Metropolis: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Farmer: ‘I didn’t think they would come back and haunt me.’ (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
‘They were discriminating against me like I’m black or Chinese or Jewish or whatever.’
Ink Slip

Body art carries a high price for a YMCA instructor.


How many tattoos does Mark Farmer have? He thinks for a moment, has to count. Answer: 20, including the six flying swallows on his chest, the Texas star and “817” on his back for hometown pride, the Curious George and lucky 13 on his biceps. Not everything is arty; there’s his name, birth date, Social Security number, and “Do not resuscitate” below his armpit (in case of an accident). There’s even a little dot on his pinky finger, which he shows to people who complain around him. “I tell them, ‘I care this much,’ and I show them the dot on my finger,” he said.
He might consider inking “You’re fired” on his backside. Farmer thinks the bosses at Amon Carter YMCA in downtown Fort Worth canned him because of those tattoos.
The blond, goateed 31-year-old started teaching a water exercise class for seniors at the Y in June 2004 so he could enjoy a free membership at the club. Farmer, who owns a welding business, said his superiors knew about his many tattoos and indicated they weren’t a problem. To be sure, the YMCA does ask employees to cover up visible tattoos, although this policy was not stated in the employee handbook but came in the form of a July 1999 memo. (He also has nipple rings — another no-no under Y policy, which forbids piercings of any body parts besides ears.)
The people he taught had no problem with the tattoos, Farmer said. “I was tight with the students in my class,” he said. “Some of them were trying to set me up with their granddaughters.” In the 10 months that he worked at the Y, he said, he received good evaluations, doubled the size of the class, and even appeared in a company newsletter, tattoos and all.
The trouble began in February when Fort Worth YMCA Director Tony Shuman saw the class in progress and noticed the tattoos. “I did observe Mr. Farmer in the pool, and I told his supervisor to ask him to put on a t-shirt,” Shuman said in an interview on Friday.
Farmer bought a wetsuit that would cover all his tattoos, a $250 expense for which he asked the Y to reimburse him. The Y agreed until Farmer lost the receipt for the suit. Still, Farmer’s friends teased him for not standing up for his rights. “They said I was a sellout and that if I got money for the suit it was like I was being paid off instead of standing up against the discrimination,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘That’s it.’”
Supervisors didn’t seem to enforce the rule on other employees who had tattoos in plain sight, Farmer said. “I went to the directors and told them they were discriminating against me like I’m black or Chinese or Jewish or whatever,” he said. “They told me they weren’t going to go around and tell everyone to cover up.” One supervisor, Farmer said, told him, “Why don’t you keep pushing it, and we’ll find something to fire you for.”
Shuman said that while YMCA policy states that all visible tattoos should be covered, small ones can slip by supervisors unseen. “The ones that are large or offensive, those are the ones we target the most,” he said. “If they’re not very large, we might not notice them.”
Farmer missed a class earlier this month — an absence he notified YMCA of, he said. On April 6, he was fired for “class abandonment.” This, he thinks, was a “trumped-up charge,” and that they fired him because he challenged management.
Y officials said they do not comment on employee terminations as a matter of policy but that Farmer was not fired because of his tattoos. Farmer’s supervisors said they could not talk about the incident.
“I guess you could say we’re promoting a Christian or family atmosphere,” said Shuman. “We have a large scope of folks that we serve here, and we want everyone to feel comfortable and welcome.”
Farmer is considering suing for discrimination and has contacted Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, who successfully fought an obscenity case and has vigorously defended the First Amendment. Farmer said Flynt has agreed to look at the case.
The former instructor doesn’t think his tattoos are offensive, except possibly the likeness of Curious George on his arm, because he’s sipping on a beer. “It’s not like I have tattoos of babies being run over, or skulls and crossbones, or somebody hanging from a tree, or a swastika on my forehead,” he said. “The worst thing that has happened is somebody got the 817 confused with 187 [the police code for murder].”
Tattoos have become much more common in recent years. The ranks of the inked now include not only sailors and prisoners, but thousands of young women with butterflies on their ankles or their backs and guys with tribal armbands. In a 2003 Harris Interactive Poll, 16 percent of Americans said they have one or more tattoos, including 36 percent of those age 25 to 29. By contrast, Life magazine estimated in 1936 that around 6 percent of the population sported some form of the body art.
Dr. Bob Greer, a human resources expert at Texas Christian University, said the United States is an employment-at-will country. With the exception of organized labor and certain employee associations, employees have the right to quit whenever they want, but employers may also terminate them for whatever reason they want, usually without consequence. There is no legal protection for an employee terminated for appearance reasons except sometimes in the case of religious observance, he said, such as employees who wear turbans or headdresses. “This case doesn’t fall into any of these areas,” said Greer.
Farmer got his first tattoo at 18. “I was young and bartending, and it came with the lifestyle,” he said. “I also had green hair, which my mother didn’t like, but I got $50 more in tips per shift when I had it, so she put up with it.” But he never thought his tattoos would cause so much trouble. “I didn’t think they would come back and haunt me,” he said. “When people discriminate like at the Y, I do regret getting them, but the scars of getting them off are just as bad.” He estimates that he has spent some $1,600 on all his tattoos and piercings.
“He might have to invest in tattoo removal at some point,” Greer said. “The reality is there are financial consequences to things like tattoos.”

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