Bryan Caplan  

Tattoos and the Labor Market

Bryan and Scott respond, sort ... Another Book Review...
According to this amusing diagram in Cracked, facial tattoos mean "I will never have a job that pays taxes."  Many economists would presumably insist, "It's not causal.  The kind of people who tattoo their faces just have low productivity."  I admit that selection is part of reason why people with face tattoos rarely make the big bucks.  But I bet that a lot of the effect is causal: A tattoo signals low productivity - and the market penalizes you accordingly, even if you're the high-productivity exception than proves the low-productivity rule.  Ponder the following thought experiment:

On your 18th birthday, your worst enemy slips something in your drink, then tattoos your face.  You're too chicken to get the tattoo removed.  Question: How much would this tattoo affect the present value of your lifetime earnings? 

Remember to account for the effects on your occupational options, compensation, promotions, and unemployment.  Plus any additional channels that come to mind.  Can you really keep a straight face and say that a prominent, scary facial tattoo would reduce the present value of your lifetime earnings by less than 25%?

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Tom West writes:

Only 25%? I'd be surprised if it wasn't at least 80%.

Andreas Moser writes:

Isn't there a market for pirates?

Joe Kristan writes:

This example makes me think Tom West's 80% estimate is low.

Kevin writes:

I would believe the tattoo-signaling model.

The small, tasteful tattoo done on my inner-calf last year left the white collar/professional members of my extended family aghast, but elicited not a single raised eyebrow among blue collar workers. I couldn't believe the intensity of their reaction over something they wouldn't know existed unless I told/showed them. I can only imagine the reaction of the median white collar worker to an in-your-face (heh) tattoo on an unrelated job applicant.

Joe Cushing writes:

It's not just about productivity though. People just don't like facial tattoos, so they won't hire somebody with one. Of course all of this is speculation on all of our parts because we really don't have a study showing the results. I've seen many facial tattooed people on Star Trek that that I would hire. I guess it depends on the art.

I love it, great post! I've been saying for years that tattoos on the face or even neck are in effect saying, "You would be unwise to hire me. I make poor decisions and my idea of long-term thinking goes about 4 hours out."

(Chris Meisenzahl @speedmaster)

RPLong writes:

If I were going to fit facial tattoos into a Caplanian signalling model, I would suggest that they signal not low productivity but rather low levels of conformity.

Conformity doesn't predict anything about productivity, of course, but it predicts a lot about whether or not the boss will invite you for that after-work cocktail where you get to make the case for your next big promotion.

But then again, I am also assigning facial tattoos certain attributes according to my own belief about manager-defined business operations and society's view of outsiders in general.

Alex Godofsky writes:

They don't signal low levels of conformity (plenty of people get tattoos!) they just signal that you're an idiot.

Jacob writes:

An Economist article this week focuses on the work of a priest in LA who reforms gang members, and removing their tattoos is a big part of it. They talk to a guy who got his first tattoo at age ELEVEN, in prison.

Of course, he lived in a complete bubble with societal norms and economic realities that suburban white people can hardly fathom, so I suppose that supports the notion that the tattoo is the least of the guy's problems on the job market.

Steve S. writes:

I'm inclined to believe this depends strongly upon the segment of the labor market you're talking about. At the highest echelons - think places like Google, national laboratories, etc. - these kinds of signaling relationships seem like they break down, namely because you are dealing with people of extraordinary demonstrated competence/productivity. (In fact, arguably this applies broadly across the technical sector overall.) Perhaps it's a case of the cultural norms of technical fields versus more "conventional" labor markets?

streeteye writes:

Suppose you were a job seeker (even an economist) with a facial injury or burn with a similar visual impact to a tattoo, but without the intent signalled... would that impact your prospects as much as the tattoo?

I suspect not, even though you might be similarly disadvantaged as a fashion model or in some client-facing occupations... the intent and signaling is important.

Tim writes:
Shane L writes:

Fascinating points, all.

Just reminded of Glen Benton, the singer with Satanic death metal band Deicide who has repeatedly branded an upside-down crucifix into his forehead! Probably won't go down well with job interviews, but seems to please the audience!

Chuck Rudd writes:

The face tattoo is a self-fulfilling act. At the moment of his branding, the wearer does not want to conform to society. He wants to ensure that he will never be accepted by society so that he can in turn blame society for not accepting him. He'll look at his bad life outcomes rather than his signals to fuel his rebellious fire.

They also stem from a very high "life discount rate". These people heavily discount the future because in some instances they can't fathom it. They don't expect to live past 30. Future income doesn't exist in their world.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Here is another example of someone removing facial tattoos to get a job.

Also this article on a laser tattoo removal center says "About 12 percent of her business comes from clients removing a tattoo for professional reasons — “people who can’t get jobs because they made really stupid decisions,” she said."

Michael Hamilton writes:

Think of it as burning your ships when your army arrives on foreign soil. It is a point of no return.

For example, Travis Barker (Blink 182 drummer) once said, "I tattooed my body so I couldn't fall back on anything. I purposely did that so I couldn't get a normal job and live a normal life. I did it so I had to play music." He has face, neck, and hand tattoos.

Foobarista writes:

You could get away with this sort of thing if you're in a cultural environment where "it's OK" (ie, a literal rockstar), or you're both supremely gifted _and_ in a field where you don't interact much with others (a lab, individual technical contributor, etc).

In most other fields, "conformity" is required if one is to be productive and effective.

Dumpsterjuice writes:

I own 2 restaurants. We dont hire anyone with visible tattoos. I used to work for a large corporation and if you got a tattoo there your career was over. Is it fair? No. It's heartbreaking the kids who come in begging for a job, no-one will interview them, they are desperate. I dont want my business to suffer because little old ladies will be uncomfortable around you. I am barely able to make payroll as it is in todays economy. Consider the doors you are closing by getting that tattoo.

West writes:

Alex Godofsky writes:
"They don't signal low levels of conformity (plenty of people get tattoos!) they just signal that you're an idiot."

Alex gets in a clean strike with the cluehammer!

DanB writes:


People with multiple Doctorates (cognitive psychology from UNC and business from Duke) and have facial scarring as a result of burns often have avenues open to them that your average "I tattoed my neck, hands and/or face by choice" folk may not see.

DanB writes:

Sorry Tim, meant to simply elaborate on your comment @streeteye

JM writes:

My favorite observation about facial tatooos came from Gabourey Sidibe (actress from Precious). In an interview she mentioned meeting Mike Tyson, which she found disconcerting. She said, (quoting from memory.. may be inexact) "there's something about a facial tattoo that says you've gone as far as you're going to go in society.. and then you took a step back."

Chester White writes:

Don't forget the reduced universe of potential spouses available after a face tattoo. Choice of spouse is very important when it comes to lifetime income.

Muddywood writes:

[Comment removed for crudeness.--Econlib Ed.]

Arthur B. writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment. We'd be happy to publish your comment. You've possibly posted previously under a legitimate email address. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

jfish writes:

I recall Dennis Miller riffing about this 8 - 10 years ago. Something to the effect of "peircing your nose is de facto handicapping yourself in an already tight job market."

I'm mid-management in a white collar industry and I have ended several interviews shortly after I noticed that people had wrist area tattoos that their long sleeves didn't cover. Can't take a chance on losing the trust of my clientelle.

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