We sing the body eclectic


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In this two part series, The Daily Iowan explores the blossoming tattoo and piercing industry in the Iowa City area, from its cleaned-up shops and artists to body modification trends amongst college-age clients.

A “stupid little flower” served as Megan Schwalm’s introduction to the world of tattooing. She was 18, and she had followed her inexplicable lust for ink to a tattoo parlor in Platteville, Wisconsin; tattooing was illegal in her hometown of Dubuque in 1998.

The law was overturned in 2008, and Schwalm, now 34, has since covered her “stupid little flower” with a star tattoo. She has also become the University of Iowa’s diversity-resources coordinator, adopted a son, cut her hair into a neat blond bob, collected a plethora of professional pants and blouses, and got enough ink to cover virtually her entire left arm and much of her right.

Of course, as an aspiring politician with an office job, these tattoos are almost perpetually covered by blazers and cardigans.

“There certainly are moments in the summer when I wish I could just wear short sleeves,” she said. “But it’s not so much that I regret the tattoos but hate the system.”

This system has been in place for decades, prompting individuals with body modifications to cover up or be construed as social deviants. The difference today is that very few “modified” people are bikers, gang members, or rebels: one in five American adults has at least one tattoo, and another one in five has a non-ear-lobe piercing (naval, nose, and nipple are among the most popular).

Additionally, most of these people — nearly 70 percent — are young women such as Schwalm.

“Body modifications are a statement of social identity,” said Pat Dolan, 60, a pierced and tattooed UI rhetoric lecturer. “I feel solidarity with the people around me, sometimes 20 or 30 years younger. It’s a sort of ‘we are members of the tribe’ thing.”

Encouraged by TV reality shows and social media, this expanded market for tattoos and piercings has made body modification a multibillion-dollar industry, with the most competitive shops maintaining high standards of hygiene and artistry.

But even as tattoos and piercings grow more common — and occasionally advantageous in retail, fashion, and sporting professions, sometimes even in teaching — a rigid cultural stigma remains around such blatant forms of self-expression. At its worst, this stigma can tread the line between stereotyping and flat-out discrimination.    

Still, Dolan keeps his sleeves rolled up and encourages his friend Schwalm to do so as well. Some prejudiced people, he said, need to be made angry or uncomfortable.

“I’m acutely aware my experience as a privileged, older white professor is not going to get the abuse Megan is, particularly while she’s young,” Dolan said. “It’s really important to know where your beliefs come from. It might be a culture we need to interrogate.”

Ink in the workplace

Schwalm knew that getting a Romero Britto tattoo sleeve would mean feeling a bit stuffy in the summer. But, as with 70 percent of America’s 45 million tattooed people, she wasn’t satisfied with sporting just one patch of ink.

“When I was 18, I thought it was cool and, yeah, it felt a little rebellious,” Schwalm said, lifting up her right sleeve a few inches to reveal a cartoonish tattoo of a glue bottle on her arm — a tribute to the phrase that her and her son describe their relationship: “stuck like glue.”

“As I’ve gotten older, my motivation is different … I love to look down and see this tattoo that reminds me of my son.”

Still, like many professionals in Iowa City, Schwalm isn’t apt to show off these sacred symbols in the workplace.

At her previous job at the Women’s Resource and Action Center, Schwalm kept a detailed calendar of whom she would meet each day, which she consulted before getting dressed in the morning. Now, at the UI Diversity Office, she always has a sweater or jacket in her office in the event of surprise visitors.

Schwalm has tempered her self-expression since she was nearly passed over for an adjunct professor position in the Quad Cities.

“When I interviewed for the job, I had dreadlocks,” she said. “I was told I’d need to look more professional if I wanted to have that job. Frankly, looking at the other people who were interviewing, I was far more qualified than them.”

So Schwalm adhered to her employer’s standards, cutting her hair and keeping her tattoos covered whenever possible.

“The funny thing was that in that position, whenever my tattoos showed, students got excited, and it always felt like that was a way to connect with students differently from when my tattoos were covered,” she said.

Cyndy Woodhouse can back this phenomenon. Decorated in 12 tattoos and 15 different piercings, the Iowa City West High, 2900 Melrose Ave., language-arts teacher and debate coach said her body modifications don’t come up too much in the classroom. But when they do, Woodhouse finds her collection of cartilage rings and dragon tattoos are a good way to break the ice with students.

“It used to be if a teacher had a tattoo, the kids would make a huge deal,” she said. “Now, we have kids walking down the hall with tattoos … They’re creating an image.”

