- Perception: you are scary to some folks and you are not too concerned about the image (or you are too concerned about your image, depending on how you look at it) you are portraying to others.
Suggestion to not be in the same situation: keep the tattoos hidden! When I say hidden, I mean if you are wearing a t-shirt and shorts (typical firefighter workout gear), they should not be visible. Now, I personally don't have any tattoos and don't plan to get any. Call me weird or old-fashioned, but they just don't do anything for me. Some departments, like the one I work for, have a Rule against visible tattoos while in uniform. Now, when they implemented the Rule a few years ago, it didn't apply to the firefighters already on the job (meaning if they had visible tattoos, they didn't have to suddenly remove or cover them). It meant they could not get any additional tattoos that were visible and that every one hired after that point were basically not going to get hired if they had visible tattoos.
Now call it as you see fit. Some will argue the department doesn't have the right to do that. I'm not even going to get into that argument. How could we get away with that? Well, the union and the administration met and conferred and the Rule was established. Would this Rule work in every department? No, because every department is different. The clientele we serve is primarily middle-class to upper-class. Some of the homes within the communities we protect are typically in the top 25 list of cities with the most expensive homes in the United States.
Are tattoos more common in less affluent areas? Without being stereotypical, I would imagine they are. Take it a step further now. Would a firefighter working in an affluent area be looked upon in a different light if they had tattoos covering their arms than if they worked in a less affluent area? I would venture they would be. I'm not saying it is right or wrong, I'm just saying it is.
Case Study: I remember a paramedic that worked for the local private ambulance company. He was a great paramedic that had great bedside manner, great patient care skills, and got along well with the fire crews. However, he always wore a long sleeve shirt when he worked. Why? Because his arms were covered with tattoos; he also had tattoos going up the sides of his neck. Did that make him a bad person? Of course he didn't always were the long sleeve shirts. I remember asking him one day why he was always wearing long sleeve shirts in the summer time. He told me that he got sick and tired of people asking him about his tattoos, as well as always staring at them. He also heard one too many comments from patients that were concerned about his paramedic skills. Here was a case of someone considered to be a great paramedic, but whose skills were being overshadowed by his presentation! Is that discrimination? Is that unfair? Is that real-life? Is that preventable? Is their perception their reality? Yes to all of those questions!
Note: be careful about hiding them too much; so much that you decline to make the department aware of them during your background investigation. Most background investigations have a section wear you are required to list all scars, tattoos, etc. Failing to disclose them (and they are discovered - it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when) will lead to your termination of employment.
What I hope you get from this, is that you continuously remember now that "perception is reality" and that everything you do, every move you make, every thing you say, is being evaluated, processed, and critiqued by the person or persons who are around you, whether or not they are interacting with you or not. Keep that frame of mind and you will hopefully be able to present yourself in a positive and professional manner, which gets remembered in the best way possible (as opposed to the worst way possible).