A tattoo is probably the most permanent personal statement it is possible to make. Unlike clothing or a hairstyle or a piercing of the lips or nose, a tattoo cannot simply be discarded. Removal is an expensive and painful procedure that is quite likely to leave a stain in any case.
Its permanence makes criticism seem unkind and pointless, which is why people who would never scar their own bodies generally respond politely and even supportively to those who do. But an employer cannot afford to be polite to "body art" that might damage the business.
Air New Zealand has been widely criticised for turning away an aspiring stewardess with a moko in the skin of her forearm. In response the airline says it is reviewing its policy. It will be weighing up whether the woman's complaint has done more harm to its public image than tattooed cabin attendants might do to its business. In other words, it must assess whether the tolerance people profess in public truly represents their feelings.
It is true, as the Prime Minister said, that tourists to New Zealand who meet Maori culture will see lots of tattoos. But Maori culture presents visitors with many gestures and modes of dress they probably would not appreciate on the national airline.
Nobody outside Air New Zealand is in a position to question its commercial judgment. Critics do not depend for their salaries on the airline's success in a competitive international market. Air New Zealand managers have the best incentive to assess the true reaction of most people to tattoos and the company's decision on whether to maintain its ban on visible tattoos will be a reliable indicator of how society really regards this fashion among younger people today.
Many of their critics have accused the company of hypocrisy since the rejected tattoo was a Maori motif and Air New Zealand brands itself with a koru. They missed the point. The aversion of many people to tattoos goes deeper than the subject drawn, it is the act of deliberate and permanent disfigurement as they see it, that they find appalling.
Maori and Pasifika patterns are more attractive than most of the insignia commonly carved into skin and Maori motifs are now often imitated in other parts of the world, not always to the pleasure of their cultural proprietors. It may be that faux ta moko already help promote New Zealand in other places. If so it could be greatly to the advantage of Air New Zealand to have genuine examples of the art on some of its front-line staff.
But the company has not seen it that way, or not until this week. Its reassessment, when it comes, ought to be doubly respected because Air New Zealand not only has the incentive to make the right decision, it is not a conservative company. It is more adventurous than most in its presentation of itself, notably with pre-flight safety films that are not afraid to challenge passengers' expectations and sense of humour, not to mention their patience.
The company's disapproval of tattoos might be quietly applauded by many parents with children coming to an impressionable age. Anything that could discourage young people from taking a step they might regret for the rest of their lives would be doing them a service.
A tattoo is not like the fads earlier generations adopted at a similar age. The only lingering harm done by long hair and flared trousers are frightful photographs that need never be seen. Not so a tattoo. It is there every time you strip off. Whatever it once said about you, you will live with it for life.
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