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  1. Business

Tattoos in the workplace? These 11 coworkers got tats to match in St. Petersburg

Eleven employees of Big Sea, a St. Pete marketing firm, got matching anchor tattoos at a time ink in the workplace is becoming less taboo.

ST. PETERSBURG — Kristen Odom had the itch.

"If you have tattoos," said the 35-year-old, "you know 'the itch.'"

Odom had been working at St. Pete marketing firm Big Sea for about two years when she and her boss, Andi Graham, first discussed getting matching tattoos. One Friday nearly a year later, Odom decided it was time. She and Graham had a small anchor in mind — an homage to an old Big Sea logo, elegant and simple.

Soon word of the work-inspired tattoo spread through the office. And instead of just Odom and Graham getting inked, it became a group of 11 coworkers. That evening, two artists at Evil Don Tattoos etched anchors on to an assortment of ankles, wrists and legs in what might be the most extreme form of team bonding ever. Graham was in shock, the entire outing spontaneous. She footed the entire $600 bill.

"I was gushing," said Graham, the 41-year-old Big Sea CEO. "To have built something that people are so proud to be part of, so strongly tied to?"

It wasn't so long ago that someone hoping for a professional career might have confined their tattoos to places easily concealed by clothing, hidden from prospective employers, even family. And group tattoos were a thing of biker gangs and sailors.

The Big Sea field trip to Evil Don's may be one more sign of the growing acceptance of tattoos in the workplace, a way to mark milestones and important bonds.

Evil Don tattoo artist Aaron Michael said it was the second big group to come to the Central Avenue shop together within a few week span in October. Graham already has a "family tattoo" — a mustache in plain sight on her pointer finger — she shares with several relatives.

"In the creative industry, we get away with a lot because we're supposed to be a little funky and weird," said Graham, who founded Big Sea in 2005. "But that said, I think the image of a business owner, or a business person, is changing."

There may even be research to back that up. It was led by a health economics professor at the University of Miami.

Michael T. French, the lead author, said the idea to do a deep dive into tattoos and how they're viewed in the workplace first came up about five years ago during a conversation with colleagues. It turned out, there was little relevant data available. A lot of what was out there only asked if respondents had tattoos, not how many, or how visible they were, or if they were offensive.

Mainly, they were qualitative studies, French said. They surveyed customers and professionals about how they felt hiring, or interacting with, a person with tattoos. French said while those studies did show negative feelings about tattoos, they were becoming dated and had small sample sizes. They also measured how people said they felt, not how respondents actually acted when they interacted with someone who had visible ink.

French's study, based on 2,000 respondents, showed there was no empirical evidence that tattooed people faced discrimination or earning disparity compared to non-tattooed people. The salaries were indistinguishable and tattooed people were just as likely, if not more likely in some cases, to get hired, French and his colleagues wrote.

"Attitudes of tattoos are changing because they're so much more common," said French. "People get a tattoo to commemorate, designate an important event in their life, honor someone who is no longer with them."

And if you ask the 11 Big Sea employees why they decided to get the anchor, their answers match what French has found through his research.

Odom wanted to remember this moment in time. She moved from Atlanta to Florida three years ago to start a new job at Big Sea. When she and Odom looked out into the main desk hub, which staffers lovingly call "the pit," they weren't expecting so many hands to shoot into the air.

Now the work group is proud to show off their matching ink. There was no pressure to join them, and about half the staff opted out, Graham said.

"I knew we'd get mixed reactions," Odom said. "Tattoos are personal and everyone has their reasons … for me, Big Sea is my 'anchor' to Florida."

Graham's appears to be the biggest, 1.5 inches inside her left wrist. Big Sea managing partner Dzuy Nguyen has a tiny one, only a half-inch, he can hide under a wristwatch. Odom's is on the back of her leg.

Graham and Nguyen have created a workplace that values honesty, thinking long-term and simply remembering to smile. The digital marketing firm creates campaigns and websites for museums, universities and private companies.

Its leaders have made it their mission to create a place people want to work and grow. When employees catch each other adhering to those core values, they can give each other points that can later be cashed in as bonuses through Pay Pal or gift cards. There's a game area to unwind and regular dog visits.

Those who got tattooed have fielded the obvious question: What happens if or when you quit? The staff says it's more about commemorating the impact they have had on each other — that it's not as if they branded their bodies with a Starbucks logo.

For four staffers, including Nguyen, it was their first-ever tattoo. Nguyen said it was his love for his co-workers that made him want to join. But he did put off telling his mother about the tattoo until the day before he met with a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

She told him he was the first in his family to ever get tattooed.

"They were actually super proud," he said. "I guess I shed all the family stigma."

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.