Tattoo town

Dec 11 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

They call themselves the EKINS in an oh-so-cool reversal of the iconic brand for which they work. And to mark their passion for corporate-kool-aid, these Nike employees volunteer to have Swoosh tattoos onto their arms and ankles.

It's a fact that excites employee engagement gurus and disturbs anti-branding writers.

But it still kind of makes you think - Does anyone at your company have your logo tattooed onto part of their anatomy? Can you imagine anyone doing it? What would it take for you to want to have your commitment permanently inked onto any part of your anatomy? Is this individual expression or corporate ownership? (And why doesn't everyone just use Henna?!)

And it's not just employees that do the corporate tattoo thang. According to a Newsweek report, an increasing number of consumers are choosing to doll their skin up with a bit of brand magic. One, 22 year-old Peter McBride, now boasts a preppy polo logo just above his right nipple (there's photo of debatable taste of both his tattoo and mullet on the Newsweek website – all so 1980s Pretty In Pink bad guy).

Ikea had a successful advertising campaign at with an employee's body decor extolling its in-store and design virtues. And of course Harley Davidson fans have been tattooing their pride and joy's name for generations. A sign, we are told, of their undying devotion to the cause and one to which all companies should aspire.

Noting the trend, TatAd, based in Canada, has gathered together a community of four and a half thousand people (or "loyal promoters") who are willing (for a fee) to wear a temporary or permanent tattoo of a product that they love and use.

In response to criticism that they are turning an act of personal expression into one of corporatized homogeneity TatAds argue that they, "provide people with the compensation they deserve", for being, "walking billboards anyway", in the labels they wear and the evangelising they do on behalf of their favourite brands.

The human billboard concept has spread to include sportsmen and women. Middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins has fought twice with the Golden Palace online gambling site's tattoo over his back receiving $100,000 each time he did it. The relevant boxing commission challenged Hopkins right to wear the tattoo (on exaggerated claims of safety problems) and lost.

Meanwhile, NBA basketball player Rasheed Wallace features his "body art" in advertisements for Nike (and was sued for copyright infringement by the tattoo artist even though the art was on his own body!) and has been offered big deals for adding corporate logos.

According to Body Modification magazine, more than 70% of young people have tattoos or a body piercing –(although seems likely that this includes "normal" ear-rings) – but they will be expected to keep them out of view because of what appear to be strong legal (and perhaps moral) instincts to prevent tattooing in corporate settings.

In a survey for, 42% of employers said their opinion would be lowered if they knew someone had a visible tattoo or piercing with an amazing 15% lowering their opinion even if the tattoos were concealed – which could make for a disheartening end to a romantic evening.

At Starbucks, for example, "baristas who serve the $5 lattes can't display any tattoos or wear any piercing jewelry besides small, matched pair earrings. Each ear can't have more than two piercings. Serving upscale coffee demands upscale workers, according to Starbucks, and tattoos don't fit that scheme".

As Cheri Libby, a Starbucks spokeswoman explained, "We strive to present a clean, neat, professional appearance that is appropriate for a retailer of gourmet specialty products".

This echoes the view of Disney spokeswoman, Rene Callahan, who felt that, "the appearance guidelines reflect the appearance and quality and the attention to detail that Disney wants to project as a professional company, and those are guidelines that Disney guests have come to expect".

In other words, tattoos are not to be seen on any of Disney's 50,000 cast members, although tattoo sightings have been made upon the piratical skin of Cap'n Jack Sparrow and (disgracefully) all of his crew.

Even the lovely (but perhaps not upscale coffee drinker) Keira Knightley (who buckled her swash alongside our man Jack) has displayed a tattoo – of a goldfish no less - in her role in the movie Domino.

Nothing about the film would reduce the corporate bias against visible employees sharing needle-inflicted ink designs with their clients. The link that worries them most is that they will scare away customers who associated tattoos with criminality (did you see Wentworth Miller's full body blueprint tattoo in Prison Break?) and violent gangs.

But that's pretty much nonsense because the evidence just isn't there. And any employer with such a policy is probably basing it on prejudice based on movie watching and personal preference rather than any real impact on customers.

As one writer argued, "So, who should be hired? A girl with dyed hair, eight piercing and a predilection for music by Marilyn Manson, or the South Australian Young Businessperson of the Year, an honour student with grade 6 AMEB qualifications?"

"Either way", she goes on to say, "You have just employed me. So don't judge a book by its cover, and don't judge an employee on their modifications, instead, grant them the consideration by choosing instead on their qualifications."

Luisa also points out the results of one survey that showed 84% of customers don't care whether the person serving them has tattoos or piercing but only whether they receive courteous service.

As one indignant person put it, "bottom line, in my opinion, is this: In the line of work I'm in (call centre work), does it really matter what I look like? I NEVER meet anyone I speak with in person. All my work is done through the phone. So what does it matter what I look like? Are people so insecure that they can't face "one of them" as having his own look and opinion about how he wants to present himself?

"In my mind, them criticizing me is no better than them being prejudice towards someone because they're, african-american, middle-eastern, native american or asian, because they're making assumptions and accusations based on the colour(s) of my skin."

In a business world obsessed by the need to differentiate products and services – it seems counterproductive to unthinkingly insist on bland homogeneity among the people who do the work and think of the ideas.

Diversity isn't just making sure we have a balanced portfolio of races and religions but benefiting from the individuality of the human race to better serve the human race.

Sure it offends Naomi Klein that people are "branding their flesh" but isn't it worse that a corporation can't tell the difference between what counts (performance, or even better, contribution) and what doesn't (inoffensive pictures on our skin)?

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.