For decades, tattoos in highly visible areas, especially the face, were considered the extreme in body art, at least in Western culture. That is changing.
At Chicago Tattoo & Piercing, which has been in business in that city since 1973, the employees have a name for tattoos on the hands, neck and face. “We call them job stoppers,” said Joel Jose Molina, a tattoo artist at the shop. “Your possibilities are cut down. You’re going to be working at the Trader Joe’s putting groceries away or working that bar job.”
Or then again, you might be cutting platinum albums and performing at this year’s Lollapalooza Festival, like Post Malone. Or broadcasting your amazing pop star life to your 101 million Instagram followers, like Justin Bieber.
Both musicians have tattoos on their faces, a once taboo area to ink.
Post Malone has “Stay Away” in curly script on his forehead and the words “Always” and “Tired” below each eye, while Bieber has a tiny, under-eye cross. Other artists with inked faces include 21 Savage (a knife on his forehead), Lil Xan (the words “xanarchy” and “candy,” the number “1996”), and Tekashi 6ix9ine, who was reportedly kidnapped and beaten last month (the number “69,” a red flower, the face of Jigsaw from the “Saw” movies).
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But marking one’s face isn’t limited to rappers, or men, or celebrities. Kat von D, the tattoo artist and model, has a wash of blue stars trailing down her forehead and cheek. Instagram, predictably, is filled with photos (#facetattoo) of people, most of them young, showing off their new face ink.
For decades, tattoos in highly visible areas, especially the face, were considered the extreme in body art, at least in Western culture. It wasn’t only members of polite society who were put off. Even among tattoo aficionados, the face was sacrosanct, a canvas of last resort when the rest of the body was covered.
Over his 12-year career, said Molina, 34, he has done only three face tattoos. “Two were on tattooers, and one was on this gangster from Florida who sold a bunch of weed and wanted his eyelid tattooed,” he said.
JonBoy, a New York-based tattoo artist who gave Bieber his cross and who has tattooed many other celebrities, half-joked that in the past, if he spotted someone with a face tattoo, “I’d walk on the other side of the street.”
Indeed, one saw a face tat and thought: Aryan Brotherhood or gang member or sideshow performer. Famous face tattoo wearers of the recent past, like Mike Tyson, Charles Manson and the drug-addled skateboarder Jay Adams, conformed to the stereotype of the rough character.
All of which makes their current popularity more striking — or perhaps not, at a time when tattoos have become ubiquitous.
Anna Felicity Friedman, a scholar who runs the website Tattoo Historian, said that starting in the 1990s, it became common to see athletes and celebrities with tattoos. Soon, reality TV shows (with titles like “Best Ink” and “Tattoo Nightmares”) and magazines began covering tattoo culture, and Americans embraced body art like never before.
Tattoos, as a result, began losing their renegade status. Hence the creep upward, past the neckline.
“If you want to be transgressive — and a lot of rappers want to create a transgressive character — the last frontier is the face,” Friedman said. “Some of it is to give them a rebel/criminal allure. And some of it is a more artistic or free-spirit reference.”
Post Malone has offered a simpler explanation to reporters for his face tattoos: anything to upset my mom. But with the notable exception of Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, two heavily inked established artists, many of the hip-hop stars with face tattoos are so-called SoundCloud rappers — young, unknown artists who post their music on SoundCloud for free.
Getting Anne Frank’s portrait etched on the side of your face, as the rapper and producer Arnoldisdead did, is one obvious way to attract attention.
“A lot of kids are doing it to make themselves bigger on social media,” said Travis Hardy, 30, a creative director in Los Angeles who works with musicians. “It’s kind of corny.” This past month, he got a lightning bolt tattooed under his left eye.
“I don’t need that,” Hardy said, referring to others’ quest for attention. “This isn’t for followers or comments.” (Though there is, in fact, a thoughtfully composed shot on Hardy’s Instagram.)
“There’s no turning back. There’s no normal job or whatever,” Hardy said. “I’m going to continue to creative direct or write treatments for music videos or stage design. I’m not going to turn around. This served as a stamp: I believe in myself.”
Hardy’s tattoo is so small as to be easily mistaken for a birthmark or go unnoticed in public. It is what JonBoy, who did the face tattoo, considers “classy.”
Harder to miss is the tattoo that Kerwin Frost, a member of the Spaghetti Boys D.J. collective, has on his face: a realistic pencil that runs the entire length of his right cheek.
Still, don’t expect face tattoos to become commonplace anytime soon. Molina, the Chicago tattoo artist, says that those getting face tattoos are generally young and work in untraditional jobs. For what it’s worth, he has no plans to get one himself. “I know if I drop my kid off at school and I have face tattoos, the teacher is going to judge me,” he said.
Echoing many in the tattoo community, Molina also believes that a face tattoo should never be someone’s first time getting inked. When an 18-year-old woman recently asked him for a tattoo on her ear, he saw she had no other visible tattoos and talked her out of it.
“You have to earn it,” he said. “It’s a rite of passage.”