March 27, 2020

Is there a fine line between stupidity and bravery? In the past, you would be hard-pressed to find someone with a face tattoo. It’s the last frontier to cross, even for tattoo artists. But these days, Soundcloud rappers and models are brandishing them on red carpets like it is part of their accoutrement. From Amber Rose’s son’s names, to Kehlani’s cheekbone paper airplane, to Post Malone’s ‘Always Tired’ ink, face tattoos have become trendier than Versace’s jungle print.

For every trend, there must be a hashtag. So if you ever need to understand the latest social phenomenon, go on Instagram and start scrolling. After typing in #facetattoo, I sense that there is not only pride but also an element of shock value to startle the viewer. Like an outward rebellion, or protest against prevailing beauty standards.

But what exactly is it about face tattoos that rile people up? Is it the permanence, bad judgment or questionable taste? When Cindy Crawford’s son Presley Gerber first got the word ‘misunderstood’ tattooed on his face, he received an overwhelming amount of backlash from the Internet. But that didn’t stop him from getting an even bigger one on his left cheek recently.

It was only a matter of time before we breached the imaginary boundary of having an immaculate visage. I like to think that face tattoos are having their moment much like how lower back tattoos were popular in the early aughts. “It’s about reclaiming the body,” said tattoo artist Gillian Toh of Tooth and Nail. “It’s the ability to have control. We don’t have a say in the body we’re born with, but to make art out of it is the ultimate exercise of agency.” Tattoos are known to have somewhat of an addictive adrenaline rush to them. Once you get one, the satisfaction of that kind of empowerment, the elation from the aesthetic however elegant or gratuitous, impulsively acted out or consciously chosen, can only be paralleled by getting more.

“It’s a pretty big responsibility to tattoo someone’s face. I was quite nervous and was sweating the whole time!” said Keith Yeo of Badabink, who inked a swallow from the client’s left cheekbone to his mandible during his guest shift in Seattle. When asked if he would ever get a face tattoo, Keith paused, then remarked: “I think so, but it takes a lot to pull it off.”

While our appearances have always played a central role in our dealings with society, the voracity to radically modify them has only gotten stronger due to social media. And the ways in which we choose to go about it range from heavily photoshopping our pictures, to putting on layers of makeup, to body piercings, to going under the knife. Let’s face it, we are obsessed with changing the way we look.

In spite of that, not all physical enhancements are perceived equally—and face tattoos have yet to be met with the same open-minded reception. Could it be that they are still reminiscent of infamous tough characters of the past like Mike Tyson and Jay Adams, who are stigmatised for their violent demeanour? Or simply a sign of troubled, angst-ridden celebrities who have issues with fame? Former Nickelodeon actress Amanda Bynes wears an empty heart on her cheekbone, while pop star Justin Bieber isn’t afraid to cause a little uproar with the cross under his left eye. Chris Brown’s new Air Jordan sneaker hanging from his sideburn has confused many, to say the least.

Perhaps face tattoos are the mark of a nihilistic, YOLO philosophy; an extreme attempt to achieve a sought-after edginess that instantly separates you from the pack. It does take a certain type of character to wear face ink well. Some can be tasteful, while some are downright not. Like lip fillers, you could end up with the perfect pout or risk looking like Barbie on steroids. Regardless of the outcome, face tattoos are the ultimate statement piece to show off a person’s identity. With so much noise in this world; our brains oversaturated by content, flooded by images of glamour and glitz, riots and rebellion, the yearning to find a sense of individuality amid the cacophony is now more apparent than ever. The same way indigenous groups used tattoos as illustrations of power and community, Gen Z is finding unfettered liberation in theirs.

The brashness of such a permanent act is hard to ignore, but the temerity to follow through deserves some form of acknowledgement. However inane or reckless you may think face ink is, you have to admit that it takes a certain spunk to venture beyond the last frontier. Needless to say, I’m not bold enough to get one.

Image Credits: Amanda Bynes’s Instagram, Presley Gerber’s Instagram, Ganga Tattoo’s Instagram