Making an impression: when medicine meets art

A quiet revolution has swept away many of the conventions on how doctors should look. Jennifer Trueland speaks to those whose appearance may have raised (unpierced) eyebrows a generation ago, and asks how patients and colleagues respond

Location: UK
Published: Friday 19 August 2022
Emma rackley

When Professor Sir Gregor Smith, Scotland’s chief medical officer, was photographed having his COVID injection last April, he revealed some impressive tattoos. The intricate designs were, he explained, ‘very personal’ and depicted Asclepius, the god of medicine, and Apollo, god of (among other things) healing, disease, music and light.

Sir Gregor isn’t alone – many doctors embrace tattoos and, in doing so, shatter stereotypes of what a medical professional is expected to look like.

‘I’m a doctor with tattoos, piercings and coloured hair, currently blue,’ says Emily Rackley (pictured above), a specialty trainee 4 in old-age psychiatry in Gloucestershire. ‘I have two tattoos, one on my leg, which is an elephant with flowers round it, and one on my arm – a sunflower and a honeybee. Patients will only occasionally see the very bottom of the elephant in summer, but they can always see the one on my forearm because I’ve got my sleeve rolled up.’

She has never had a negative response from patients, she says – quite the opposite. ‘Because I work with older adults, I get quite a lot of people saying they wished they could have had something like that when they were younger.

And sometimes, when people have been confused or quite delirious, they’ve tried to touch the bee on my arm which is quite sweet. It’s the same with the coloured hair – it really gets people talking, and saying they wish they were brave enough to do that.’

When people have been confused or quite delirious, they’ve tried to touch the bee on my arm
Dr Rackley

She has only once had a colleague – a senior nurse – say that he thought her hair (then purple) looked ‘unprofessional’.

‘He’s someone I’ve got a good relationship with, so we were able to have a conversation, and I didn’t really take it as criticism.

‘When I was applying for advanced training, I did think about [my appearance] and I made sure I had orange hair at that point, because although it’s still a bit mad, it’s slightly less mad for an interview.’ Once, when working in orthopaedics as a foundation doctor, a surgeon commented that she should remove her nose ring.

‘I just sort of nodded and smiled and left it in.’ She stands out less in psychiatry, she says, because a lot of her colleagues, particularly nurses, also have brightly coloured hair and tattoos. But it’s still less common in the acute hospital, where she does shifts in the emergency department.

‘Not everybody wants to have tattoos and coloured hair, and that’s absolutely fine – but if doctors want to have tattoos, then they should be allowed to, without fear of it affecting your career, because it doesn’t affect your ability to be a doctor.’


No offence

In theory, there’s nothing to stop doctors having tattoos or blue hair at work. Although it’s forbidden in some religions, NHS dress codes usually specify that visible tattoos shouldn’t be ‘offensive’.

Such research as there’s been on the topic suggests that having body art such as tattoos or piercings makes no difference to whether patients perceive them as professional, trustworthy, caring or competent or not. But it wasn’t always seen that way. When Kate Dawson was a medical student in Edinburgh in the 1980s, she wanted to have a tattoo – but, as a woman, it wasn’t straightforward.

‘I was doing a stint in A&E and saw a woman with the most beautiful peacock tattoo on her arm. I decided I wanted to try that. I couldn’t find anyone in Edinburgh who tattooed women, so I had to go to Glasgow. But [the artist] didn’t have a design for a peacock so I ended up with a butterfly.’

She chose to have the tattoo on her upper outer thigh so she could show it off if she was swimming or clubbing – but also so that she could cover it up at work. ‘At the time, Edinburgh was very conservative, and as a woman, some of the wards wouldn’t even let you in if you were wearing trousers.

So, I thought a tattoo was possibly going to be a step too far. ‘I’d already been called to the dean’s office for having an outrageous hairstyle – I had a Mohican – but that was in the pre-clinical years and I had to promise I’d shave it off before I reached the next bit of my degree. My take on it was that I might as well have it before it gets to the point where I have to start conforming to people’s ideas – or my own idea – of what a doctor should look like.’

When applying for advanced training... I made sure I had orange hair at that point, because although it’s still a bit mad, it’s slightly less mad for an interview
Dr Rackley

Dr Dawson, who is now a GP on the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides – and a grandmother – has found having a tattoo has helped confound expectations of what a doctor should be like.

She also sounds quite envious of the array of options now open to people who want tattoos – she would have no problem to find someone to do a peacock now.

But she remains fond of her ink, although she says it’s not as shiny and pristine as once it was. ‘It really only comes out now when I’m swimming, but I think most of my adult patients know I have a tattoo. I think some of the younger nursing staff think it’s quite cool that I’ve got one. I don’t think I’d get another one – I got it done to adorn my body when it was worth adorning. Now it’s just part of me.’


Barbed comments

Scott redmond REDMOND: Perceptions are changing

Scott Redmond is in his second year of a graduate medical degree at the University of Dundee – and has many tattoos, including a full sleeve on one arm. He had his first tattoo when he was 18.

