face tattoos in fashion: a controversial history

Should we accept fashion’s experiments in face ink at, well, face value?

by Alice Newell-Hanson
30 September 2016, 1:15am

Gucci spring/summer 17. Photography Mitchell Sams.

When Gucci Mane reviewed his namesake fashion show recently, he was vocal about his love for one model's "badass lil pantsuit." But when a male model appeared repping a look very close to the rapper's own heart, a highly involved face tattoo, Gucci analyzed the cut of the model's pants rather than his very visible faux-ink. Alessandro Michele sent Latvian model Lorens down the runway wearing quotes from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience hand-painted across his face and neck.

Gucci did say he'd never seen a model look like that. But for a man who owns the best/worst face tattoo in recent history this seems surprisingly restrained. You might expect a man with an ice cream cone on his cheek to have more thoughts about a fashion designer experimenting with this particular look.

But then, fashion face tattoos have been around for a while now (see: John Galliano's 1996 show for Givenchy). And not much has been said about their significance. What does it mean that designs often originated by marginalized and/or disenfranchised sections of society are being reworked as accessories for multi-thousand-dollar outfits?

Face tattoos have strong associations with prison culture and gang culture, and their own complicated semantics within those settings. In 1980s California, for example, gang members began to use tattoos as a way to demonstrate their allegiance and instill fear in their rivals. Inking gang insignias on the most visible body part possible, the face, has long represented both a permanent commitment and an unmistakable threat (look at the face tattoos of New Zealand's Mighty Mongrel Mob).

According to cultural anthropologist Margo DeMello, facial tattoos have been "associated with deviance" in the West for millennia, a perception that stems from the ancient Roman and Greek tradition of facially branding convicts with marks of their crimes. And while facial tattoos have slowly been edging closer to mainstream acceptance in recent years — thanks in part to outspoken advocates for alternative beauty like Grace Neutral — "facial tattoos are [still] extremely stigmatized in the non-tattooed world," DeMello says.

That sense of perceived danger plays into what makes facial tattoos attractive for fashion designers; motifs referencing both gang and prison ink have cropped up on fashion's catwalks recently. At Chanel's resort 2013 show, models wore black double-C logos below the outer corner of their eyes, a placement that echoed the teardrop tattoos commonly used by gang members — and sometimes hip-hop artists — to signify time served, lost friends, or kill counts.

The gothic lettering of the tattoo at Gucci, meanwhile, evoked the style of facial tattoos worn by gangs like the MS-13 and the Mara-18. While some of the hand-done lettering feels in keeping with the stylings of William Blake's illuminated texts, the medieval-looking "AM" on the model's forehead recalls (consciously or not) the common typefaces of gang-associated face tattoos.

In both instances, a fashion designer has reworked a motif originated by an outsider group and recontextualized it in a world of extreme luxury. In his review of the Chanel resort show, Tim Blanks noted the contrast Karl Lagerfeld created in his show between 18th-century frivolity — the show took place at the Palace of Versailles — and "hip-hop edge." He also quotes sound designer Michel Gaubert referring to the show's soundtrack as "Ghetto royale."

While high fashion does also inspire face tattoos (witness this man's Louis Vuitton situation), tattooing your face with a Gucci logo feels less ethically sus than inserting a reference to a historically maligned or outlaw subculture into a high-end, commercially minded fashion show — particularly when the narrative of that subculture isn't examined elsewhere in the show.

In contrast, Shayne Oliver has often cast models with real face tattoos in his shows for Hood By Air. Streetcast models Sunny and Chucky, who walked in Oliver's spring/summer 16 show, both sported existing lettering and symbols on their faces — a detail that felt natural within Oliver's diverse world and in keeping with the show's message of youthful rebellion. Casting director Walter Pierce told Black Book that HBA team members "Leilah [Weinraub] and Ian [Isiah] met [the models] when they were in L.A. and we flew them out because their look can't be faked or recreated." Oliver doesn't borrow from countercultures on his catwalks, he represents them. Hood By Air was born out of outsider subcultures and is, to an extent, still embedded in them.

"I think if they're done right, they could be cool," Justin Bieber said of face tattoos to GQ earlier this year. By May, Justin had a face tat of his very own — a small cross below his right eye — and while the jury is still out on whether it was "done right," his sentiment rings true. When a brand imitates the inking of outside cultures, it often doesn't feel right — it feels skin deep.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson

Think Pieces
Hood By Air
Face Tattoos