Dubai: Tattoos are not what they used to be. In most parts of the world — mainly in the West — tattoos are no longer the purview of gang members, sailors, criminals, prisoners and bikers, but seen as a form of art and self expression. From celebrities to television shows about its practice, there has been a resurgence in popularity and appreciation over the past few years.
But this is the Gulf region where tattoos still carry a stigma among local populations and conservative expatriates. Tattoos are forbidden in Islam. Already having a tattoo when entering the country is not a problem, but operating tattoo parlours are a legal grey area in the UAE and many have been shut down by police.
Gulf News asks heavily tattooed UAE residents what life is like for them and recruiters about the implications of having body art.
Business world stigma
Tattoos may elicit strange and disapproving looks from strangers, but can they harm your career prospects and your community's perception of you?
Andrew McNeilis, Middle East and Africa managing director of talent2 recruitment agency, advises against having tattoos in the UAE if you plan to be a part of the business world here. "Any person wishing to be perceived as an internationally and culturally astute business professional needs to really think through the implications of getting a tattoo," says McNeilis.
He referred to an old Anglo-Saxon adage that states "tattoos on the hands are the international symbol of trouble makers'. Fans of body art may encourage people to think beyond stereotypes however "there is still a huge stigma associated with visible tattoos in many local cultures".
McNeilis recalls an incident at a steam bath with a Japanese client and Western colleague with extensive tattoos. "My colleague — a serious banker — was viewed as a pillar of respectability by the Japanese client until the tattoos were spotted. Highly westernised, my Japanese client still was visibly disappointed by the ink on display and the business relationship died. Yakuza and tattoos being the link with the ink!"
Even high profile executives have tattoos though the key is to keep them concealed says recruiter George Stothard, director of Fabric Executive Search based in Dubai, who also sports tattoos.
"I have tattoos but I make sure they're not visible. If you want a job in the corporate environment you can't turn up with a tattoo on your neck," he said.
Stothard said he had no regrets about getting his tattoos but is aware of strange looks he gets at the beach or in a water park. A recent trip to Palestine was also an eye opener. Stothard visited refugee children and his tattoos were visible below his t-shirt, which made one of the mothers uncomfortable when her child showed an interest in it.
- Don't have a tattoo that normal business attire cannot conceal thus ruling out hands necks or facen Never indulge in offensive tattoosn Cover up tattoos on the forearms in a business environmentn Don't be prejudiced against tattoos as a hiring manager — look beyond the stereotypen Check your employment contract before you have a tattoo that is going to be visible as there are a surprising number of professions that stipulate no tattoos.
Source: Andrew McNeilis, Middle East and Africa managing director of talent2 recruitment agency
UAE-based Brazilian businessman Francis Lamas, 32, started getting tattoos at 17 and now sports a total of 11 tattoos.
"It was for fun in the beginning. When I was in school I could see the tattoo studio from my class and wanted to get one. I drew a picture and took it to the tattoo artist."
Now Lamas' tattoos tell a story about his life he says. "Tattoos are about a moment in my life, how I'm feeling at that time."
His later tattoos all have special meaning — Christian symbolism, family names and initials, statements about his loved ones. "I have no regrets, the tattoos are like a history — it's about my past."
When he arrived in Dubai six years ago, he says people gave him funny looks "but they treat me without any problem."
And his export and import business has not suffered in the least because he wears suits, which cover up the tattoos. "It's funny when I meet these people outside of business hours and they say ‘you're crazy but in a nice way'," he laughs.
In the restaurant industry tattoos are commonplace. Dubai-based American chef Corey Johnson, who works at a fine dining establishment in DIFC, will tell you some of the chefs who have hired him bear more over-the-top tattoos and piercings than him.
"A lot of my co-workers are tattooed. I'm not sure why. When I lived in California lots of chefs were former musicians and this is a creative industry so the creative outlet falls hand in hand."
Johnson has tattoos all over from his wrist to elbow, back of the neck, behind his ear, lower back and legs. They don't get much of a reaction in his home country though he mentions that a woman he was about to help with a flat tyre rolled up her window when she spotted his myriad of tattoos. "In Dubai when I first moved here it was very noticeable, now not so much."
Johnson's tattoos also mark time and place over the course of his life from tribal art, Chinese style wood etching, a tattoo to honour the memory of a friend who passed away.