Most of the trends of the aughts have come and gone pretty uneventfully, like the fashion mullet, trucker hats, and Paris Hilton as an aspirational figure. But there's one "cool person" signifier that thousands, perhaps millions of people of the early millennium are stuck with for good: a mustache tattoo, otherwise known as the "fingerstache."
It was a time when the U.S. was infected with a different insidious virus—ironic mustache fever, and it seemed no one was immune. Shirts, jewelry, coffee mugs, dog toys, and countless other products emblazoned with big, curly mustaches were everywhere. They were silly objects, meant to (somehow?) elicit a laugh: Here's a pint glass with a mustache—crazy! Here's a pacifier that makes it appear as though your infant has a 70s porn 'stache! A three-foot wide steel mustache lit up with 25 glowing bulbs to hang on your wall? Sure, why the hell not?! How about a cursed septum ring that hangs down into a metal, curly mouth rug? Add to cart!
While nearly extinct, the fossils of this trend can still be found from time to time, marked with faded clearance price stickers and buried on bottom shelves at Ross Dress for Less. In many ways, the fingerstache tattoo is one of these remnants, serving as a bodily relic of a time when the passion for 'stachin' reigned.
As the lore goes, the fingerstache came to be in 2003, when Columbus-based tattoo artist Giovani Faenza reportedly came up with the idea. In a 2006 video interview with now-defunct marketing blog Midwestern Goodness, Giovani explained the origins of the tat.
"We were all talking about how funny it would be to have a mustache tattooed on your finger... nobody could be offended by a mustache on the finger," he said. A guy named Tom who was hanging at the tattoo shop that day said he'd do it on the spot, making him the first person on record to receive the tattoo.
But Tom is far from the only person with skin permanently adorned with the preferred facial hair of minor league relief pitchers, 1920s boxers, the Pringles logo, and Justin Bieber in his semi-recent, now-defunct dirtbag stage. Once Tom posted his tattoo on MySpace, things took off from there. (Tom, if you're reading this, you are a pioneer, sir.) The fingerstache went viral among young people who got a laugh out of holding up their tattooed finger over their top lip for comedic effect, spreading the trend on MySpace and Facebook, and eventually, as social media expanded, Tumblr and Instagram.
Search #fingerstache on Instagram and you still find people, in the year of our lord 2020, posting fingerstache pics. I can't lie; I was amazed to see anyone still proudly clinging to this very dated trend. But for those who latched on when the fingerstache's popularity erupted, I was deeply curious if there was now a sense of regret. I set off to talk to those who had inked their finger with 2008's hottest accessory, perhaps during a drunken dare, a fit of spontaneity, or simply out of genuine love for luscious lip dusters. As it turned out, I didn't have to look far.
After putting out a call on social media, several of my co-workers here at VICE Media immediately slid into my Slack DM's and Twitter mentions to alert me that our very own editor-in-chief, Derek Mead, was the owner of a fingerstache tattoo. They all mocked his tattoo—with affection, of course, but still bold considering that he's our boss and can absolutely crush every one of them in a foot race.
I asked Mead what prompted him to get the tattoo. As he told it, the year was 2006, and a classmate in his freshman chemistry course at UC Santa Barbara had mentioned it as a cool tattoo idea. It really resonated with then-18-year-old Mead.
"I’d never seen anyone with it before, and also Googled 'mustache finger,' so I thought it’d be extremely clever. And at the very least, it’s not like I have to look at it all day, right?" he explained.
When I asked how the tattoo actually came to be inscribed into his finger, I was treated to a rollercoaster (and, dare I say, humanizing) story of a drunken weekend in Baja California. That fateful weekend, Mead and his buddies piled into a Ford Bronco II and made the four-hour trek to Rosarito, Mexico, a longtime party destination for college kids (shout out to Papas & Beer!).
"I was talking to [my friend] Ricky’s brother Gianni about this tattoo idea I had stuck in my mind thanks to Jess in my chemistry class and Gianni LOST IT. Loved the idea," recounted Mead.
