Body Art Comes to Camp: Tattooing and Piercing are Becoming Mainstream; Does Your Camp Have a Policy?

by Sandy Cameron

Body piercing and tattoos aren’t just for leather jacket-wearing motorcycle riders these days. They’ve entered the mainstream, and you’ve probably encountered staff — or even campers — who arrive at camp sporting these types of self-expression. Have you decided if your camp will allow counselors and staff to display these forms of body art?

History and Statistics

Cultures around the world have been practicing body art — that is, tattooing and body piercing — for thousands of years. In fact, archeologists report finding a 2,400-year-old mummy with a tattoo still visible on her upper arm. As early as 2000 B.C., the Egyptians were practicing tattooing. Color tattooing was also a popular form of expression in New Zealand, China, India, and Japan. Tattoos were popular with sailors as early as the sixteenth century, and they are credited with introducing the method in Europe. In many parts of the world, tattoos still indicate rank and affiliation.

Today, as many as 20 million Americans sport tattoos. Another study estimates that 15 percent of the U.S. population wears a tattoo. A recent study reported that one in ten teens is tattooed and that more than half say they are thinking about getting one. Tattooing is the United State’s sixth fasted-growing retail industry, behind paging services, bagels, and cell phones. And the shops that are springing up aren’t the back alley parlors of old; they operate in convenient locations in the malls and suburbs.

Among college students, tattooing and body piercing are becoming more common. A recent study found that 73 percent of students obtained their first tattoo when they were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Furthermore, 63 percent received their first body piercing during their college years.

Students reported having traditional body parts, such as ears, pierced as well as formerly nontraditional parts such as their nose, eyebrow, lips, tongue, nipple, navel, and genitals pierced. Their reasons for getting tattooed or pierced were not unusual; the most common were to commemorate an event, differentiate themselves, express themselves, or just because they wanted to. Body piercings were more often spur of the moment decisions, whereas students took more time before deciding to get a tattoo.

Body Art and Counselors

This college population predominately makes up the camp staff pool. Those individuals who are drawn to a job working in the outdoors with children are often the same individuals who choose to express themselves through body art. More often than not, campers will idolize their counselors and want to be like them — same clothes, same interests, and yes, same tattoo or piercing. As good as a camp experience is, no parent wants their ten year old coming home from camp begging for a tattoo or pierced tongue just like his counselors’. As body art becomes more mainstream and popular, camps will need to decide where they stand on the issue.

The stance on body piercing will be individual to the camp and may take into account the camp’s philosophy and mission, the culture of the area where the camp is located, or even the director’s personal taste. For example, camps in the Pacific Northwest may be more open to these forms of expression than camps in the South. These days it is not uncommon to see a younger camp director sporting a navel ring or eyebrow stud.

Whatever the decision, it is best to tell prospective staff about the camp’s policy on appearance as soon as possible. Many camps include these policies in their application packet or in the staff handbook. In addition to tattoos and piercings, this section often covers dress code and hair length and color as well. Many camps also require that hair be a natural color and that men not have beards or mustaches.

Piercing policies
Piercing policies vary from camp to camp depending on the philosophy. For some camps a zero-
tolerance policy works best. For example, Catalina Island Camp states that counselors must "be willing to cover any visible tattoos and remove any body piercings (including earrings for men)." Other common standards for piercing state that women may wear two earrings in each lobe and that men may wear one earring in each ear, but that both must have no other visible piercings. The Aspen Camp School for the Deaf’s policy states that "if earrings are worn, they must be in the ears." Camp Champions states that counselors must appear "pierce-free" in front of campers; they must keep "all rings, studs, hoops, etc., out of their noses, navels, tongues, etc." Female counselors are permitted to wear earrings, but not the men.

Tattoo policies
The standard for tattoos seems to be that they not be visible. Camp Jewell mentions that tattoos are "not in keeping with role model responsibilities." At Camp Champions, counselors are asked to keep the tattoo covered; although, they realize that this may not be possible at all times. Camps that allow visible tattoos mention that they should not contain graphics or words that are offensive and that they not be related to illegal substances or gang activity.

Inform Counselors Early

The key to preventing difficulties with counselors about this issue is spelling out your expectations early in the recruitment process. Let prospective staff know your camp’s policy on appearance before they complete an application if possible or during the interview. If you are unable to explain your policy at either of these times, make sure to communicate your expectations to counselors before they sign the employment contact, for your sake and theirs. Also keep in mind that body art is an important part of some cultures. You may to need to explain to international staff why your camp considers tattoos unacceptable. If accurate, let them know that you do not consider body art to be wrong, but that it does not fit with your current philosophy and what you feel is your duty to campers and their parents.

Also encourage students to tell you as early as possible if their have tattoos or body piercings. So as not to turn them away, let them know that body art doesn’t make them ineligible for the job and that you are willing to work with them to help them meet your requirements. Stress the importance of their position as role models to campers, and parents’ concerns about their young children wanting to be like their heroes. If they do have a tattoo, explain that they shouldn’t flaunt their tattoo in front of campers or promote the benefits of body art.

Campers and Body Art

As body art becomes more mainstream, younger and younger children will have piercings or tattoos. You may see campers coming to camp with navel rings, or boys with earrings. Communicate to parents your expectations in regard to camper body art. Will you permit campers to wear earrings or studs? Will they need to keep their tattoos covered? Also consider health and safety issues. Although healed piercings do not usually present a health risk, piercings may present a safety hazard to the camper or his peers, especially on ropes courses, in adventure activities, or during team sports.

A camp’s policy on piercing will reflect the camp’s own philosophy and mission. As body art becomes more popular and mainstream, camps will have to decide where they stand on this issue.

Originally published in the 2000 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.