Tattoos: An Oddly Recession-Proof Industry


Caroline New, a 28-year-old grants coordinator in the development department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was a 20-year-old college student when she got five Asian characters tattooed down her arm. Written in ancient Korean script, each represented an attribute that New "wanted to remind myself of and incorporate in my life ... courage, acceptance." However, as the years past, and she transitioned from a young museum intern to a busy employee, she grew concerned about the body art.

"I didn't dislike [the characters]," she said. In fact, I very much liked them. I just disliked how I thought other people would perceive them." Specifically, New was concerned that the tattoos appeared unprofessional. "I work in fundraising. There's definitely a culture in my department, a little bit more corporate than the rest of the museum. So while I've certainly seen plenty of art handlers and people across other departments that have tattoos and are showing them quite openly, and while it was never indicated that I couldn't, I never saw anybody else [from my department] with them."

And so, two years ago, New underwent eight laser sessions -- at $250 each -- to remove the characters, though she opted to keep her other, less-visible tattoos. "Now I have a little bit more flexible wardrobe," she explains. "I'm no longer only wearing the long sleeved cardigans like I was my first year here." More importantly, New believes it was a good professional move. "I remember the first time my boss saw [my shoulder tattoo]. I saw her out of the office, in town. She looked at it, looked at me, looked at it again, looked at me again, and then didn't say anything. I don't think she reacted negatively, but I could tell she was a little shocked to see that I did have a tattoo."

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New's experience is not unusual. According to Time magazine, roughly 16% of people with tattoos eventually elect to have them removed. And that number is growing. Which isn't necessarily surprising. Sometimes, the love of our life, whose name we permanently inked across our bicep, turns out to be a fling. Or that image of the Tasmanian Devil that looked so cool after a night of drinking is a little less appealing in the sober light of day.

Additionally, in today's challenging economy, when unemployment continues to hover near 9%, people are also choosing to remove tattoos to appeal to potential employers. At least, that's half of the story. At the same time, others see the recession as an opportune moment to get inked, arguing that it's not only a relatively cheap splurge, but that the unemployed no longer have to conform to an employer's standards.

In either case, the end result is the same: The tattoo industry continues to thrive, seemingly recession-proof. To better understand this strange dynamic, I visited Tattoo Lou's, a family-owned chain of Long Island tattoo parlors that also offers laser tattoo removal.

Loren Berlin is a columnist at She can be reached at You can follow her on Twitter @LorenBerlin, and become a fan on Facebook.