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 looks—or, in particular, his or her ink—is 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 Millennials—that is, those born during the 1980s, who reached adulthood around the year 2000—have 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 lottery—to 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.