CHAD TAFOLLA AND his friends used to call hand tattoos “job stoppers.” A little ink around the knuckles would surely make someone unhirable, no? Mr. Tafolla, 39, whose body was already amply tattooed elsewhere, decided to find out, getting a wolf inked on one hand and an astrological sign on the other. “It was pretty nerve-racking,” he said, “like ‘Am I gonna have a difficult time getting a job?” Fortunately, the creative agency he worked at didn’t boot him. Nor did Mr. Tafolla’s hand tattoos stop Oculus, a virtual-reality startup that’s owned by Facebook, from hiring him last year as its design director. His colleagues weren’t exactly shocked. “I think I’ve gotten one negative comment and that’s it,” he said, adding that, in his circles, hand tattoos are becoming “pretty common.”
Whether that’s true more broadly depends on where you live and work. “At a law firm, people maybe will notice [a hand tattoo] more than at a tech firm where let’s say nine out of 10 people already have tattoos,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster.com. Though Ms. Salemi acknowledged that workplace stigma around tattoos has decreased over the years, businesses in more conservative fields like the financial sector still “may be more strict” about their tattoo policy. Few CEOs in finance, hospitality or healthcare lead a boardroom with ink stretching across their digits.
And yet, in cities like New York (where I am) and in the Bay Area where Mr. Tafolla lives, hand tattoos are an increasingly regular sight. “It’s not like I see tattoo hands everyday but they are becoming more and more accepted,” said Bruno Levy, a tattoo artist in Brooklyn. Celebrities may be helping fuel the trend. “The Hollywood Reporter” showcased “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris’s rose hand tattoo on a September cover. David Beckham has his wife’s name tattooed across the back of his mitt, Rihanna commissioned a henna-esque design that creeps across her knuckles and several small-scale designs dot singer Lana Del Rey’s hands.
A Pew Research study found that nearly four in 10 people born after 1980 have a tattoo, and Mr. Levy sees the rise in hand tattoos as a response to the general ubiquity of ink. Getting your hand tattooed is still “a bigger risk,” he said, much the way getting tattooed somewhere more discreetly visible was 20 years ago. “It’s a place that’s taboo,” he added. “In some ways, it gives you a sense of rebellion that other places on the body don’t really allow you to do anymore.”
This shortcut to “rebellion” has inspired many people to get the most visible parts of their body tattooed first. “You see kids with neck tattoos, face tattoos, hand tatts and nothing else on the rest of their body,” said Matt Langille, 39, the owner of a music management company in Toronto. When he got his hands tattooed a decade ago, it was still rarely done. “I come from a school of thought that [hands] are very much the last frontier and I’m a pretty covered individual and I think that I had earned the right to do that,” said Mr. Langille. The idea that anyone would dive in and get their hands tattooed first mystifies him a bit.
Yet, according to Mr. Levy, sparsely inked sorts are coming in to get their hands done so much more commonly that it’s led tattoo artists to rethink their business practices. “I would say that tattooers in the past…had this rule like ‘I won’t tattoo your hands or face unless I’ve tattooed you before and you understand the commitment,’” he said. He now feels more open to giving someone a hand tattoo who may not be otherwise covered: “I think getting a small something on your hand might not be as abrasive as getting a huge tattoo on your arm as your first tattoo.”
It may not be as abrasive, but in the end, when a design is etched on your arm, you can always wear a shirt to cover it up. Not so with your hands, unless you can pull off the inexplicable-gloves look in your cubicle. For a celebrity that might not be a problem, but as Mr. Langille noted, if he worked in the financial sector, as opposed to the music industry, he would not “be able to get away with” hand tattoos. For many, they’re still most assuredly job stoppers.
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com