Growing up, face tattoos were for nutters. Fat lads from football firms who wouldn't think twice about punching your skull in. Mike Tyson. That guy from college who worked out how to make a tattoo machine out of an electric toothbrush and practised on his own forehead.
Then, with the rise of a musical sub-genre last year, the context changed. Suddenly, face tattoos weren't just for hardmen. They were the insignia of a new breed of rap artist – Xanned out, anhedonic and potentially problematic. The late Lil Peep had "Cry Baby" tatted above his right eyebrow. 21 Savage answered a question about his tattoo with "issa knife", spawning a new meme in the process. Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, 6ix9ine – the list goes on.
Most famous of all, though, is Post Malone. Right off the bat, Posty is as far as you can get from the historical face tattoo bearer. He's soft, like a teddy bear. His music is adored – last year’s "Rockstar" reached number one on the Billboard Chart – and it is detested, a troublesome crossover by a white artist into a predominantly black genre.
Post isn't the first and only rapper with face tattoos to ascend the charts. Lil Wayne achieved that feat in 2008 with "Lollipop", and it's his distinct image of grown-out dreads, grill and multiple tattoos that serves as the prime aesthetic inspiration for this new generation of rappers – just look at this meme explaining "How to Become a Popular Rapper in 2018". But with his growing visibility, Post Malone is one chief figurehead in the face tattoo movement – more so than Wayne. We've even reached the point where you can purchase temporary replicas of his various inkings, like these:
A website called Post's Tattoo Parlor sells the above tattoos – each one aping the exact artwork on Posty's bearded lil face. I'm never going to get a face tattoo, but because my editor wanted someone to experience the reality of life with Post's face tattoos, I had these slapped on my face one cruel Tuesday morning in the office.
When asked about the reasoning behind his face tattoos – which include the words "STAY AWAY" and "ALWAYS" block-capped on his left cheek – Post said he wanted to do, "Anything to piss my mom off." Which a) is very much the thinking of a not-yet-grown 23-year-old, and b) pissed me off too, because there was nothing I really wanted less that day than to walk around central London with scribbles all over my skin.
Like me, Post Malone is a fairly mediocre guy who happened to get a bunch of Twitter followers. But for extra context, some facts:
He was born in Syracuse, grew up in Dallas and became interested in music after putting in the hours on Guitar Hero II. When high school finished he moved to Los Angeles and into a house full of YouTubers and gamers, where he would live-stream his sessions on Minecraft. In the early 2010s he posted Bob Dylan covers online. Similar to Donald Glover, his rap name was taken from an online generator. But where Glover toiled away for years as Childish Gambino before exploding into the public consciousness with his third album (2016's Awaken, My Love), Malone experienced an accelerated rise to fame thanks to the success of his 2015 single "White Iverson".
In what would be a template for the rest of his career, "White Iverson" was celebrated as much as it was mocked. "Lmao I'm a grown ass man, y'all have fun slappin that one," tweeted Earl Sweatshirt. Somewhere, in Dartmouth probably, a middle-class teen bought some grills.
After meeting him at Kylie Jenner's 18th birthday party, Malone was invited to record with Kanye West – the fruits of which appeared on the track "Fade" from West's 2016 album The Life of Pablo. Guest spots with 50 Cent, Justin Bieber and Young Thug followed. It seemed that being Post Malone was easy – an assumption he argued against in an interview with GQ, where he claimed "there's a struggle being a white rapper".
It is not fun wearing Post Malone face tattoos out in public. Real Earth-please-swallow-me-up-kinda shit.
Unsurprisingly, people in the street look at you in ways they previously wouldn't have. Ways that immediately remind you you've got tattoos on your face. Really, besides the subjective aesthetic value, getting these kinds of tattoos boils down to whether or not you're into feeling ostracised.
Still, I went about my day as normal:
I bought a sandwich from Pret – much-needed fuel for all the walking I'd be doing.
I had a read in the library – to gain some knowledge.
I visited the museum – to learn about history.
But all of these experiences were, because of the face tattoos, a little less fun. It felt like camera lights were shining on me, every pair of eyes trained in my direction. I was reminded of Hostgator Dotcom, the guy who covered his face in porn website URLs to make some money, and how desperate he must have been for some cash that he willingly walked around with DrFreak.com on his forehead. He didn't get those tattoos to piss his mum off; he did it to keep his children off the streets after he lost his job during the economic crisis.
Historically, face tattoos have been rooted in more than just aesthetics. Prison and gang tattoos are often used as a signifier for rank or crimes committed. The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand are branded with the tā moko – a prominent face tattoo generally made from spirals. Even within tattoo culture, the face tattoo can be used to express a lifelong passion for the tattooing art-form – the face often being the last place to be covered up.
Post Malone is different, because his tattoos seem to be there solely for style.
Post has cultivated an aesthetic that resembles something simultaneously broke and rich. The kind of shabby facial hair that would easily get coated in milk, combined with photoshoot-ready clothing. The tattoos achieve a similar feat in that they have the potential to present Post as someone with a different lived past than his reality. Or maybe it's not that complicated and he just liked the designs and I'm bitter because I had to spend a day walking around with a dagger on my face.
It's not that I'm trying to diss face tattoos – they're already heavily stigmatised, and anyone I've met with one in adulthood is just as pleasant as the next person. It's that Post's selection feels like it's 180 degrees more overboard than it needs to be. These, largely, are strange tattoos to put on your face.
Who knows – perhaps this is the start of the grand shift in face tattoos. Maybe, in 2049, they'll be associated more with bedwetters than hardmen; as commonplace as dip-dyed hair. Is that a good future timeline? I suppose it depends how much you care about other people's faces.
As for Post Malone, he's always been a weirdo; it's what draws his audience in. The face tattoos are an extension of that: symbolic of his desire to stand out and fit in all at once. What's perhaps most peculiar is that you can buy these temporary tattoos, experience having a face tattoo, and then wash it off again as though it never happened. Try it, and maybe you'll think about a lot of things, the context of it all. Or maybe you won't think about anything. Post Malone doesn't, until it's time for him to apologise.