managers just don’t like the idea of their employees’ inked individuality on display for all their clients to gawk at––as if it might reflect badly on them … or perhaps on the practice’s bottom line.

Not that most clients really care. After all, if a veterinarian or staff member does a great job, who gives a whit what’s written on the inside of his wrist?

I got to thinking about this after two recent events. The first was an email from a recent grad inquiring about the wisdom of extending a tattoo upwards toward her neckline while employed at a conservative practice with a strong no-tattoo culture.

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 "It’s the perfect job! But I don’t think I’d ever be asked to buy in if they knew about my sleeve.” 

Alas, she’s not alone.

Though practices may shun those who show their tattoos with few legal repercussions (some caveats apply), demographic shifts far friendlier to body art are on the horizon. Once we become culturally desensitized to this innocuous form of self-expression, I predict that precious few tattoos will come under fire. No more, anyway, than myriad other attributes that might inspire partiality or prejudice.

Jewelry? Haircuts? Glasses? Shoes? Breast implants? Hair implants? Eye lifts? How about weight and age? Why check your biases at tattoos, just because you don’t happen to consider one "professional”? What else didn’t qualify as "professional” 30 years ago? Sixty?

That’s why I take heart in knowing that those who don’t value this particular version of diversity in the veterinary workplace can’t run the profession forever. They can play their game of culture commando for only so long before they’ll be forced to cede to generations with alternative points of view on this, among other issues.

Until then, I feel compelled to answer queries like our colleague’s with a mere smattering of sympathetic words. For good measure, I expressed hope for a brighter future and suggested she might consider employment elsewhere.

I mean, who wants to work at a place where you’re dead sure you’ll be discriminated against for your preferred appearance? Even what you might consider the perfect job can’t be if the management harbors biases unrelated to how well you do your job.

Dog Days

Then there’s the other event that inspired this brief tirade. Last month, a man who describes himself as an artist and a dog lover took his tattooing trade a tad too far for most animal lovers’ taste when he inked an intricate design on his young dog’s belly.

"Cruel and unusual” was the general consensus from the pro-pet set. On his tattoo parlor’s Facebook page, dog defenders cited the pain of the tattooing process and the pointlessness of an elaborate illustration that does little more than serve an owner’s ego.

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In response to the outrage over his dog’s ink, the proud owner of this crop-eared bully breed advanced that he’s entitled to mark them however he pleases. To further his point, he highlighted the fact that he’d done so "artistically.”

Moreover, tattooing serves a purpose, he explained. "What do they do when they brand animals and tattoo horses on their ear and brand their cows? You’re not abusing them. You’re just protecting them so they don’t get lost.”

But even if these "indelible” methods were as widely accepted as tattoos on livestock, they couldn’t be reasonably compared to the elaborate ink job in question. The time-intensive process on this 6-inch long piece of "art” would’ve been too lengthy and painful to expect any pet to endure––even this bully bitch.

Yet her owner defends the design’s humane origins by claiming it was created immediately after her ear crop … while she remained fully anesthetized under a veterinarian’s care.

If the owner’s story holds (as of press time, it was still under investigation), it raises an issue far more disturbing than one bigheaded yahoo’s warped cultural norms and bad taste: Maintaining anesthesia for as long as it takes to undertake a cosmetic procedure and an extensive tattoo seems an indefensible breach of the primum non nocere ethic we’ve pledged an oath to uphold.

Indeed, the fact that a colleague would participate in such a lengthy narcissistic venture seems the far greater offense of the two––one I can’t help but observe with a certain irony. Given the lengths some among us will go to ban similar marks among employees, it seems incongruous that we as a profession should continue to uphold our right to perform procedures that offer no therapeutic benefit.

You may object to my assertion that a cosmetic procedure of any description constitutes a breach of ethics; after all, the AVMA disapproves but tacitly condones. Perhaps you believe that comparing tattoos applied to defenseless dogs to those elected by humans isn’t apt, or that to advance both arguments at once wrongly conflates rational practice management decisions with ethical malfeasance.

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But you’d be missing my point if you did.

Because ultimately, my argument rests on the contention that discrimination on the basis of personal appearance is effectively unethical––more so when it’s sanctioned by the same kind of irrational cultural bigotry that leads us to find beauty in pet mutilation. 

Dr. Khuly is a small animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com.

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