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INKED beneath the white collar

By Gabrielle Nomura on May 27, 2011 – 4 Comments

Local professionals show off their body art, and changing attitudes in the workplace.

Story by Gabrielle Nomura | Photos by Chad Coleman

Primary artistry by Easy Choppers and Tattoos and Skin and Soul

Behind a desk at a First Horizon Home Loan Corp. office on Lake Washington Boulevard, underneath a long-sleeved button-down, Senior Vice President Allen Velasco kept a secret on his skin for two decades.

“When I was in the white-collar world, I was very aware of my tattoos,” says Velasco, 39, who now runs Imperial CrossFit gym in Kent.

“I hid them because I wanted to be known as ‘Allen, the guy who does really good work,’ instead of ‘Allen, the guy who has a lot of tattoos.’”

But more and more, it seems one doesn’t have to choose between tattoos and a professional image. In just a few generations, tattoos have gone from being the trademark of artsy-alternative types, good-for-nothings and sailors to an edgy fad, especially among millennials, young adults eager for independence, identity and self-expression.

They’re coming of age in a time where more young people are going to college than ever before (about 70 percent out of the roughly 3 million annual high school graduates) and where the celebrities they watch in movies and listen to on iTunes have tattoos (Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, etc.).

As a result, the next generation of the American workforce, may not only be the most educated, but could also be one of the most tattooed.

It’s not too surprising that millennials would embrace this once-alternative art (aren’t young people notoriously known for being wild and rebellious?)

But people may not realize that the shift toward more marked-up doctors, lawyers and business men and women is already well in the works. People of all ages enjoy the art, personal meaning and even ancestral or family markings that tattooing provides.

Look around, society has changed. Welcome to a new cultural landscape, where inked skin is not an indicator of socioeconomic status, education or race. The line between the mainstream and the alternative is  becoming blurrier every day.

Allen Velasco, 39


Leah Maxwell-Schwab, 42

Profession: Paralegal in downtown Bellevue, more than 20 years of experience.

Artist: Various; Dale Nester, Skin and Soul.

A positive addiction: When asked how many tattoos she has, Maxwell-Schwab has to count to remember. Is it 10 or 11? There’s four on her back, one on her wrist, a design encircling her thigh like a garter belt as well as tattoos on her big toe, ankle and lower abdomen. “Oh yeah, it’s 11,” she says.

Her first one: She was 22. It was the ‘90s and grunge was in. “I was obsessed with Orca whales at the time.”  What started off as a single Orca on her ankle became a whole anklet design.

Tattoo sisters: Maxwell-Schwab and one of her closest girlfriends got tattooed together when they went on vacation to Australia, Las Vegas, Hawaii and Cancun.  She says her tattoos capture moments she wants to remember.  

A portrait of the last 20 years: “My tattoos are my artistic expression and my individuality. They make me different.”

Carrying peace with her: “Three years ago, I was going through a really tough time, I wanted to feel like I had peace around me. I have the word serenity on one shoulder blade and peace and eternal love on the other. I carry the two things with me now.”

Law office: Maxwell-Schwab’s 74-year-old boss loves her tattoos. “When he introduces me, he says, ‘This is my paralegal, Leah. She’s got a lot of tattoos.’ He thinks it’s pretty cool.”

Identity: “My work isn’t who I am, my tattoos are who I am,” she says.

J.R. Hasty, 23

Profession: Account representative, wholesale fuel business.

Artist: Various; Dan McGrew, Skin and Soul.

A story of sports: From the number he wore as a member of Bellevue High School football team, and later a scholarship athlete at the University of Washington, Hasty’s tattoos reflect growing up in Bellevue and Seattle and being an athlete. The waves of the Puget Sound and different sayings such as “Fortune favors the brave,” are inked on his upper body.

Misconceptions: While tattoos are more acceptable among jocks, Hasty says he’s still gotten negative comments about his tattoos from family friends. “People think you’re up to no good or you don’t have a good upbringing,” he says.

Mark Burker, 33

Profession: Emergency physician, Tacoma Emergency Care Physicians. “I treat everything from hangnails to heart attacks.”

Artist: Various; Keahi Hooe at Easy Choppers and Tattoos.

Ink: Among other things, the Woodinville native has a caduceus medical symbol on his back and a Dia De Los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Dead) skull design on his arm. “It’s a celebration of death and those who have come before me,” says Burker, who sees multiple fatalities every day. “I think it’s an interesting comment on my job.”

ER Culture: “I think it’s becoming more and more typical for people to have tattoos in the emergency room. We’re people who work hard and play hard. Typically, family doctors will have tattoos concealed by their scrubs, but in the ER, I typically see anywhere from 12 patients on a slow shift to up to 24 patients. you get a new patient all the time, there’s less of a stigma.”

A passion for body art: “I like having something artful and beautiful on me.”

