why face tattoos are the new normal
From historical significance to candy pink dreadlocked Soundcloud rappers, the face tattoo has come a long way, and now it’s all over your mates. Better get used to them!
Images via Instagram
Many young people are choosing to get tattoos on their faces. Like soaring sales of percocet or repeated cries of "You already know who it is”, much inspiration for the trend comes from a new generation of rappers; born on music platform SoundCloud and crafting a genre of music known, rather handily, as SoundCloud Rap.
A very specific group of artists, their melancholic blur of screamo vocals and thrumming 808 kick-drums often merge somewhere between Blink 182’s I Miss You and Kanye West’s New Slaves. They don checkerboard long-sleeved tops, candy pink dreadlocks. They scribble ephemeral phrases and images permanently upon their face like a Year 9 student would upon their year planner.
Post Malone, hip-hop's answer to a beer bro, still wears a manbun and has the words “Stay Away” in flowing script over one eyebrow and “Always”, “Tired” under each predictably puffy purple eye bag. Lil Xan -- a streetwear straddled sadboi who once called Tupac’s music “boring” -- has his own song title, Xanarchy, curling around his eyebrows, while a “ZZZ” reminds us that he, too, is presumably always tired. The late Lil Peep had, rather tragically, “get cake, die young” on his forehead, while rainbow-coloured Chucky Doll Tekashi 6x9 has “69” littered over his face like a Gucci monogram. Even mummy's boy Justin Bieber has a tiny cross beneath his eye.
As fans pay allegiance to their stars, face tattoos are becoming more common. Across Instagram, baby-faced teenagers use biro or tattoo guns to cover their faces with Tekashi or Lil Zan’s ink. Search #Facetattoo on Instagram and you will find thousands of 13-year-olds posing with their faces mottled with whispy willow trees and thick roman numerals of their favourite rappers.
But face tattoos existed way before music streaming. The original Latin word for tattoo is “stigma” meaning: "a distinguishing mark cut into the flesh of a slave or a criminal". In Ancient Greece and China they denoted heinous crimes or stamps of ownership. The Greek emperor Theophilus took revenge on two monks who criticised him by having 11 verses of obscene iambic pentameter tattooed on their foreheads. Today that sort of gothic pattern would make the monks look like they were about to drop a fire mixtape.
Until only a few years ago, face tattoos were almost exclusively associated with gang members; the Swastika forehead tattoos of Aryan Brotherhood leaders like Curtis Allgier’s, the five point crowns on necks of hispanic prison gang the Latin Kings and the “Norteño” tattoos which represent the Nuestra Familia gang of Northern California.
In other cultures face tattoos hold religious significance. New Zealand’s Māori women often get the “moko kauae”, chin tattoos of symmetrical curling patterns. The marking is considered a physical manifestation of their true identity (every Māori woman wears a moko on the inside of their heart, the tattoo artist simply brings it to the surface). Women of the Kutia Kondh tribe of Orissa in India, ink themselves with geometric lined facial tattoos; to ensure they are recognised upon entering the spirit world.
"When asked what the cross on his face symbolised, 21 Savage just replied irritatedly: 'issa knife'."
But with their rise in popularity, tribal tattoos have become disassociated from their spiritual connotations. “Unfortunately, tattooing has become a victim of cultural appropriation,” says Guy Neutron, a tattoo artist at Love Hate Social Club, “much of their significance has been lost.” (Case in point: when Mike Tyson was asked about his Māori patterned face tattoo, he explained that he originally wanted some love hearts but then decided to get some “tribal stuff”).
Committed tattoo-stans are also annoyed at how the ubiquity of face tattoos is diminishing their significance. “Under my eye is a ‘N01’ so I can remember to put myself first at all times,” said Nikita, a former tattoo artist on the importance of her face ink. She is frustrated at people who have minimal tattoos getting their face covered: “That poser shit: It ruins the whole scene. My neck and my face were my dream goals, you can’t just skip to that point.”
No longer the reserve of criminals or religious devotees, teardrops and swirling patterns are more likely to be found on a teenager in an oversized grunge T-shirt or a makeup artist who posts Instagram tutorials on shimmering silver eyeshadow looks. So what’s behind their immense popularity with Soundcloud rappers?
There is a certain nihilism and punkish nonchalance accompanying these rainbow-covered, permanently tripping rappers. “I kind of just wanted to, I don’t know, piss my mom off”, said Post Malone about his tattoos. When asked what the cross on his face symbolised, 21 Savage just replied irritatedly: “issa knife”. The culture surrounding face tattoos is casual: falling asleep and forgetting you ever agreed to let a mate scribble a broken heart on your cheekbone. In Vice’s documentary Fake Xanex we see UK rapper Clayton druggedly lull in and out of consciousness as he gets “LOST” tattooed on his face. There’s a strange juxtaposition between the permanence of the tattoo and the relaxed way it is entered into that lets you know he has stopped caring.
A lot of the face tattoos’ popularity also has to with self-motivation, they function as a commitment to become sufficiently successful as to not have to conform to a 9-5 office job fiddling around with EdExcel sheets. Lil Peep told i-D in 2017: “I got the broken heart tattoo on my face when I was 17 years old, just to force myself to really do some shit”. Arnoldisdead -- a rapper in the Lil Xan’s Xanarchy collective -- said something similar when explaining why he got a portrait of Anne Frank (or “Xan Frank”, as he idiotically renamed her) on one side of his face. “There are people in history that didn't have the power to control, to actually do things that they wanted to do with their lives… To be stuck in a house, and end up dying... dude I'm dying to make music.”
Another reason for all the face tattoos has to do with how they can win you notoriety, functioning almost like brands. Before he had it removed, Gucci Mane’s Ice Cream Cone-covered cheek was his trademark, accompanied by the jewel-encrusted matching chain around his neck. The same goes for Lil Pump’s extraterrestrial -- they add to the notoriety, they’re a human logo.
But face tattoos can bring attention to non-celebrities too. I spoke to Beka, a musician and security guard. Her face tattoos, of which there are nine -- from delicate stars to unfurling laurel leaves -- polarise opinion. “Why am I still following this thot,” says one man, predictably hiding his face behind an anime avatar. Another fan screams, “AGHH YOUR FUCKING CUTE ASS MINI HAKU TATTOO!!!”. “People tell me they make me interesting” explained Beka. “I have gone from 4K to 11K followers in a few months, which must be down to the tattoos. I try take selfies where my face tattoos are showing because it helps with the likes.”
Face tattoos have overtaken hoodies as the new way to stop pensioners sitting next to you on the bus. They will grow in popularity as other ways of scaring adults -- stretching gaping holes into your ear and dying your hair lime green -- lose their subversive value. It won’t be long before generic pop stars like Liam Payne will have “get fucked” scripted under their perfectly moisturised under eyes. No longer a stigma, more a selling point.