“Weird” people need to stop whining

Written on October 05, 2011

Picture of me taken in 2000

This is me. A slight contrast, you may find, from the picture on my resume.

I became a fan of punk rock music when I was 12 years old. Using the hand-me-down stereo given to me by my sister one day during the summer of 1984, I stumbled upon Towson University’s 89.7 FM radio station. In the afternoons it played punk and new wave music and I was hooked. With a pile of cassette tapes at my side, I’d record it every afternoon and then make new tapes of the songs I actually liked. I also sat there by the stereo, writing the names of bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, the Exploited, and Ramones onto sheets of notebook paper which I would take, along with my weekly allowance to the record store in the mall to buy full length albums from these bands. 3 years later, I started singing for my first band, a terrible punk-metal crossover band called Chemically Infected. The bass player for that band was in my history class and saw some song lyrics I had written (when I should’ve been doing classwork) and asked if I wanted to sing.

The next several years saw a few more bands. I played up and down the US east coast playing in places that included the legendary CBGB, the Superbowl of Hardcore in Washington DC and the New England Metal & Hardcore festival. I even got to play alongside a number of the bands I grew up listening to including the Business, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, and more. In my mid-twenties, I worked as a talent agent. For a brief time, I worked for a company called Bay Ridge Talent out of Brooklyn NY which handled a roster of about 60 punk, metal, and industrial acts including bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Front 242, and Hatebreed. I later struck out on my own and ran my own talent agency for a while.

I got my first tattoo at 18. As I recall, I ran to get a new drivers license (Maryland required a provisional license for people under 18) and then went shopping for a tattoo artist. Within a few weeks I had my first tattoo. Within a few months I had three. By the time I was 26 I had two full sleeves plus tattoos on my back, neck, hands, and legs. The oft-heard question from well-meaning strangers “How many tattoos do you have?” lost all meaning after a while. We like to think in today’s modern society that discrimination based on superficial things like visual appearances doesn’t happen, but reality tells a different story. The first time it was most obvious, I was about 23. I went to an art gallery in Chevy Chase, MD to look at some sculptures that had caught my eye. I found one particularly interesting and asked how much it was. Stopping for a moment, the art gallery employee said “You can’t afford that.” Having no data to go on other than my appearance, this art gallery employee assumed that because I was covered in tattoos, I must lack the funds to purchase from his gallery. Pissed, I walked out. Things like that have happened numerous times over the years. Usually the reaction I get is more subtle but it is mostly apparent during the very early weeks of late spring when I begin wearing short sleeve shirts and shorts. Most of the time its just stares that I get and now that tattoos are more mainstream than they were when I first got sleeved, it is rare that people say such obviously rude things, though I have had people say such things as “how long were you in”, etc..

Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy, serial killer active in the mid-to-late 70s killed 30 people in seven states. Also, no tattoos.

Here’s where I say something unpopular

Despite all I’ve said above, I think one thing is for certain: people like me – people who’ve intentionally altered the appearance of our bodies – need to shaddap and quit whining about people “discriminating” against them.

Two pictures in one, depicting guy with tattoos in street clothes on one side and dressed as doctor on the other

Recently, the above image was posted on a Facebook group oriented around tattoos. Comments in the resultant discussion thread were filled with people complaining about having to cover up their tattoos at work. The text in the image says: “That delinquent could save your life. Please don’t discriminate” It is, indeed a valid point: whether or not a person has tattoos says nothing about whether the man in the picture is a skilled medical professional. Assuming the picture is of a real person who is a doctor, he would be one of a large number of examples of skilled professionals, lawyers, doctors, accountants, and executives who have chosen to become heavily tattooed -of which, I am one.

At time of this writing, I have almost 10 years’ experience in web design, development, and usability & accessibility consulting. Some of my written materials on those subjects have been cited in academic works and white papers by major multinational corporations and I’ve done consulting work for Fortune 100 companies. Clearly the fact that I’m heavily tattooed hasn’t impacted my abilities to gain skills and knowledge in my craft and excel professionally. When I work with my clients and appear at professional events, I wear long sleeves and pants. Even in the hottest days of the summer. And you will never hear me complain.

I guarantee that if our doctor in the picture is real, he too covers up when he’s at work or work-related events. Why? Because how you present yourself matters. Tattoos or no tattoos, your personal appearance, presentation, and conduct plays a large part in how you’re received. That’s the way it goes, again, regardless of whether or not you have tattoos. Unless you work a blue collar job, if you come in to work dressed like a bum, unshaven, hair a mess, people are going to wonder if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t look the part, you might not be right to play the part. Period.

But Karl, you’ve given up on your punk rock roots!

No, I haven’t. Is discriminating against people based on their outward appearances wrong? Absolutely. Shouldn’t we just accept people as they are? Sure, in an ultra-liberal utopia where everyone is regarded as completely equal, we can do that. But that is not the world we live in. The world we live in is filled with prejudices which, though most often subtle, serve to get in the way of this concept of an egalitarian world. The way to change how “the system” works isn’t to ram into it face first, chanting your favorite anarcho-punk lyrics about how you hate society. People who live in a fantasy world where their ultimate goal is to “smash the system” never actually accomplish anything toward meeting their goals. When you say “Fuck you” to someone, what’s their immediate reaction? To say “Well, ‘Fuck You’ too!”

I prefer to use an approach not too dissimilar from that of Judo:

In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones. This is the theory of ju yoku go o seisu.

In short, I accept that I have to wear long sleeves and long pants to work, to visit clients, at professional events, and even to PTA meetings. It is part of my approach to eliminating potential resistance and enhancing the ability for my message to come across clearly to those with which I communicate. When other “weird” people stop whining about things maybe their messages will be better received as well.