Tattoos and Labor Market Earnings: Is There a Link in the Ink?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014: 1:35 PM
Waite Phillips 103 (Waite Phillips Hall)

Author(s): Michael T. French

Discussant: Dhaval Dave

The popularity of body art (e.g., tattooing, body piercing) has increased exponentially in recent years, particularly among adolescents and young adults.  In the case of tattooing, the images are permanent unless the individual opts for very expensive, time consuming, and painful removal procedures.  Given these sociological trends, it would be interesting and informative to know whether tattooed workers incur a wage penalty (or experience a wage premium) in the labor market.  To investigate this issue we analyze two large datasets—one from the U.S. and one from Australia—with various measures on tattoo status, income, and other pertinent variables.  Although it was not possible to do so with the U.S. dataset, we employed instrumental variables (IV) estimation with the Australian data to address potential bias due to unobserved individual heterogeneity.  Regardless of country, gender, specific measures, or estimation technique, the results consistently show that having a tattoo is negatively and significantly related to earnings in a bivariate model, but the estimates become smaller and non-significant when controlling for human capital, other individual characteristics, geographical fixed effects, and/or unobserved individual heterogeneity.  Various robustness checks confirm the stability of the core findings.  From a workplace and public policy perspective, these results suggest that employers are not discriminating against tattooed workers and instead considering a full range of characteristics when evaluating productivity and setting wages.  We strongly encourage future surveys to collect more detailed data on the timing, coverage, and placement of tattoos to better understand which if any tattoo profiles are significantly related to earnings.