Lori Ann Phillips is quick to say she isn’t the sort to wear fussy clothes or elaborate jewelry. On this sunny weekday afternoon, she’s clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, with her sunglasses propped on her head and quirky monsters painted on her olive espadrilles, an outfit that corroborates her self-assessment.
Still, when Phillips applied for a new position with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources earlier this year, she begrudgingly wore long sleeves to the job interview.
It was the dead of summer, with sweltering heat and sticky humidity, but she admits she wore a cardigan to cover her most visible tattoos: a delicate twist of flowers that runs along her left ulna, a hummingbird and a detailed black feather opposite it, and a heart bordered by an intricate pattern near her left wrist. Although DENR’s employee handbook lists no rules against visible tattoos, when it came time to climb the state’s employment ladder, Phillips wondered how her new supervisor might perceive the art on her arm.
“I hate that I felt like I had to do that,” she says, glancing down at the colored ink. “I’m still going to cover them for the first week or two. I want to move up, slowly, and I don’t want to be judged unfairly. I hate that I even have to say that.”
As an environmental engineer in the Division of Air Quality, Phillips, 33, is one of the youngest of her 26 co-workers by more than a decade. She’s one of only three females in her entire department. After her promotion, she’ll move from issuing permits for factories and hospitals to higher-profile facilities, like power plants and landfills. Though she’s cognizant of her appearance, Phillips hopes that judging an employee’s work ethic by looksor, in particular, his or her inkis a practice that’s slowly being phased out of the workplace.
Take a look around, and it’s easy to see that the popularity and perception of tattoos is changing. Inked skin is no longer the exclusive domain of bikers or sailors; rather, in co-working spaces, coffee shops and yoga studios, the artwork is a conversation starter, not an ender. It’s often worn like a badge of honor. Chain retailers like Starbucks and The Gap, which once banned visible body art, now hire employees who flaunt full sleeves. According to a 2010 Pew Research Poll, nearly 40 percent of Millennialsthat is, those born during the 1980s, who reached adulthood around the year 2000have at least one tattoo.
But as Phillips’ cover-up shows, a stigma can still exist with regard to either the art or the industry. The owner of a sporting goods store in Durham’s Northgate Mall banned visible body art, although sneaker monolith Nike encourages it. At least one area gym requests that instructors cover tattoos while teaching classes, though they are welcome to show their ink during personal workouts. And the general manager of Raleigh’s Standard Foods, once denied a job from a popular tavern on Hillsborough Street because of her tattoo, is now employed by a head chef with forearms full of color. The situation, at least, is improving.
“I don’t think I would have done this 15 years ago,” Phillips says, extending her tattooed arm. “I do worry about looking professional, but what does that mean now? It’s gotten way better over the years, especially in the design fields. I may not look like your average nerdy engineer, but I am.”
Phillips has collected her ink since she turned 18, the legal age for tattoos in North Carolina. She started with small pieces, like a horseshoe and a music note on her ankles. But it’s the extensive artistry of Athens, Georgia, illustrator David Hale that occupies her arm, and she’s proud of it.
Hale is an unconventional artist who operates on a “pay what you see fit” policy. He recently appeared on CNN, testifying to the spiritual benefits of giving and receiving tattoos. His style has become so sought-after that he only accepts new clients through an e-mail lotteryto which 14,000 people are currently subscribed.
“Once a month, he sends out a newsletter with new designs. I’d been applying and watching for a year and a half, and then I got an email saying I’d been selected,” she says. “The appointment was three days later.”
Phillips took time off from work, scheduled a last-minute trip to Athens and returned to Raleigh with her new art.
I had the most amazing experience,” she says. “I feel so lucky to be a client of his now.”
Despite this growing acceptance of and appreciation for tattoos, not all artists benefit from such community support, as one of Raleigh’s most popular tattooers realized again earlier this year.
After 16 years of tattooing in studios owned by friends and colleagues around the country, Mark VanNess scoured Raleigh for storefronts where he could start his own business. Many landlords rejected him, but in March 2013, he signed a two-year lease with the City of Raleigh for the property at 226 E. Martin St., a beautiful 1,600-square-foot two-story just off Moore Square. He opened VanNess & Fellows Tattoo Boutique.
With the help of his wife, Jess, VanNess reimagined the traditional tattoo parlor as a comfortable, inviting space on the edge of City Market. He hung no “flash” on the wallsthat is, colorful posters of cliché tattoos, like the booklets of temporary tattoos you might give a child. Instead, framed artwork he and his collaborators had painted adorned the hallways. In the lobby, moss in glass terrariums sat atop the hearth of a brick fireplace, while antique bottles and old books rested below. If you ignored the persistent buzz of the tattoo guns working upstairs, you could imagine yourself in the VanNess family home, sipping a cup of tea, not the family business, awaiting your turn on the table.
