I grappled, standing in the morning sun on the day I was to get my tattoo, with the last shreds of fear- I was purposefully giving away a piece of my camouflage. This camouflage had allowed me to navigate charity Galas, high-end department stores, IEP meetings for my niece and speaking engagements. It cloaked me in middle-class invisibility when breezing through the racks of Brooks Brother’s in Austin, TX, unfettered and virtually unnoticed; not a second glance given to me as I took a handful of dresses straight into the dressing room sans attendant.
I realized that in a few short hours, long gone would be the days that I could simply walk into a jewelry store and try on anything I wanted without so much as a glance. I’d no longer be able to talk to elementary school students without first explaining “What is that on your hands”, and I knew for certain that there would come some point in time where someone was going to treat me poorly, maybe even publicly, for the societal stain that I was going to purposefully wear for the rest of my life.
Then again, that was the point.
“You’re old enough to get a job-killer”, my friend, Sandra reassured me over a cocktail in our favorite watering hole. That’s what these types of tattoos are called; job-killers. Job-killers refer to a specific subset of tattoos; ones that not only can’t be hidden, but are so highly visible that most employers won’t even take a resume or application from someone owning a job-killer. Hands, neck and face tattoos all qualify in the “job-killer” category. These are the tattoos that your artist will have a special talk with you about before you get them, if they’re an ethical artist.
I’m 39 years old this year, and throughout my adult life, I’ve realized that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve always had amazing jobs. The best jobs I’ve ever had have all been in places where I could have had a spider tatted on my nose and it wouldn’t have made a difference (except that I would have had a pretty interesting nickname, I’m sure), but I’ve been lucky. I was born cognitively intact, white, attractive enough for all normal purposes, average height and weight; I started my life camouflaged in “normalcy”, where my differences were considered to be “artistic” or “quirky”. I was allowed the privilege of being seen as “interesting”, which is an asset to finding amazing jobs.
In the community of people experiencing homelessness, several observations can be noticed. There are typically more people of color than white people. There is an abundance of “job-killing” tattoos. In addition to tats being visibly placed, many express pain. R.I.P (Rest in Peace) tattoos with people’s names are often found as neck tattoos. Four-lettered words fit nicely on fingers. Expressions of hatred of the police (“Fuck 12” or “Fuck the Police”), gang symbols, face teardrops and marijuana leaves are often displayed openly, making interaction with police officers even more difficult than they have to be.
Tattoos are expressions of periods of time. People who experience extreme difficulties (prison, abuse, frustration with society) often express themselves through body artwork- these days we all do. Great lengths are taken by friends of mine to create the most perfect tattoo for themselves; thought, artist research (both in the drawing of the design and in the skill of the tattoo artist), placement and of course, if the design is compatible with their careers. In a society where spending time in prison is rewarded with a lifetime of homelessness and an inability to be hired anywhere, career tattoo placement isn’t really a consideration, survival is.
In a few short hours, I would have something worthy of being stared at in the grocery line. A commitment that would make little old ladies shake their heads and roll their eyes. A brand that would reward me with the ability to be followed closely through that high-end department store, eyes focused on everything I touched. I’ll have something that no amount of middle-class mediocracy can cover up.
I can choose to dress it up, though. I can choose to talk about it, to present it with careful words. I can begin a conversation with it. Our community members can’t change being black, having been born with mental illness, having served time, past associations or many of their circumstances. I’d still have plenty of privilege, even if I gave some of it away. I’ve decided to give it to them.