It's not easy finding people with face tattoos, even in New York. There's a lot of baggage that comes with having one—people may see you as a "freak," think you've been involved with some shady stuff, or assume you've been to prison. That's not always the case, though.
While prison tattoo culture is very real, face tattoos are just as prevalent in the tattooing community at large, and often spread beyond it. It can still be difficult to get one—some tattoo shops make patrons wait on the decision or require them to already have a face tattoo, and the tattoo artist might even give customers shit about their desired design to see if they'll back out. But if you know where to look, the barriers between that taboo and "civilized" society are thinner than a stick 'n' poke needle.
There is a wide gamut of reasons for why people get face tattoos, from reminders on how to live and symbols representing personal history, to culturally significant icons and just plain bad decision making. Regardless of the impetus behind getting them, face ink requires a deep dedication to a lifestyle, a culture, a career, or personal expression that can't be reversed cleanly. VICE spoke with five people with face tattoos to discuss the stories behind their modified mugs.
From Houston, TX
Lives in Troy, NY
Gavin got his first face tattoo in his teenage years, consisting of three dots and a cross under his right eye—a stick 'n' poke done by a friend. Later, the image would be covered by a new tattoo of a ship. The 24-year-old told me he used to sail when he was younger, and sailing is one of the happier memories he has from a difficult childhood growing up in Houston, Texas.
He covered the original tattoo after moving to Oakland, where the three dots and cross were mistaken for a gang symbol. He got the nautical cover-up face tattoo while working as an apprentice at a tattoo shop he can't remember the name of. The artists at the shop originally didn't want to tattoo his face, but since he already had the stick 'n' poke, they agreed to cover it up. Gavin still gives stick 'n' pokes to people, but he doesn't work as a full-time tattoo artist.
"I got my face tattooed 'cause I thought I was invincible," Gavin says. His other facial tattoos include an old nickname ("Stardust," a reference to the drug dealing days of his teenage years) under his left eye, a double arrow tattooed below that, and praying hands with the words "It's all worth reaching for" going across the left side of his head—a tattoo he and a group of friends got, memorializing a friend who passed with the same tattoo on his arm. When asked about any regrets, he said, "I wish I looked more like a dad than a convict."