They made a pact to get some ink before leaving Mexico—but not before he and his friends got college-kid hammered (one dude chugged a whole jug of mezcalito), everyone got separated, and someone karate-chopped a lightbulb into shards and then barfed his guts out. Finally, as they were leaving Rosarito, Mead found a tattoo parlor with an array of Oakland Raiders flash tattoos on the wall, which he, as a Raiders fan, took as a "positive sign." The tattoo artist assured Mead and Co. that the 'stache would only last 10 years, and proceeded to scribe the design on the finger that would one day rule VICE editorial.
"I can say that I was somewhat inebriated during the process but it was easily the most painful thing I’d experienced up to that point in my life. You can’t see it anymore, but he freehanded the mustache with individual lines, like hairs. It looked good as hell for like six months," said Mead. Today, it's a bit faded, but still visible enough that his colleagues can clown on him.
Much like Mead, 39-year-old John Troeller, a tattoo artist at Classic Tattoo in Fullerton, CA, also thought the fingerstache tattoo was a cool, novel idea. He had seen another tattooist with it in 2005, and was impressed, so he found room on his heavily tattooed hands for a 'stache of his own. Then, as it often goes, the trend went mainstream. It wasn't long before young, fresh-skinned kids were walking into his tattoo shop asking to get fingerstached. That's when he said it got "dumb quickly."
"I might've done a couple on a couple people, but I shut it down after that. I thought, what is going on here? Why is everyone trying to get a tattoo on their hand when they don't even have any other tattoos?" he remembers.
It wasn't just that it was "played out," Troeller said, but that it violated the code of ethics among tattoo artists that they should not tattoo anyone's hands or neck if that person isn't already heavily tattooed on other less-visible parts of their body. So when stache-seekers continued to stroll in, not a faded Motörhead logo or rose bicep tattoo in sight, he'd turn them away.
"I just told them no… I'm sure they just walked out, went down the street and got it somewhere else, but what're you gonna do," he said.
Keith Sexton got his fingerstache tattoo in 2012, arguably late in the tattoo's cultural peak, because he works for Movember, a nonprofit that supports men's physical and mental health and holds an annual charity event every November during which participants grow out their facial hair. The 37-year-old said he's the only person at the organization with the tattoo, which he got at a Movember event when he first started working for the cause.
"It took all of 90 seconds to do. [After] 90 seconds, you have it for the rest of your life," he said. While he, too, was told it would fade over time, Sexton's fingerstache is still vibrant, though the ink now bleeds a bit.
Because of its ties to his life's work and passion, Sexton has zero regrets. Same goes for Mead, who was initially left with pangs of shame, a hangover, and the realization that he was now stuck with a tattoo forever after some "apocalyptic wasteland of dirtbag behavior."
"Every year I get older, it gets harder to explain to new people... That’s for sure," he said.
The tattoo eventually had its positives, however. He was finally able to compete with his dad (a retired firefighter with a bushy black mustache) in the facial hair department, though Mead now also has a beard.
Just like a 90s barbed wire armband tattoo, a lower back tribal design, or a delicate arrow on one's wrist all denote something about the wearer's personality (in these instances, that you dated Kid Rock, enter 7-11 stores without shoes, or have a piece of home decor that reads "All good things are wild and free," respectively), the fingerstache tattoo, too, reveals underlying traits about its owner's character—typically, a sense of hard-H whimsy that became far too ubiquitous and lost its charm as the twee aesthetic dropped out of fashion and we came to regret our massive collections of animal figurines.
"It’s weird that now it has to be judged against the backdrop of that insane 2010-era mustache aesthetic that I think spawned a whole lot more of these, but as more of my friends and family have kids, the little ones find it funny, so I’d call it a win," Mead said.
As for Troeller, he found a more creative way to honor this blip in tattoo trend history: He had an artist add "exp. in '05 stupid" to his tattoo.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. You can follow her on Twitter.