Dallas-Fort Worth businesses wrestle with issues created by patrons' tattoos

About a month ago -- and within days of each other -- two patrons at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington were asked to cover up tattoos that employees decided could offend other visitors.

Like Six Flags, some other popular Tarrant County attractions have dress codes that apply to tattoos. All are family-friendly places that say they've had no problems with folks agreeing to cover their tattoos out of respect for children.

But along with those rules comes a growing acceptance of tattoos -- at least in general, if not in specific.

In December, the Pew Research Center issued a report on Americans' shifting attitudes toward tattoos in the decade of the 2000s. About 40 percent of respondents said the increase in people getting tattoos was a change for the worse. But they were outweighed by the 45 percent who said it made no difference and the 7 percent who said the increase in tattoos is positive, Pew found.

Which is not to say that anything goes.

Lifeguards at Hurst city pools, for example, are required to conceal tattoos while on duty, and swimmers with tattoos deemed distracting or offensive may be asked to do the same, said Doug Kratz, Hurst's recreation director.

The policy has worked well, he said.

"It doesn't happen very often" that someone is asked to cover a tattoo, Kratz said. "I think it's happened one time that I can recall, and that was five or six years ago."

Likewise, at North Richland Hills' NRH {-2}O water park, visitors often alert employees of offensive tattoos, who in turn ask the person to be more discreet, said Stephanie Hee, the park's marketing specialist. In the 16 seasons the park has been open, guests have always complied, she said. The park averages about 250,000 guests between mid-May and Labor Day, she said.

"If it's too offensive, we would ask them to cover it up, basically in the interest of our young guests," Hee said.

The Fort Worth Zoo doesn't have a guest dress policy at all, spokeswoman Alexis Wilson said.

"It's never been an issue," she said. "We've never had to look at a policy."

Not a big issue

Not even the National Tattoo Association hears many cases of people being asked to cover up tattoos to enter public attractions, said Sailor Bill Johnson, a longtime executive member and spokesman.

"I'm not sure how offensive it would have to be," Johnson said. "More and more you're seeing tattooed people in the workplace."

Companies are increasingly asking about setting up dress codes for customers, said Chris Lang, a lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Dallas, an employment law specialist. It's not illegal to ask employees to cover up tattoos if it interferes with business or the business's image, he said. But companies can't discriminate because a person has a tattoo.

"The policy should be tailored toward business needs," Lang said.

Ben Agger, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said First Amendment protections make it a slippery slope for businesses to ask customers to cover up tattoos. But in some circumstances it's the right thing to do, he said.

"We live in a society with few limits on self-expression," Agger said. "When kids are involved, it's OK to draw the line."

Learning tolerance

In one of the Six Flags cases, a man had a tattoo of a naked woman on his forearm. In the other, Samantha Osborn had tattoos of six-shooters on her upper chest. Osborn reportedly left one entrance when asked to do so and then entered the park through another line without being stopped or covering up.

Sharon Parker, the park's communications director, said employees watch for tattoos with vulgar designs or offensive language.

"We know we have guests who are colorful," Parker said. "We have no problem with those who are expressive. For the most part, people understand and come out and have a good time. When it's harmful to others, that's when we will step in."

An example of being colorful but acceptable might have been Brandon Overbee of Plano, who in May stood outside Six Flags all day giving hugs to set a Guinness World Record. While his body is covered in tattoos and piercings, 5,232 people shared a hug with him.

Parker said that when Overbee called to ask permission for his quest, he did mention his body art, Parker said.

"His weren't offensive," Parker said.

UTA's Agger said the lesson from the tattoo issue is to accept people's differences.

"People need to tolerate all types and forms of self-expression in public," he said.

SANDRA BAKER, 817-390-7727