What do “tattooed” people look like? “Now, it’s everyone from bankers to bookies. I’m a physician, I wear glasses.”

Maegan Nielsen, 35

Profession: Nielsen has witheld her position and the name of the corporation she works for in Bellevue at the request of her employer.

Corporate culture: “Some corporate industries just tolerate tattoos while others really get it,” Nielsen says. “As the baby boomers continue to retire and the up-and-coming workforce moves in, employers will be hiring from a younger crowd where it’s becoming increasingly more acceptable to be tattooed.”

Inspiration: In addition to her children’s astrological signs (she says she won’t get her husband’s until their 40th anniversary), Nielsen’s back tattoos are symbols that remind her of her own perseverance and resilience through the hardship she’s endured, including the word “strength” in Chinese and a phoenix design that will eventually take up her entire back (“It rises from literally nothing to become a beautiful, powerful bird.”)

Phoenix artist: Hooe at Easy Choppers. Nielsen says he wants to take the phoenix tail down to her thigh, but “I think I’ll stop him right here,” Nielsen says gesturing to her lower back.

Stereotypes about tattoos: “They’re only for people in prison or with an artistic lifestyle,” says Nielsen, who works with senior members of her company and never tries to hide the tattoos on her back that peak out from the top of her shirt.

Bellevue’s transformation: “Seattle is so forgiving, so creative and Bellevue is becoming that way, too,” Nielsen says. “There’s a cultural shift happening where tattoos are becoming more OK.”

Getting inked: She asked her artist, Hooe, why he didn’t go to Seattle, a more alternative city, for work. He told her that Bellevue is an untapped market. She agreed. “People say, ‘I’m not going to Bellevue to get tattooed, it’s snooty and pretentious. That’s just ignorance.”

Anita Griffin, 55

Profession: Law Secretary in a downtown Seattle law firm.

Bellevue connection: Her son (and now tattoo artist), Kevin Griffin, works at Easy Choppers and Tattoos on Northeast Eighth Street.

Mother-son bonding: “It hurt,” Anita says. “But I trust [Kevin] and he just laughed. ‘Sorry mom.’”

Always against tattoos: “When my daughter came home with a tattoo I about hit the roof,” Anita says. “Even though it was just a little musical note on the inside of her ankle, maybe an inch tall.”

What changed?: Anita’s son Kevin loved to draw, a talent that would later lend to his attraction to tattooing. It was Kevin’s interest and love of ink that eventually changed Anita’s mind in 2004, when she got her first tattoo, a kokopelli, which is a Native American fertility deity on her right shoulder.

A diverse collection: There’s no theme, rhyme or reason – Anita’s tattoos are simply some of her favorite things: kokopellis, hummingbirds and roses (she grows 20 different types of the flower). Maybe I go against the grain,” she says. “I don’t try and hide them. I wear sleeveless shirts in the summer time. It is what it is.”

Unprofessional?: “People see me walking down the street and I don’t look like someone who would be tattooed. I’m a mom, I’m a professional, a square, a goody-two-shoes. In my opinion, perceptions are changing,” says Anita, who works in a law office with four litigation attorneys, some of whom are tattooed.

Steve Cook, 43

Profession: Software test engineer.

Artist: Sage Oswald, Easy Choppers.

Design: Cook, who formerly worked at Microsoft, has leg tattoos that are a celebration of his family-his wife and teenage son and daughter. On his left leg, each member of his family got to pick the color of their Japanese koi fish, (“In my tattoo, the females have longer, daintier fins and the males have longer whiskers,” Cook says.) The design, currently stopping at his calf, will eventually go up to his thigh.

Why he wanted his ink: “Part of it is a mid-life crisis,” Cook says. “I was very quiet and withdrawn for so much of my life and now I’m celebrating coming into myself.”

Microsoft: “It’s a real mixed bag, you have everyone from people in traditional Indian garb to very [Christian] Caucasian people,” says Cook, who enjoyed people’s reaction and attention to his legs as he continued to get them worked on. “Shorts and a T-shirt is not uncommon attire at Microsoft, especially for people who don’t work in sales.”

Reactions: Only positive. Most people ask Cook where he got his work done (Easy Choppers and Tattoos) or tell him they like his ink.

Defining who gets tattooed: “Some people seem like they’re the uptight type, but then you find out they’re hiding a tattoo,” he says.

Legs: While Cook chose his legs because they were less visible and easy to cover up with dress shoes and slacks in the office, he says he’s wanting visible tattoos more and more. “I want to be more out of the closet as a tattooed person,” Cook says. “It’s a conversation starter and I really enjoy talking to people.”

Conversation: “The other day I was talking with a cashier, a high-school age black girl who had a tattoo on her arm. She noticed my neck tattoo (a Vietnamese, double kanji design) and we had a very nice conversation for two minutes. We were of two age and social groups who wouldn’t have normally have spoken to one another.”