Oxford University professor Tom Crawford holds a doctorate in fluid dynamics and is currently a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. His work is also featured in mathematics. tattoos. His arms are adorned with his favourite equations and theories such as Euler’s Number, a proof with infinite digits beyond the decimal point. Inked, he has a tribute to five of his favorite shapes: an octahedron (or tetrahedron), plus a large colourful mass of numbers bursting from a zip. This is an all-encompassing homage to mathematics. A vorticity equation is a mathematical formula that relates to fluid movement, and there are many others.
In the world of academia, historically one of the more traditional realms of work, populated by distinguished-looking white men in suits, Dr Crawford and his tattoos are a rarity. He still teaches, and is seen walking around campus wearing a T-shirt with ripped jeans and tattoos on his body.
“I’ve been to job interviews with my tattoos on show,” he tells i “and they end up forming part of the discussion because a lot of them are mathematical. It can be a perfect way to talk about maths through the medium of what they mean and why I love those equations and theories.”
Tom Crawford’s tattoos of equations, shapes and theories. ‘I’ve been to job interviews with my tattoos on show,’ he says (Photo: Tom Crawford)
A YouGov survey in 2015 found that half of British adults had at least one tattoo. While tattoos have become more popular, many workplaces still don’t recognize their value.
While Crawford has been able to show his tattoos as an academic, there are still places where someone with visible tattoos won’t get hired. Virgin Atlantic became the UK’s first airline last week to permit cabin crew members to display visible tattoos. Sir Richard Branson’s airline, like most carriers, has until now only hired staff who would be able to hide tattoos under their uniform.
Estelle Hollingsworth, Virgin Atlantic’s chief people officer, said that restrictions were being relaxed “in line with our focus on inclusion and championing individuality”. After many people were laid off during the pandemic, this change is also in line with cabin staff shortages.
Crawford has never had visible tattoos at Oxford. However, he sometimes gets a surprise look from the academic community when people notice his arms for the first time.
“I’ve not had anything openly negative, but I feel like it’s not sort of fully accepted to the point of people not batting an eyelid at me having them. Sometimes it can be shocking. In general, there’s been a massively positive shift in loads of institutions, not just universities, but there are some old-fashioned views in society which linger. I’ve not let it affect me, though.”
Crawford is a YouTuber with thousands of subscribers Tom Rocks MathsAccording to, many people ask him questions about the experience of getting tattoos while in school.
“There are young people wanting to get tattoos but worry it may have an impact on their career. The main response I tend to give is that if the fact that you have tattoos on your forearms might mean you don’t get this particular position, and that those tattoos are judged over your academic ability or talent for teaching, then you probably wouldn’t want to work for that person or that organisation anyway. An organisation should hire the best mathematician, nothing to do with how they look or dress.”
All the same, Crawford says he’d be reluctant to get tattoos on his neck or hands anytime soon. “I don’t have any plans to do that because I enjoy that if I ever am in a situation where I want to hide my tattoos, then I can. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation where I’ve actively thought I want to hide my tattoos, but I like having the option.”
Joshua Fan (29 years old) is a learning support assistant in Bristol for special education students. He has tattoos all the way down his arms and on his hands, and they have determined the kinds of jobs he’s gone for.
“I’ve refrained from applying for some jobs with an assumption that I wouldn’t get an interview because of my tattoos,” he says. “I’m aware that I have more limited options than somebody without visible tattoos and that there are certain fields which I just wouldn’t be able to enter.
“It’s something that has made me worried in the past, especially before particularly formal job interviews. I’m always aware that if the interviewer doesn’t like tattoos, my chances of being successful are slim. But I think it’s important to be true to who I am and my tattoos are a huge part of me.” He has a similar attitude to Dr Crawford. “I’ve always said if somebody doesn’t want to recruit me because of my tattoos, I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.”
Yet Fan, who also does modelling work on the side, thinks it’s in fact down to his tattoos that he’s managed to get some of his past jobs in retail and hospitality.
“I remember an ex-manager and I bonded over tattoos during my interview and we’re still friends to this day. The children at my school are fascinated with my tattoos. This has allowed me to develop relationships faster than if I didn’t have them. This isn’t to say that everyone I’ve worked with likes tattoos – I’m sure this isn’t the case – but nobody has ever shown any hostility or been at all discriminatory towards me because of my tattoos.
“Every workplace I’ve been in has had multiple people with tattoos, so it’s definitely something most people are comfortable with. People are more open minded than they used to be, but there’s still a long way to go. There used to be many negative stigmas attached to tattoos, particularly crime, so it’s no surprise many people still make the association.”
Fan would respond to Fan’s younger relatives if they said that they planned to tattoo their arms, neck and face. “I would tell them to wait until they are sure of a career path,” he says. “That’s the one regret I have about my tattoos. You rarely know what you want to be when you’re 18 and it’s easy to forget that the decisions you make are going to impact the rest of your life. I wish I had listened to the people who told me not to get my hand tattoos when I was so young.”
One man who knows plenty about society’s attitudes to visible tattoos is Louis Molloy, David Beckham’s tattooist of 11 years. Manchester-based Molloy, who designed the footballer’s “guardian angel”, a bald, winged, angelic figure on his back, opened his studio in 1981.
“When I first started out, people stared at you if you had tattoos, and not in a good way,” he says. “When I applied for my first mortgage, my manager at the time advised me to put down that I was a painter and decorator because he said if people knew I was a tattooist, I wouldn’t get the mortgage.
“I was also one of the first – if not the first – tattooists to accept credit cards in the UK and it took me three years to convince the bank to let me do it, as the bank manager openly said to me he didn’t want to give it to me because he thought I’d do money laundering through it,” he says.
“Things have changed massively since then, but even now I warn younger people against getting their first tattoos on their hands or neck, because I don’t think it’s wise to do it in such a visible place because you don’t have the choice to cover up or show it at your own discretion. The thing is, it’s up to companies what rules they lay down, so it’s worth bearing that in mind.”
Because tattoos aren’t protected by the Constitution, employers can dismiss employees or deny employment. Equality Act. The police will review visible tattoos on a case by case basis. However the College of Policing guidelines say that visible tattoos can only be rejected if they could be discriminatory, offensive, or both.
Sarah told me that the gym where she applied to be a personal trainer in London suggested they would prefer not to have visible tattoos. Other gyms encouraged it. One other tech worker explained via Twitter that approximately half their coworkers have visible tattoos. A social worker from Hull says she’s never had a problem, and sometimes it can be a good talking point in difficult situations. A corporate lawyer says he wouldn’t feel comfortable having a visible tattoo at his firm, he’d be worried that his boss would deem him less professional.
“Virgin Atlantic changing its rules is progressive,” says Molloy, “because tattoos are beloved in loads of places and with all kinds of people now. But it’s fair enough also that each company decides for itself, so there is still an element of responsibility on the part of the tattooer to advise people and caution people when they want in certain places because you can’t necessarily get them lasered off your neck or face. You should think about it, and if you still want to go ahead, then we can do it.”
In Oxford, Dr Crawford is inspiring his students with both his mathematics teaching and the tattoos all over his arms. “I’ve definitely noticed, having been teaching for five years now, that I’ve had a few students who have turned up at the start of the year without tattoos and then three years later they graduate and they have a couple of tattoos. They’ve not said directly it’s because of me,” he says with a grin, “but I do wonder…”