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victory for body art

An unidentified guest with a tattoo arrives on the red carpet for the screening of the film "Inglourious Basterds" at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival May 20, 2009. Twenty films compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or which will be awarded on May 24. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (FRANCE ENTERTAINMENT)Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Nadine Bélisle has a tattoo of a dragon snaking down the back of her right shoulder blade, and for the first time in five years, she's going to be able to show it off at work.

Ms. Belisle is a daycare worker in Quebec whose employer insisted that tattoos and tots don't mix. It ordered them to be hidden from view.

But Ms. Belisle and her union challenged the ban and scored a victory for all lovers of body art: A Quebec Superior Court judge has ruled that the tattoo cover-up violated her rights.

"Five years of frustrations have collapsed. I'm thrilled," Ms. Bélisle, 35, said in an interview yesterday from her home in Saguenay. "This is a question of human rights, of freedom of expression."

The May 27 ruling brings legal heft to the murky question of what's appropriate to wear in the workplace, at a time of relaxing attitudes to dress codes. While body piercings and dressing down seem to be gaining acceptance, there are signs that more employers are drawing the line. This week, University of Montreal hospitals adopted dress codes for employees that prohibit jeans, short skirts and tattoos deemed to be in bad taste.

For Ms. Bélisle's union, the visible-tattoo ban by the CPE La Pirouette, one of Quebec's publicly funded daycares, went too far.

"We're professionals and want to give a good example to the children. We agree that if a tattoo is sexist, racist or violent it should be camouflaged," said union president Sylvie Blackburn. "But I don't see how children are going to be traumatized by a flower on someone's ankle."

Ms. Bélisle said many children are showing up at the daycare with temporary tattoos all over their bodies. She even found one on a child's buttocks. Yet educators had to cover up; one put a Band-aid on her ankle tattoo every summer.

A lawyer for the daycare defended the measure. He said the board, which included parents, decided on a blanket ban because it didn't want to play arbiter of what could be suitable.

"We don't want to fall into the question of what's good taste or bad taste," lawyer Frédéric Dubé said from Chicoutimi.

"What if I want Vive le Québec Libre on my forehead? And you're a Liberal?" he asked. "We're not forbidding tattoos. We're just asking that they be hidden."

The daycare's ban on visible tattoos was initially upheld by a labour arbitrator, who said the daycare was within its rights. The arbitrator's decision was struck down by Judge Jean Bouchard, however, who wrote that the daycare's ban "rests on prejudices."

"Tattooing nowadays is a phenomenon that cuts across all levels of society," he wrote. "If it was once associated with delinquents, that's no longer the case."

The daycare's policy forced an employee with a tattoo of a butterfly or flower on her forearm or calf to wear pants or a long-sleeved shirt, even while working under a hot summertime sun, he wrote.

"This is, in the opinion of the court, ridiculous and outrageous."

The daycare will still have the right to prohibit inappropriate tattoos including those expressing violence.

Damian McGrath, editor of the Toronto-based website Tattoo.com, says he is not surprised by Judge Bouchard's ruling, since tattoos have entered the mainstream.

"It's forward thinking and tolerant - everything we want in Canada," he said. "You can't just discriminate against someone because they have multiple pigments in their skin. Where does it end?"

Tattoo studios have grown dramatically in number in the past decade as they reach a wider clientele, he said. "It's everybody from 18 to 80, grandmother and granddaughters."

Still, employers aren't ready for an anything-goes approach.

"Discrete tattoos have become more accepted. But it depends where it is, and what it says," said Claude Balthazard of the Human Resources Professionals Association. "There are lots of grey zones."

The La Pirouette daycare, which cares for children aged two months to five years, may appeal the court ruling, its lawyer said.