I’m a maths professor at Oxford and my visible tattoos make no difference to my work

Original article by Kasia Delgado in the i newspaper here.

As Virgin Atlantic becomes the first UK airline to allow cabin crew to have visible tattoos, people with ink work tell Kasia Delgado their experiences at work, and David Beckham’s tattooist explains the advice he gives young clients

Dr Tom Crawford is a professor of maths at Oxford University, with a PhD in fluid dynamics. He is also covered in maths tattoos. His arms are adorned with his favourite equations and theories such as Euler’s Number, a proof with infinite digits beyond the decimal point. He also has an inked tribute to his five preferred shapes, including an octahedron and a tetrahedron, plus a big colourful mass of digits bursting out of a zip, which is a more general homage to maths. There are fractal patterns, a vorticity equation, which relates to the motion of fluids, and many more.

In the world of academia, historically one of the more traditional realms of work, populated by distinguished-looking white men in suits, Dr Crawford and his tattoos are a rarity. Yet he happily teaches and walks around campus in a T-shirt and ripped jeans, tattoos out for the world to see.

“I’ve been to job interviews with my tattoos on show,” he tells i “and they end up forming part of the discussion because a lot of them are mathematical. It can be a perfect way to talk about maths through the medium of what they mean and why I love those equations and theories.”

In 2015, a YouGov survey found that a fifth of all British adults were inked, with 30 per cent of 25 to 39-year-olds having at least one tattoo. The trend for tattoos has only surged since then, yet not all work-places have adjusted to their popularity.

While Crawford has been able to show his tattoos as an academic, there are still places where someone with visible tattoos won’t get hired. Virgin Atlantic last week became the first UK airline to allow cabin crew to have visible tattoos. Sir Richard Branson’s airline, like most carriers, has until now only hired staff who would be able to hide tattoos under their uniform.

Estelle Hollingsworth, Virgin Atlantic’s chief people officer, said that restrictions were being relaxed “in line with our focus on inclusion and championing individuality”. The change also comes at a time of cabin staff shortages, after many were laid off in the pandemic.

Visible tattoos have not been an issue for Crawford at Oxford, but he does sometimes get a few surprised looks in the academic world when new people first notice his arms.

“I’ve not had anything openly negative, but I feel like it’s not sort of fully accepted to the point of people not batting an eyelid at me having them. There can still be a bit of a shock. In general, there’s been a massively positive shift in loads of institutions, not just universities, but there are some old-fashioned views in society which linger. I’ve not let it affect me, though.”

Crawford, who has thousands of subscribers to his YouTube channel Tom Rocks Maths, says he gets a lot of messages from people on social media asking about his experience of having tattoos in academia.

“There are young people wanting to get tattoos but worry it may have an impact on their career. The main response I tend to give is that if the fact that you have tattoos on your forearms might mean you don’t get this particular position, and that those tattoos are judged over your academic ability or talent for teaching, then you probably wouldn’t want to work for that person or that organisation anyway. An organisation should hire the best mathematician, nothing to do with how they look or dress.”

All the same, Crawford says he’d be reluctant to get tattoos on his neck or hands anytime soon. “I don’t have any plans to do that because I enjoy that if I ever am in a situation where I want to hide my tattoos, then I can. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation where I’ve actively thought I want to hide my tattoos, but I like having the option.”

Meanwhile, in Oxford, Dr Crawford seems to be inspiring students not just with his maths teaching but also with the ink all over his arms. “I’ve definitely noticed, having been teaching for five years now, that I’ve had a few students who have turned up at the start of the year without tattoos and then three years later they graduate and they have a couple of tattoos. They’ve not said directly it’s because of me,” he says with a grin, “but I do wonder…”

One comment

  1. Interesting article! It’s nice that some professions are now more open for tattoo/piercing. I see it basically like more permanent make-up or hairstyle. It’s how people choose to represent themselves. It’s a statement, and other people will have their own way to read it. Surely for something more permanent, people should spend more time to do research and planning before putting them on.

    By the way, what are you planning to do when there’s no space left for new tattoos? Maybe inventing way to do it in 4th dimension.

    Like

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