Face tattoos, once limited to only a very small group of people, have gained new popularity thanks to today’s rappers — but some artists are reluctant to make such a permanent change to a client’s appearance.
In New York’s East Village, some of the would-be customers entering tattoo parlors are still teenagers — some of them have never even had any body art, but nevertheless want to indelibly inscribe something on their face.
“Of late, it has become a very big trend because of what they see on TV,” said Armando Guevara, who mans the reception desk at Andromeda Studio 33, which also does piercings.
What young people are seeing on television are people like Grammy-nominated rapper Post Malone, the current poster boy of so-called mumble rap, also called SoundCloud rap or emo rap.
The popular sub-genre is characterized by its trap beats and lyrics that often touch on mental health problems and their consequences — drugs, meds and lots of sex. Words are slurred and sometimes sung.
From Malone to the controversial 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert and the late XXXTentacion, nearly all mumble rappers have face tattoos — breaking with their elders who had little interest in the look.
And when the Mondial du Tatouage, the World Tattoo Expo, opens in Paris on Friday, the trend will certainly be on full display.
Shaggy Johnsen, a 22-year-old New Yorker who had Bugs Bunny inked on his temple, admits he was influenced by his favorite rappers.
“I’m an artist myself,” Johnsen said, explaining he’s a “freestyle” rapper.
“It’s all about how you promote yourself — how you bring yourself out.”
Since getting face ink, Johnsen says he’s only gotten positive reactions.
“Everybody likes it,” he said, adding that he loves cartoon characters, and he might next go for Tweety or the Tasmanian Devil.
Adam Alonso says face art is a “mask” that he can hide behind.
“I’ve been hurt in the past so I don’t want to be hurt no more so I keep a wall up so people on the streets won’t even talk to me,” the model and rapper told AFP.
The word AGONY is written under his right eye in large ornate letters.
Alonso insists the tattoos have not hurt him professionally.
“People think that when you tattoo your face, you’re not going to make money. But nothing’s impossible. I still make money,” he said.
“It is to prove I can do the impossible and if I can do it, anyone can do it.”
– Looking for those who are ‘not ready’ –
Guevara is not against face tattoos — he has several of them, including a huge one inspired by pre-Columbian art that covers about a quarter of his face.
But he advises clients to be extra cautious before taking the leap.
“If you’re going to do something on your face that is permanent, think about it. Try it out,” says the 40-something Guevara, who is of Nicaraguan descent.
Every morning for months, he drew his planned tattoo onto his face, to get used to it and gauge reactions, before he went under the ink needle.
Many younger customers do not realize the implications of what they are asking for, according to Guevara.
“They don’t really know that it’s a lifetime thing, that it will deeply impact their life. We turn them away,” he says, explaining that minors are not welcomed at Andromeda.
“You’re going to have a lot of people that are going to discriminate against you, a lot of places that won’t give you housing, that won’t give you employment,” Guevara said, adding he had been the victim of discrimination over his body art.
“When people see a tattoo on their face, they feel that the person is careless, angry, antisocial or very anarchist,” he said. “I’m a good person, hard worker, very intelligent — but that’s not what people see.”
Guevara dispelled the notion that face tattoos can be easily removed with lasers, saying such a procedure takes numerous procedures, isn’t cheap and can leave scarring.
At Andromeda, those who want face tattoos are required to answer questions about why they want to do it, and how they see it affecting their life.
“If we feel that they’re not ready for it, we turn them away,” Guevara says.
Some studios refuse to do them on principle, like Fineline Tattoo, which claims to be the oldest parlor in New York — it opened in 1976, even though tattoos were officially banned in the city from 1961 to 1997.
Mehai Bakaty, the owner of the shop and an artist, says face tattoos were long reserved for gang members and prison inmates who had “given up” on mainstream society.
“You almost wonder, especially in America, if young people are attracted to that sort of things for similar kinds of reasons,” Bakaty said.
“They don’t have hope of becoming anything more than a checkout clerk,” he lamented.
“I think that’s kind of the point that these young rap people are trying to make, but I just see the whole scenario as completely irresponsible.”