Still, when VanNess’ lease ended in March and he entered a month-to-month agreement with the city, he inquired about 30 rental properties. He says he was turned away from all but one.
“Landlords would say that they don’t want to deal with ‘that kind of clientele,’ even though I’d been around for two years with a classy establishment,” VanNess explains. “I’d tell them I had five stars across the board, not a single bad review on any website. I felt like I had the best tattoo shop in all of Raleigh, possibly the Triangle. But it was always a no.”
VanNess had tried to prepare for this situation. Before landing the City Market space, he faced more real estate rejections than he can remember. During his two-year tenure on Martin Street, he worked to ingratiate himself with the community. VanNess & Fellows became a city-sanctioned First Friday event space, welcoming curious onlookers in the evenings and holding raffles for artwork in the downstairs gallery. VanNess organized fundraisers for the SPCA each spring and toy drives for Raleigh-based SAFEchild during the holidays, too. He developed a roster of clients so devoted that he was booked four months in advance.
“You could come in any time during the day and see exactly what we were doing. We’re not building bikes out of the back or cooking meth. There’s no secret knock on the door,” he says, with a rueful laugh. “It was a legitimate art studio. I’m a family guy. I care about kids and dogs. There were so many things I did to keep us away from the stereotype.”
When the City of Raleigh released its Downtown Experience Plan in April of this year, an indiscriminate new building stood in the place of VanNess & Fellows’ historic home. The plan arrived just a month after the city refused to reinstate his lease. Investors began showing up at the property. The transitory nature of his rental agreement meant that VanNess may be ejected with just a 30-day notice.
Remembering the difficulty he had already faced the first time around, he knew his situation was tenuous. He began taking a different route to work each dayusing Hillsborough and Peace streets, for instance, to cut through the Warehouse District and Glenwood Southto hunt for a new space.
A realtor with storefront property in the Five Points area sounded promising until VanNess mentioned his line of work. Then, click. For kicks, VanNess repeated the call a day later, feigning interest in beer, not tattoos. Despite a half-dozen breweries already in the area, VanNess received an eager reply.
“When I called back, it was, ‘Oh, that’s great. We’ve got a vibrant business community here.’ So, if I sell poisonwhich I’m not against or anything, I’m a person who drinksthat’s totally OK,” he says. “But if I have a tattoo shop, where people not on drugs or alcohol sit quietly and create some artwork, listen to music and have great conversation, and we close by 8 o’clock … I just don’t get it.”
For the next three months, warm inquiry met with cool rejection. The only downtown storefront willing to accept his studio currently rents to a head shop. But the owner, says VanNess, asked for three times the rent VanNess was paying for less than half the space he had in the Victorian house.
After repeated rejection, this tepid acceptance was the last straw. On August 28, VanNess shuttered the shop that bears his name, sold his house and began the long trek to Texas, where his wifepreviously a stay-at-home mom to their two-year-old son, Sawyerhad secured a job in graphic design. In October, VanNess will begin splitting his time between two studios in Austin, a city that he says is as accepting of tattoo makers as it is tattoo wearers. In the meantime, the artist has auctioned relics from his shop online, including the artwork in the hallways and the hand-painted sign that hung above the door.
“I’m starting all over, at this stage in my life,” he says, sighing. “If you look at what’s going on in downtown Raleigh right now, for 15 years they’ve been revitalizing, trying to get commerce downtown, trying to get people to open up shops and make this a fun city, which it has becometo a degree. But the businesses are bars and restaurants. There’s a real lack of diversity downtown.”
Even while he will begin again in Texas, VanNess can take some comfort in the stories of those who find unexpected benefits from their ink. An area foster-care therapist, who asked to remain anonymous for confidentiality reasons, says that her tattoos aren’t discouraged in the mental health field (though her nose ring, a graspable item, is). In fact, they help her build rapport with the younger patients.
“I had a child that others worked with who did not want to open up. The child saw my wrist tattoo and started talking, because my tattoos didn’t make them feel judged,” she says. The words “Mi Vida” (“my life” in Spanish) and a small pink heart sit on her left wrist. She plans to add two new hearts to the tattoo to represent the recent birth of her two daughters.
“It’s an icebreaker with the teenagers,” she says. “It offers them the sense that I’m human, without disclosing anything that could damage the therapeutic relationship.”
She began getting tattoos a decade ago. All told, she sports seven of them, including a colorful portrait of a ship on her upper arm, a cherry blossom on her ankle and each of her daughters’ handprints across her shoulder. Though the tattoos are deeply personal, she feels they offer their own sense of social acceptance, too.
“The wealthy have them. The poor have them. They all tell a story,” she says. “In a world where corporate America makes the rules, you can express individuality while wearing a suit and tie. You can carry your family, your treasures and your story with you on those ridiculous 14-hour days, or on the Saturday that you’re not with family. When a picture isn’t handy, tattoos are always there.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Tattooed you”