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Tattoo Taboo

I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago speaking at IBM’s Business Analytics Forum. At 6:30 in the morning a few hours before my talk, I had a wonderfully rejuvenating swim at the Royal Park Hotel. But I was surprised to see a pool-side sign stating “Persons With Body Tattoos Not Allowed.”

I have swum at dozens of pools in the United States and have never encountered such a restriction. Is there any valid public health reason for tattoo discrimination? Is the pool policy driven by irrational health concerns (a la the early days of HIV hysteria)?

A student of mine, Sarath Sanga, suggested that the no body tattoo policy might be an indirect attempt to exclude Yakuza, organized crime syndicates known for having intricate tattoos. Many Japanese places of public accommodation such as swimming pools refuse entry to guests wearing tattoos, presumably to exclude gang members.

If Sarath is right, the prohibition is akin to the “no gang colors” restrictions which can be found stateside. But unlike gang colors, a tattoo is harder to remove. And the no tattoo ban seems overly broad (especially in a hotel catering in part to international guests).

I worry that the prohibition may in fact be targeting a larger class of tattoo bearers as not the right sort of people for the genteel environment of the hotel.  Makes me want to go out and get my first tattoo.