If you were dying, as everything started to fade to black, the last thing on your mind would be what the doctors treating you looked like. They could have facial tattoos, and it wouldn’t matter just as long as they saved your life, right? Believe it or not, some people would probably refuse an experienced physician’s services if they spotted body art peeking out from under their scrubs, which just goes to show how dangerous stigmas can be. Fortunately, there are tattooed professionals — like Justin C. — who challenge this sort of stereotype.
Justin is an Attending Physician in two New York area hospitals’ emergency departments (ED) and has two full sleeves by Yoni Zilber, one of the leading experts on Tibetan art in the tattoo industry. He treats all sorts of conditions, everything from cardiac arrest to trauma from motor vehicle accidents to knife and gunshot wounds. It’s uncommon for an ED doctor to be so heavily tattooed, but that doesn’t stop him from caring for his patients to the best of his abilities.
Justin always wanted to be a doctor. For him and many others in the profession, it’s a calling. “At the heart of it, for all of us, I think we have a common feeling of wanting to help people. That’s the main guiding force for most of us,” he explains. “It comes from being good at the sciences and also having a humanitarian streak, and you want to combine the two to do some good in the world.” But Justin was also interested in tattoos and got his first one before even entering into med school — a small script piece on his left arm — which was risky considering his ambitions.
Since then, Justin has significantly expanded his collection. Now both of his arms are fully fleshed out with beautiful body art featuring Tibetan icons, and nasty looks and words of discouragement have been few and far between. “I’ve only had one encounter that could be considered negative. One of the hospitals I work at is a major receiving center for nursing homes, so we get a lot of folks from older generations,” Justin explains. “One of them saw my arms and said, ‘You can’t be a doctor. You have all these tattoos. What do your parents think of that?’ But thankfully, no one has ever turned down my services."
Where more closed-minded people may see Justin's tattoos in a negative light, he views them as another tool to help him in his job. “Having tattoos is especially good for building a rapport with younger patients. I have a few who I treat who were former inmates at Rikers [Island Correctional Facility], and they have gang tattoos,” Justin explains. “It’s something about me that they spot immediately, that they zero in on, and I think it shows a more human side of me that they can relate to, instead of just some sterile doctor."
Beyond helping him connect with patients, Justin’s tattoos also mirror his occupation. At the top of his left sleeve sits a medicine Buddha. He chose this particular design because it represents the clearing away of false illusions, which is a major part of what doctors do when diagnosing their patients. The goddess Vajrasattva, a figure associated with purification practices in Tibetan art, resides on his other arm. By having these meaningful icons on his body, Justin shows that there are more and more tattooed professionals with every passing day and that, before too long, the prejudice of previous generations, like all illusions, will fade away.
To see more of Zilber’s Tibetan tattoos, like the one’s on Justin’s arms, make sure to follow him on Instagram. Should you be a professional who want to help break down stereotypes, too, consider getting your own set of sleeves from Zilber. He works at New York Adorned and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.