‘The ones that I got initially were mostly coverable – I’ve got a big anatomical heart on my chest, for example (which is in slightly the wrong position, which is something I found out literally on my first day at medical school).’

His full sleeve is primarily modern art, featuring works by artists including Van Gogh, Dalí, Warhol and Klimt.

‘They’re all artists who had some form of mental illness throughout their lives, and I loved the idea of finding beauty in that. They were able to create these beautiful things that have touched so many people.

‘I’ve had issues with my own mental health – I suffer from anorexia – and I’ve always liked that idea of being able to use this thing that will always be with me in some way to create something bigger and kind of beautiful in spite of itself. So that connection really stuck with me.’

At the bottom of his sleeve, he has a Romani chakra. ‘I come from a Romani Traveller family. That’s something that’s always been important to me, so I have it proudly on show. As a community we’ve quite often had to kind of hide ourselves from various things, so I like the idea of reclaiming it. It’s very powerful.’

At the time, Edinburgh was very conservative, and as a woman, some of the wards wouldn’t even let you in if you were wearing trousers
Dr Dawson

Although he now has ambitions to go into cardiac surgery, he chose the heart design simply for aesthetic reasons. ‘As pretentious as it sounds, I’ve always thought the heart is the most beautiful piece of art in nature. It’s so simple and elegant.’

He laughs: ‘To be honest, if I’d known I was going to go into medicine, I wouldn’t have got it because it feels a bit cringey now.’

He has had mixed responses to his tattoos since starting medical school, he says, but it’s been mostly positive. ‘The vast majority of people seem to really like them – people have said it makes them feel more comfortable and they see me maybe as someone a bit more human as a medical professional. I was vaccinating people during the pandemic and having the tattoos was a bit of an ice-breaker.’

One person asked if they were being vaccinated by a bike gang member
Dr Redmond

Having said that, one person did ask if they were being vaccinated by a health professional or a bike gang member while others asked if he thought he looked ‘professional’. This has occasionally happened at university too.

‘I had an [objective structured clinical examination] recently where, as I left the station, the doctor who was the examiner made what I felt was a pretty barbed comment along the lines of “tattoos – people will certainly remember you”. They weren’t saying it in a nice way.’

Although he says that – purely as a matter of personal taste – he wouldn’t have a tattoo on his face, he believes his body art doesn’t and shouldn’t affect his ability to be a doctor.

‘I think perceptions are changing, and as long as it’s not anything you’d be embarrassed to walk down the street with on your arm, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to have it whilst working as a medical professional. At the end of the day, we’re just regular people – I’ve always disliked the societal view of the doctor as something above and beyond. So, anything that can humanise us as much as possible is a really positive thing.’


‘Frightening old ladies’

arianne laws LAWS: Patients have more progressive views than some realise

Arianne Laws, a consultant rheumatologist in Paisley, had always known she wanted a tattoo – but didn’t know what design she wanted. When she saw the work of a Dundee tattoo artist, she recognised the style she wanted.

‘It was just a pretty picture, essentially,’ says Dr Laws.

‘I wanted something with brightly coloured hair. Then the second one I got was just before the pandemic. I’d seen [the artist’s] work and I liked the mermaids she did, so I thought I’d like a mermaid holding my cats, Gilbert and George.’

She is planning to travel to Ormskirk for another tattoo soon, again on her leg.

‘My dad died earlier this year, so I’m getting a tattoo for him – it’s a lighthouse from near where I come from, surrounded by botanical images, although I’ve yet to decide on what flowers and things like that.’

Patients can only see them (they are on the fronts of her thighs) when she is bending down next to them, but they have been overwhelmingly positive. That’s not always been the case with other doctors, however.

‘I was doing a clinical leadership fellowship and we’d been talking about what a doctor should look like. One of the guys said he thought that we should look conservative because otherwise we might be “frightening to little old ladies” – that we should look like their image of what a doctor should look like.

‘I said that I felt little old ladies were more progressive than he thought, and that people just wanted to be looked after well, as opposed to being worried about what you look like. And also, that if he thought it was inappropriate for a doctor to have tattoos, he should have a word with Gregor Smith.’ 


The Welsh dragon

Jim Crawfurd, a consultant in emergency medicine in Norfolk, didn’t expect that he would ever have a tattoo. But now he has a Welsh dragon on the back of his left shoulder.

For this, the doctor, who describes himself as ‘pretty mainstream’, can thank his love of fencing.

‘I had been in the Welsh fencing team for a long time and we’d been to the Commonwealth Championships twice, and missed out on a medal both times. We said that if we ever won a medal we’d all get tattoos of a Welsh dragon. We thought it was a safe bet, and it wouldn’t happen, but then in Belfast in 2006 we won gold, very unexpectedly.’

