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Pierced, Dyed, Tattooed--and Hired

Tongue studs and inked skin are showing up in traditional offices as bosses struggle to fill jobs. Some workers hide the modifications, but others flaunt them.


A shock rocker with 2 feet of black-dyed hair, 10-gauge earrings and a pronounced tongue hoop isn't most employers' idea of the perfect hire. But in today's job market, even self-described Gen X freaks with the right skills are finding their way into mainstream workplaces.

That's what happened to Elton Palmer, 25, who moved to Los Angeles from Denver to make it big in rock 'n' roll but soon learned he needed a day job. With a high school degree and computer-programming training, Palmer easily landed a software development job with a fairly conservative firm in Ojai.

Palmer went to the interview with his hair pulled back in a ponytail and without his most obvious jewelry. For months, he wore a shirt and tie and began each day with a 10-minute camouflaging routine, taking out his jewelry and inserting clear plastic posts in his ear holes and a flat red retainer in his tongue.

Over time, however, he came to feel so indispensable that he began to flout company norms, going to work as his rocker self, "L10," and creating a stir among co-workers. Palmer was moved to a rear corner cubicle with floor-to-ceiling partitions. His photograph was left out of the company directory and he wasn't invited to informal employee gatherings. But he kept his job.

"I was an outcast of the company culture, and I was hidden away," Palmer recalled. But "they couldn't afford to lose me. And I loved that. I loved that I was getting raises because of my skills."

With employers struggling to find workers, job candidates in their 20s and early 30s with tongue studs, eyebrow rings and tattoo anklets are finding their way into offices, warehouses, hospitals and even banks, often by concealing their body modifications, but sometimes by openly ignoring traditional business dress codes.

"The tightness in the labor market affects everything. I don't want to say people are compromising, but they are not as stringent," said Ellen Hendrickson, market vice president at Initial Staffing Services Inc.'s Upland office.

Alysia Vanitzian, vice president and chief learning officer at the Employers Group in Los Angeles, the nation's oldest and largest human resources organization, said many employers, particularly in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, look the other way when it comes to body modifications if candidates have needed skills. "At this stage, a warm body is better than nobody--piercings included."

Many employers also are afraid of appearing intolerant, she said, and "are turning a blind eye."

That's exactly what they ought to do in many circumstances, said Jack Tanenbaum, a San Francisco-based employment attorney. Unless there are solid business or safety reasons, Tanenbaum said, managers and human resource officers usually have better things to do than enforce strict dress codes.

"It almost makes me feel faint, putting your tongue on a clamp and having something driven through it," he said. "But to each his own. It's a generational thing."

Tanenbaum is fielding more calls lately from employers seeking counsel about visible piercings and tattoos. One morning last week, he scored a hat trick of sorts: "Three calls--one tongue-piercing, a tattoo that somebody finds offensive and . . . a general question on whether to establish a piercing policy."

Although no one tracks the numbers of Americans with tattoos or piercings, there is ample evidence that both have risen dramatically over the last 10 years. Membership in national tattooist and piercer organizations is growing, as is attendance at conventions, and manufacturers of body jewelry report business is booming.

"It's becoming more mainstream now. It used to be strange to see someone with a small nose piercing. Now you see that at the bank and at the lawyer's office," said Stephanie Davis, who with her husband, Jim Coffman, owns Tears of the Moon, a manufacturer of body jewelry in Montclair. Coffman opened shop 10 years ago as a fine-jewelry maker, but dropped that as body jewelry began to take off in 1994, expanding his company from two to 60 employees. Business has doubled each year for several years, Davis said.

Body modifications are particularly popular among those in their 20s and 30s, who grew up watching corporate Americans take off their suits and ties and blaze khaki trails to the office. It is perhaps not surprising then that many Gen-Xers expect to be able to work with tongue barbells, arms covered with tattoos and blue hair.

Katrina Hegge, executive director of the Maryland-based Alliance of Professional Tattooists, with more than 1,000 members, attributes the popularity of body modification to a youthful rejection of modern man's lack of meaningful ritual.

"Then again, it could just be a lot of kids who want to be different--just like all their friends," she said. "There still is a shock value to be had in it."

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