How American Musicians Are Shaping Mainstream Tattoo Culture

How American Musicians Are Shaping Mainstream Tattoo Culture
Credit: Kheila Cruz

Getting a face tattoo is definitely one way to express that you live a counterculture lifestyle. Highly visible tattoos like those on faces, hands, and necks are commonly referred to as “job stoppers” by tattoo artists, and while historically that’s been the case, mainstream tattoo acceptance is on the rise.

A 2012 Harris Poll revealed that one in five Americans had at least one tattoo. Last year, it was reported that half of Millennials in the US have at least one tattoo. But even as more and more companies relax restrictions on hiring people with visible tattoos, there’s still a big difference between someone getting a simple design on their ankle and someone choosing to ink their face permanently. 

Lil Skies (born Kimetrius Foose) explained to music media site Genius that the face tattoos he references in Welcome to the Rodeo (“I got tattoos on my face, I use that shit as motivation. I could never get a job, so for my dream, I’m dedicated.”) are meant to inspire kids to be themselves. “Don’t be scared to do anything,” he urges. “I had face tats… when it was not cool.”

But when did face tattoos become so cool, and who made them cool?

Jason Ivy, a musician and Genius contributor with a background in neuroscience and linguistics, credits the evolution of increased social acceptability to the contemporary music industry. “Initially pushed forward by punk and deviant counterculture movements, [extreme tattoo culture] has been further galvanized by hip hop culture, which historically has been known to influence mainstream media trends throughout the world,” Ivy explains. “In said culture, having heavy tattoos on the face, neck, or hands does signify the artist’s acknowledgement that music is their only remaining career path, as they have closed off the possibility of being viewed as a normal citizen due to the markings that have now been placed so visibly on their skin.”

Although tattoos have become more socially acceptable over the years—at least partially thanks to music and media influences—job stoppers have long been considered the final step for people fully committing to a tattoo lifestyle. Until recently, most tattoo artists wouldn’t even consider inking someone in an “extreme” place unless they were virtually covered everywhere else.

“We don’t tattoo anyone at our shop on their hands, face, or neck unless they are already heavily tattooed,” explains Jodi Stone Rodriguez, co-owner of 100 Candles Tattoo in the Wynwood District of Miami, Florida. She defines “heavily tattooed” as someone who already has sleeves, a back piece, and/or leg pieces.

Jasmine Wright agrees. She’s been working in the tattoo industry for 16 years and currently tattoos at Kings Avenue Tattoo in NYC.  “I would refuse to tattoo someone’s face, hands or neck that didn’t have visible tattoos,” she states. She goes on to say that in her tattooing tenure, she’s seen a noticeable rise in demand for job stoppers from young people.

This code of conduct, long held by tattoo artists, may be falling to the wayside though. Musicians such as Tyga and Wiz Khalifa are as well known for their facial ink as they are their actual music, but both sport near full coverage over their bodies on top of their own job stoppers. But nowadays, many modern day musicians—many of them in their teens or early twenties—are breaking the taboo and getting hand, neck, and face tattoos long before the rest of their flesh. 

Lil Xan is a 22-year-old rapper and has more tattoos on his face than most Americans have on their entire body. His face tattoos include Memento Mori over one eyebrow, Xanarchy, referencing his fan base and prescription drug Xanax, Candy, his mother’s name, and recently a line of small dots down the bridge of his nose. But besides a few on his neck, hands, arms, and chest, most of his remaining flesh is still un-inked.

“I think I wanted to do it on my face because, I just like to go all fucking out,” he explains to DJ Smallz about his decision to get a face tattoo at 18. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to fully commit.”

Thanks to the internet and its ability to reach fresh audiences, it takes more than putting out good music to “make it” nowadays. Social media has given rise to the need for artists to brand themselves, both literally and figuratively. Shock value has shifted from the hardcore lyrics of gangsta rap to how someone presents themselves to the world. The more clicks, the better. Attention is currency and face tattoos are an easy (albeit hardcore) way to achieve it.

For some, even getting a basic face tattoo isn’t outrageous enough. Rapper and producer Arnoldisdead sports a controversial face-on-face tattoo: a large black and white portrait of Anne Frank covering his right cheek. Post Malone rocks a face full of scratchy scrawls, ranging from Always Tired to Stay Away, and a crown of barbed wire running along his hairline.

Wright isn’t a fan of the designs many musicians opt for. “It’s creating this weird trend of people wanting poorly-done scratcher tattoos on purpose,” says Wright. “I can’t tell you how often people ask me to ‘make the lines look messy’ or ‘make it look like a stick-and-poke tattoo’. It’s infuriating. They see celebs with bad tattoos and assume it means quality.”

Women aren’t exempt from radical tattoo placement either. Former Disney star and pop singer Demi Lovato famously covered her left hand with a large lion’s head in 2017, adding to her collection of 20+ other tattoos. Ariana Grande also caught some attention recently with her latest hand piece, a tribute to her latest single “7 Rings” that didn’t quite translate properly.

Rapper Iggy Azalea has gone through multiple versions of tattoos on her fingers (currently “STS” on her knuckles), and SoundCloud artist Kodie Shane also sports art on her hands and fingers.

Rappers aren’t the only ones pushing this transgressive trend forward, but they’re a big part of the movement and historically have been at the forefront of tattoo trendsetting. Tim Barry, solo folk artist and frontman of punk band Avail, has been in the music industry for decades and by society’s standards, has an above average number of tattoos. He recently outlined the rise of extreme tattoo culture on the podcast No Lies, Just Bullshit earlier this year, recalling the first job stoppers his friends started getting in the 1990s. He remembered when his best friend and Avail hypeman Beau Beau came home with his knuckles tattooed with a “what have I done” look on his face. 

The times have definitely changed in the last several decades. Tupac’s large THUG LIFE tattoo across his midsection was controversial in his day, and that was easily hidden. Rodriguez reminisces about her own early dabblings with tattoos, inspired by the punk and hardcore scene of the mid-nineties.

“When I first started getting tattooed, I was 16 and it was 1994. Underage kids and women were certainly not getting tattooed or at least not admitting it publicly. But I went to shows and [the] mid-nineties hardcore kids got tattoos… it became a lifestyle for me.” Today, it seems that tattoos aren’t hardcore enough unless there’s no hiding them.

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With the exception of Wiz Khalifa, none of the aforementioned musicians with job stoppers have reached their 30th birthday. Most started tattooing themselves or getting tattooed in their teens. This attention-grabbing behavior is becoming standard, and possibly even crucial in the competitive music industry. If history has shown us anything, it’s that what’s trendy in music now is poised to become the new norm.

“I really believe it’s due to the internet — normalizing a thing that used to mean ‘having an edge,'” says Wright. And it seems to be working. We are here talking about it, after all.

Related: The Complicated Relationship Between Culture and Tattoos

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