There was no way to get out of it, he says, and so he and two of his team mates (the others got the tattoos later) went out the following morning to find, as he puts it, the ‘least skanky’ tattoo parlour in Belfast.

Jim Crawford's tattoo Dr Crawfurd's tattoo

Although he fainted after the artist had finished (blaming hangover, pain, and sitting still for an hour) he absolutely loved the results, and still does.

‘I told my parents and at the age of, I think, 32, my mum was shocked and upset and said that nice people don’t have tattoos, because that’s what her generation grew up with. Whereas I think that these days when we pick the kids up from school I think my wife’s just about the only person who doesn’t have a tattoo.’

He doesn’t think he’d have another tattoo (unless he wins another medal) but enjoys the fact that people are surprised when he reveals that he has one.

‘One of my consultant colleagues has some very impressive tattoos – most of one arm is covered and is visible at work in scrubs. I think that’s normal these days. I’m absolutely fine with that. Patients are fine with it – it’s become very normal.’


Image of wellbeing

Tattoos are a way of commemorating important parts of her life for Kirsty Morgan, a specialty doctor in emergency medicine in Forth Valley, Scotland.

Her first tattoo was in 2015, when she was returning to the UK after working for five years in New Zealand, and was designed specifically to take in the elements of her life there – including being a doctor.

‘I’d wanted a tattoo for a long time, but never really knew what to get. I didn’t worry about the whole “being a doctor with a tattoo” thing because my first one was definitely going to be covered up – I wasn’t brave enough at that point.

Kirsty Morgan tattoo Dr Morgan's shoulder

'In Māori culture, tattoos are incredibly important, and I’d been exposed in New Zealand to them being more mainstream than they are here.

‘If they are done properly, they tell a story, and I was keen to get one that was authentic, and did tell a story, and that was endorsed by someone from that culture.’

She found a tattooist in a rural part of New Zealand who listened when she talked about her time in the country and created a tattoo for her right shoulder – the trapezius area.

‘It’s very personal and tells the story of my time in New Zealand. It’s got elements of being a doctor in there – he was very insistent that that was part of telling the story.’

Medicine is represented in her tattoo by the hauora symbol (philosophy of health and wellbeing). ‘It’s interlinked as part of it and I’m very pleased with it. It looks great,’ she says.

Kirsty morgan Dr Morgan

Most of her other tattoos commemorate her environmental activism and her time as a medical officer with Sea Shepherd, a charity that aims to protect marine wildlife worldwide.

These include a bowline knot, an anchor, a dolphin, an outline of the ship, and a design she created to represent the Antarctic land mass – done on board while she was there.

‘It’s nice to get something in a certain time and place.’

Playful patients

‘Tattoos are a bit like a virus,’ laughs Cristina Costache.

‘Once you’ve got your first, you feel like getting more and more.’

Dr Costache, a specialty trainee 3 in paediatrics in Yorkshire, has eight tattoos (she also has pink and orange hair and facial piercings). Far from hindering her in her job, her most recent, a Pokémon Tepig on her arm, was chosen deliberately to distract and delight her child patients – and their mums and dads.

‘I often get parents saying to a child, “oh look, the doctor has a picture on her arm” or “look, the doctor has pink hair”.

‘That’s one of the reasons I got the Pokémon one – the Tepig is my favourite, because it’s really cute and small, but actually it burns fire through its nose and is really quite mighty. It’s my spirit animal.’

Dr Costache, a member of BMA council, got her first tattoo – a brightly coloured moth over her rib cage – to celebrate getting a clinical attachment in the UK after she graduated in medicine in her native Romania.

‘I had nearly lost hope, so the tattoo was a reminder to keep my hopes up and never give up.’

At that stage, she chose a place where it wouldn’t be visible at work. ‘In Romania, the stigma is worse than it is here, but there is still a perceived stigma about tattoos here [in the UK] – I think some hospitals still have in their attire policy that you should cover visible tattoos, which was why I was initially afraid of getting them. I’m an immigrant, and we get a lot of stigma anyway, and I really wanted to integrate into a new country.’

cristina Costache Dr Costache

Most of her tattoos commemorate difficult times in her life – she calls them her ‘beautiful scars’ – including a tape measure and pair of scissors on her arms to signify overcoming eating disorders. This has helped her build a rapport with teenage patients with eating disorders.

‘I’ve been through more or less the same thing and I can be open about my own experience and show that there is healing at the end of it, because I’ve overcome it.’

She has rarely had negative comments about her tattoos, coloured hair or piercings – although occasionally senior colleagues have commented on whether she looks professional or not.

‘The actual patients don’t mind,’ she says. ‘I changed my hair colour to pink while I was teaching adult medicine, and, unlike what I would have expected, the older patients didn’t mind and I actually got a positive reaction.’

Other colleagues have also been encouraging, she says. ‘One of the nurses said to me that I made their day better because I bring some colour and brightness to the ward, which was something I’d never thought about, but it was really nice to hear.’