Many students may want tattoos, but worry about the image they send to potential employers or their family members. What exactly goes into the decision to ink up? Graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern

Weinberg third-year Art Bautista recalls exactly how his aunt in Guatemala reacted when he got his first tattoo — “April is the Cruelest Month” from T.S Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.”

“She told me she was glad that I had the possibility of working in another country, because in Guatemala, no one would hire me with those tattoos,” Bautista said.

Basically everyone back home agreed with his aunt: the ink was a black mark on his future.

Besides his sister, he can’t name a single family member with any tats, and their relatives consider them black sheep. Still, he plans to keep it.

“There was something really powerful about being able to permanently alter my skin and have it be visible because with my mental health struggles, it permanently altered something inside of me that wasn't visible,” Bautista said.

Bautista's tattoo. While Bautista enjoys having his ink on display, he said his family considered the tattoo a "black mark on his future." Photo courtesy of Art Bautista


At Northwestern University, where 72% of all students enter the workforce within six months of graduating, it makes sense for many to be self-conscious about and manicure their image to help land highly sought-after internships or climb the corporate ladder.

Despite this inclination, it might just be a relic of the past. Almost every business — from Starbucks to Goldman Sachs — hires employees with body art. Keep in mind that many of them, including Goldman Sachs, have not released public statements on which types and placements of tattoos they find acceptable; they are often vague about their dress codes.

Regardless, tattoos have become increasingly popular among the student-aged population. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 36% of individuals aged 18 - 25 have some sort of tattoo, which is on par with the whole of Gen X’s 40%. Modern celebrities reflect this upward trend, with tattooed stars like Travis Barker, LeBron James, Pete Davidson and J Balvin rising to massive popularity among recent generations.

Many students who had already gotten tattoos generally showed indifference toward how the ink might impact their careers.

For Medill fourth-year Quan Pham, the meanings hidden in the collection of tattoos running along his forearm hold more importance than any possible job. Each symbolically celebrates his home or a different member of his family: an orchid for Vietnam, an apricot blossom for his sister, an X for his grandmother and an accent mark for his mother.

Pham's tattoos: an orchid for Vietnam, an apricot blossom for his sister, an X for his grandmother and an accent mark for his mother. Photo courtesy of Quan Pham

Pham, who is doing his journalism residency at  digital marketing firm Message Lab, feels no need to cover up his ink.

“From my experience, I’ve been seeing more and more people, even more senior higher ups [have] some sort of tattoo or jewelry, or accessories,” Pham said. “I think it's where we’re headed, which is good.”

In fact, a study from Workopolis, a Canadian job website, found only a minority of employers felt they were definitely less likely to hire someone with a tattoo. However, 63% of respondents said their answer would depend on the number, location and/or type of job. Only one employer noted tattoos made them more likely to hire someone.

More positively, Michael T. French, Miami University Professor of Health Management and Policy, recently discussed his research on the subject with the Harvard Business Review, which found people with tattoos are just as – if not more – likely to be employed than those without them.

According to Tracy Van Moorlehem, director of Medill’s Journalism Residency program and employer engagement, since each hiring manager is different, one might view having tattoos negatively and another might see it as an asset. Regardless, she cautions students to think deeply about their future before choosing to get any ink.

“Do you really know what your tastes will be 10 or 20 years from now, or where you’ll want to work?” Van Moorlehem said.

At Northwestern, few professors sport full sleeves of ink, but a closer look will reveal that many professionals on campus have some sort of body art. One day, philosophy professor Peter van Elswyk wore a short sleeve shirt to teach his logic class, exposing his tattoo — the ancient Greek word for love “philía” — to his entire class. The revelation generated what he described as more intrigue than judgment among his students.

“[Having a tattoo as a philosophy professor is] not unusual. That's not to say I don't worry about senior colleagues perhaps having judgment about it, but a time will come where such senior colleagues are not in my profession anymore, and so it won't matter,” van Elswyk said.