Woodhouse said she has only heard of one instance of public outcry because of a tattoo in Iowa City: A parent of a City High student once complained to the School Board that her son’s tattooed teacher was a distraction to the learning environment. This claim was not officially acted upon.

“Iowa City is very different in terms of self-expression and tolerance,” Woodhouse said. “If I wasn’t a teacher, I’d definitely invest more in metal and ink … But the more I added to my tattoos, the more I realized I was altering the person they hired.”

Like Woodhouse, Schwalm said she hasn’t received negative attention for her body modifications in the University of Iowa community — beyond a few judgmental looks at professional functions — but she maintains a certain standard. The only criticisms she has gotten are from some tattooed colleagues such as Dolan, who chaff at Schwalm for her perpetual long sleeves.

“Sometimes, I get flak for it; people say you shouldn’t be someone you’re not,” she said. “But I think that when people are first meeting, they try to put their best foot forward and don’t always act in a way that is congruent with their true selves. We put on a good show. I think of it that way. I want people to take me seriously and sometimes, unfortunately, they don’t when they see my tattoos.”

Though she conforms to unwritten codes about appearance in the hope it will someday pay off in a political career, she wishes she could defend her tattoos using some of the legal precedents accessed by students visiting the Diversity Center.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “I would love for [personal appearance] to be protected, but it’s very different from race. It’s a choice.”  

The law of self-expression

Former U.S. Navyman Steve Barjonah gave his first tattoos while onboard the U.S.S. Elliot 25 years ago. Today, he leads a crew of artists at Crossroads Tattoo shop in Coralville, where he inks average Joes after advising them on what locations on the body are most easily covered by shirt collars or dress socks.

“I’ve tattooed people from pretty much the whole gamut of society, and there are actually a lot of white-collar people you would never expect the work they’ve had,” he said.

Everywhere from San Diego to Iowa City, the Navy veteran said, more professionals are taking to the needle, creating a cultural tidal wave that employers will soon find hard to levee.

“I honestly think in this country if they could prove they were fired because they were discriminated for a tattoo or piercing, they have a legal leg to stand on,” Barjonah said. “It goes with the freedom of expression this country really holds to.”

But does the law support such assertions? Lyombe Eko, a University of Iowa associate professor specializing in comparative media law and ethics, said the First Amendment grants individuals the right to express themselves — but that doesn’t mean employers have to respect such choices.

Currently, Eko said, the federal government may only restrict business owners from discriminating against potential employers and customers based on ethnicity, gender, and disabilities, not voluntary physical traits.

“You can’t change your race, you can’t change your gender, and so on,” Eko said. “But you can take out a piercing, you can have a tattoo removed; you can even change your hair color. Employers have the right to create an image for their business.”

Iowa City attorney John Hayek agreed that no federal or state law protects an employee’s right to display tattoos or piercings at work. This allows employers — such as Hayek, because he hires attorneys and interns at the Hayek, Brown, Moreland, and Smith law firm — to set subjective standards of professionalism.

“We expect job applicants to present themselves in a professional and appropriate manner,” Hayek said. “Appropriate dress and attire are a part of that presentation.”

Still, this doesn’t mean that employees and consumers don’t see discrimination policies as unethical.
“I wouldn’t go [to a business] if they didn’t let their employees express themselves,” said Megan Oesting, a mother and stepmother of four. “I do think [body modifications] state something about a person. If it’s well-placed and interesting, I think more highly of them. If it’s inappropriate, like a tattoo of a naked woman, I’d be less thrilled with it. They’re definitely trying to present something about themselves, so I want to see what they’re presenting.”

Business owner Sheila Davisson has recognized such attitudes and incorporated them into her operation of Revival, a vintage clothing store on the Pedestrian Mall. Davisson, who has a nose ring, said a well-designed tattoo or classy piercing can act as style marker, and shoppers will often look up to her more modified “shop girls.”

“Revival is about having your own style,” she said. “The quality and the value of the work you’re going to get from an employee is about letting them feel really good about their work, so micromanaging those details is not productive.”

Iowa City businesses — specifically retail, entertainment, and food services — seem to be inclining toward Davisson’s more lax business model. Despite having written policies against visible body modifications, shops such as Java House, Starbucks, and the Coral Ridge Mall Gap store in Coralville have hired managers with extensive ink and piercings.

But the businesses most affected by changing body-modification trends are the ones facilitating them: tattoo and piercing parlors. During the past decade, the tattoo market has exploded in the United States, and those shops are slowly evolving from grungy underground men’s clubs to diverse, professional art venues.

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