How Some Rappers Are Re-Writing Rules About Face Tattoos

L-R: Lil Xan, Lil Wayne, Post Malone

In tattoo culture, there's a term for ink that's impossible to hide. Tattoos on the hands, neck or face are called "job stoppers," distinguished for their inescapable life consequences. And it's not just countless professions that discriminate against people with these kinds of tattoos; there's a good chance random strangers in your everyday life will treat you differently if you have them, too.

These days, more and more hip-hop stars are sporting them though. It started with Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa and The Game, but these days, face tattoos have gone next level thanks to the likes of Post Malone, XXXTentacion, Offset, Lil Peep, Lil Xan, Tekashi 6ix9ine and Arnoldisdead (who literally has an Anne Frank portrait tattooed on his right cheek).

L-R: Lil Xan, Arnoldisdead, Post Malone, Lil Peep, 6ix9ine
L-R: Lil Xan, Arnoldisdead, Post Malone, Lil Peep, 6ix9ine

It's quite a development given that face tatts are the ones treated with most caution by tattoo artists. Professional tattooists are generally wary of giving job stoppers to people who aren't already sufficiently inked elsewhere.

In 2015, after New York artist, Dan Bythewood came under fire for refusing to tattoo a Jezebel writer's neck, he hit back, saying: "As all tattooers know, a neck or hand tattoo is ... traditionally reserved for those heavily covered … I myself am still collecting tattoos, and do not have hand or neck tattoos yet. I have been tattooing for eight years and will consider getting both hands done after 10 years of service. Why? I take this ancient art form seriously. I take my craft seriously. I take the time-honored traditions of tattooing seriously. Traditions and respect that we are losing daily to a new petulant culture screaming 'gimme now!'"

With that in mind, it's difficult to fathom how Lil Xan found someone to ink his face, hands and neck, when his arms and chest are almost untouched, or how Post Malone managed to find an artist willing to put his very first tattoo—a Playboy bunny—under his right eye.

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The tattoo traditions Bythewood referenced aren't limited to the honor code. In some cases and cultures, the rules are literally ancient. In New Zealand, the indigenous Maori have practiced tā moko—carving and inking of the face—for hundreds of years, as a way to physically reflect social status and rank. In Scotland, the Picts—Celtic tribes dating back to the Dark Ages—used to mark their whole bodies, feet to face, with important symbols of nature.

Elsewhere, face tattoos were historically most commonly used as a punishment. Greek and Roman slaves, prisoners and criminals were given face tattoos in the 5th Century BC.  The Ancient Chinese performed similar practices, putting 囚 (the symbol for "prisoner") on the faces of convicts. In Japan during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, circles, lines, crosses and sometimes even dogs, were tattooed on the faces and arms of criminals.

As time has passed, that link between face tattoos and criminality has remained—only now the art is self-inflicted. In 20th and 21st-century America, teardrops (symbolizing everything from murder to mourning, depending on whom you ask), three dots (a gang symbol meaning "mi vida loca") and crosses (which can represent time served) have become a common sight on the faces of prisoners. For criminals still serving time, face tattoos carry fewer social consequences and garner more respect, which is why, until recently, prisoners and the gang-affiliated were the people most likely to have them.

While clearly face tattoos don't all indicate criminality, it's worth noting that some of the rappers with face art might have been inspired by their own brushes with the law. Gucci Mane has been in consistent legal trouble since 2001, Lil Wayne and Offset have both served time, and, before his death, XXXTentacion had a long history of documented violence. In November, NPR reported that 6ix9ine, who is affiliated with New York's Nine Trey Gangstas Bloods gang, was indicted "in federal court on numerous charges that include alleged involvement in shootings, armed robbery and drug trafficking."

By contrast, when it comes to the likes of Lil Peep, Lil Xan and Post Malone, face tattoos are undoubtedly being used, at least partially, as a shortcut to credibility. Malone has been accused of cultural appropriation—what better way to prove he means business than marking his face up. Xan has—and Peep had—the most flawless of babyfaces. Neither one would've had any hope of being taken seriously without taking some major steps to toughen up their appearances.

Regardless, none of these facially-tatted rappers are exercising the kind of restraint expected or desired by the old school tattoo community. The truth is, the goal posts got irreversibly moved when pop stars like Miley Cyrus, Kesha and Rihanna started getting their hands tattooed. It upped the ante. And as the number of musicians adopting face art increases (Justin Bieber recently got the word "Grace" in cursive over one eyebrow), there's a good chance more and more fans will start requesting the most extreme kind of job stopper at their local tattoo shop.

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Whether or not the look proliferates further lies in the hands of the tattoo artists. And not all of them work within the same, strict, self-imposed traditions as Dan Bythewood. One artist recently told me: "Look. For most people, face tattoos are a terrible idea. People come in and ask, and we say no. But sometimes, you spend 30 minutes telling someone why they shouldn't, and they are so persistent, so dead set, it eventually comes down to money. If I've told you repeatedly, and you're not listening, and it's clear that you're going to do it anyway, then fine. I'll take your money. But the consequences are on them at that point."

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