Van Elswyk plans to get at least one more tattoo in the near future — a matching pair of flowers with his partner to celebrate their recent marriage. For him, tattoos seem to be synonymous with being a millennial in America.

“I think I'm more surprised when someone doesn't have one,” van Elswyk said.

Cultural Conflicts

Van Elswyk’s tattoo is a tribute to the time he donated stem cells to his father, helping to save his life from cancer. The lettering runs along the same part of his arm from which the nurses extracted the blood containing the needed cells.

But his parents were not immediately in love with the ink. Van Elswyk described his family as conservative evangelicals who naturally disapproved of tattoos. His uncle, a U.S. Marine, was the only person in his family he could recall having any ink.

“My dad was very cynical about it. But then, when he understood what the tattoo was, the conversation ended with him crying,” van Elswyk said.

McCormick third-year Marcos Sanchez lives a tattoo-free life. If he were ever to get one, he would pick something small. His reservations come down to his disliking the aesthetic of expansive tattoos and his parents’ religious beliefs.

“My mom is pretty adamant about it, like ‘don’t get a tattoo, your bodies are temples,’ type stuff,” Sanchez said.

In multiple other cultures, tattoos also have historically marked social pariahs. In Vietnam, Pham said, many –  especially those in older generations –  see tattoos as a sign of deviance.

In Japan, many public baths won’t allow patrons who have ink anywhere on their bodies, citing a connection between tattoos and the Yakuza criminal organization. In 2019, heavily tattooed players on rugby teams playing in the World Cup hosted by Japan chose to cover up their most prominent ink to respect the country’s cultural standards.

But certain cultures have a vivid and storied history of tattooing. Among Samoan people, baring a hand-done “tatau” is a point of pride. They represent the people’s tradition, history and individual statuses. Many Samoans have large tattoos all over their body

In Guatemala, one Al Jazeera report noted the country is experiencing a cultural shift in how it views tattoos. While there are still some, like Bautista’s family, who connect tattoos to criminals and the underclass, more and more have come to see ink as a sign of self-expression.

“In the rural areas, they're more hostile toward tattoos. In urban areas, I think people have grown to be a little more accepting of them,” Bautista said.

The Self

Bautista has a second tattoo on his collarbone — a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — which he got while at NU. He took the L into the city and had it done on a whim at 8 p.m. in a tattoo shop he can’t even remember the name of. The ink cost over $300, and that’s now money he regrets spending. Bautista said he no longer feels connected to the book like he did when he got the tattoo and hopes to one day get the quote lasered off of his body.

Almost no one gets a tattoo with the intention of getting it removed. They are supposed to be permanent, but that permanence creates its own internal pressure to have the “right” symbols or images inked.

Van Moorlehem said she almost got a regrettable tattoo after graduating from NU.

“I thought about getting a very large and visible tattoo. I couldn’t afford it, and I’m very glad about that now because the specific design is not at all aligned with my current tastes,” Van Moorlehem said in an email.

Pham said he waited a year between first thinking of his tattoo idea and actually getting it inked. He used the time to mull over the images and discuss it with his family to create the design, find the right artist and ensure he would be OK with having these images on him for the rest of his life.

“I really chose something that I know will be more permanent — things about my own experience or my family, because five, ten years down the line, things might change, but at the end of the day, family’s family,” Pham said.

For Pham, his designs’ symbolism and connection to his family helped him accept the permanence of the ink. But at the same time, do tattoos necessarily need to have a deep meaning for someone to commit to one? Van Elswyk didn’t seem to think so.

“It's hard to say that representational art is better than non-representational art, that whimsical art is somehow worse than or better than other types of maybe more earnest art making,” van Elswyk said.

But would he allow his own son to get a tattoo someday?

“I'm on the side of having tattoos that depict momentous occasions in my life. That's my approach to tattoo-getting and I’m probably biased in that direction when I think about him getting a tattoo. If it marks some sort of important part of [his] life, then absolutely,” van Elswyk said.

Thumbnail image by Olivia Abeyta