Martin Jones didn't think ahead when he was 18 and inked a panther on the side of his face. He thought it was cool. Now Jones is 25, and the tattoo cost him his job at Fry's Food Store in Arizona.
"It's been really hard," he says. "I was working nights doing stock, before people even start coming to the store. They let me go."
Jones realized his tattoo was going to hold him back. He had worked in roofing and at Walmart in the past. He's always been trying to get beyond his troubled youth in Chicago, where he grew up in group homes and never knew his heroin-addicted father. This last layoff was the wake-up call. Now, with a two-year-old and a wife, he's still optimistic that everything will work out.
He started the process of tattoo removal with Dr. Phil Knall in Phoenix, AZ.
Easy on, harder off
"The number one reason people come here is names," Knall said. "They're not with 'Susie' anymore. The new girlfriend is dragging them in here. Close second is hands and wrists. That is due to career. They realized that maybe an employer had three to four finalists previously and now they have 40 -- and they don't like ink."
Knall's laser procedure breaks up the ink under the skin into tiny particles, which are then eliminated by the body. The colors determine how easily the ink comes off. Blacks and reds are easiest, but some red inks, when removed, can cause an allergic, itchy reaction. Treatments are four to six weeks apart. The process takes an average of seven to 10 visits and costs less than $150 per visit.
Knall, who does not have any tattoos, says it feels like a rubber band snapping the skin. Most people say tattoos are more painful to get off than get on in the first place. But people are still getting inked. In 2006, the Journal of the Academy of Dermatology reported that almost one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 had tattoos -- up from 15 percent in 2000.
Ink in the military
Many companies have specific policies regarding tattoos, perhaps none so specific as the U.S. military. The Army has a 693-word policy just on tattoos. The only bodily locations addressed and prohibited are on the head, neck, and face above the collar. The focus is on content, where negative messages are prohibited anywhere on the body:
"Tattoos or brands that are extremist, indecent, sexist, or racist are prohibited, regardless of location on the body" (Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia -- AR 670-1)
Air Force Instruction 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance, states, "Excessive tattoos and brands will not be exposed or visible while in uniform." Excessive is defined as any tattoo/brands exceeding one-quarter of the exposed body part and those above the collarbone when wearing an open collar uniform.
Even with tattoos allowed, perception of tattoos still has impact. Joseph Gordoa has been in the Army Reserves for seven years. He has been through Korea, Japan, Germany, Ireland, Kuwait and one tour in Iraq. His forearm tattoo commemorates his hometown, but he wants it gone. "Nobody has complained about it," he says, "I just don't want it anymore, I'm just getting older. I feel less professional with it. And the more rank I put on, the more professional i want to be."
No consistency in corporate America
If you think it's a First-Amendment right to boast a tattoo, the law has often sided with corporations that don't approve of them. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they do not discriminate or hinder a person's race, color, religion, age, national origin, or gender.
In corporate America, Walmart and Ford allow "non-offensive" tattoos. Vans, the "counter-culture" sneaker and lifestyle brand, enacted a "no visible tattoo" policy in 2009.
Tattoos at work ... and at home
Jones is thinking of his family and their future. "You start thinking of school meetings with your son. You want to go back to the real you," he says. "It hurts worse getting it off. It was cheaper to get it on. I'm paying for it now. I learned from it."