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.
Tattoo Artist at Collar City Tattoo
Troy, New York
Casey is a tattoo artist who works at a shop called Collar City in Troy, New York. Previously, she worked at a shop called Fast Lane in neighboring town Castleton, where an artist named Mitch Sousa gave Casey her first face ink. The bird on the left side of her face is to remember to let herself be free, while the anchor on the right side signifies the opposite. Together they're also a tattoo joke (swallows seamen/semen). She's also given a face tattoo of a goddess symbol to one of the shop girls at Tiger's Blood Social Club, another tattoo shop Casey worked at, in Alameda, California.
She generally doesn't get too many reactions to her face tattoos—people who gawk, she believes, are typically responding to her overall appearance—including tattoos on her arms, chest, and neck, as well as her various facial piercings. That being said, the face ink sometimes leads to "gross guys" hitting on her. Out of all the tattoos adorning her, Casey doesn't have any regrets about her face tattoos. "They're a commitment to my career and the lifestyle."
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Lives in Brooklyn, NY
Lucy's two face tattoos are fairly fresh, having gotten inked just two months ago by an artist named Luka at Ink It Up Tattoo in the Bronx. The number nine, under his right eye, is a number that has consistently shown up during different phases of his life. In numerology, it's the number of completion, fulfillment, spiritual awakening, and enlightenment, as well as self love. The choice of 09 instead of just 9 "makes it more complete," Lucy says.
He got this tattoo around the same time as he started going by Lucy, which is tattooed on his left forehead. The birth of Lucy, who he describes as a persona, is very important and is inseparable from his artistic forays, which include photographs of BDSM culture, which he shoots on disposable cameras in both private and public places.
Tattoos serve as a means of expression for Lucy, no different from his sometimes-shocking art. Despite tattoo culture's rise in popularity and acceptance in mainstream culture, Lucy often thinks they're still seen in a negative light, and getting inked on your face is a way of going against what society expects.
But more importantly for him, they are a way towards body positivity. He tells me it took a while for him to accept his own body, especially when it came to featuring it in his art work, which some see as "weird," but he sees as beautiful. "I had to get comfortable with the idea of taking my clothes off around other people. It meant allowing myself to be vulnerable and put in a situation I found uncomfortable." His face tattoos are testaments to the persona that has allowed this personal growth and creative fulfillment to take place.
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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."
Tattoo Artist at Armageddon Ink Gallery
Eddie has no regrets about the "CS" tattooed on the side of his face. Standing for "con safos" the letters have a long history with Chicano culture. It can be translated as "with respect" and originated in graffiti culture, specifically within Chicano communities that used it as a sign-off in their tags and as a code of conduct (anything tagged with a "CS" was considered off limits to be tagged over). Though Eddie says the lettering has leaked past Chicano communities to a slightly broader audience, those who are still culturally connected to the graffiti symbol take a lot of pride in it.
Eddie got this tattoo done on his birthday by Aaron Garcia (a close friend and fellow tattoo artist at Virginia Class Tattoo in Manassas, Virginia) this past February at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. According to tradition, the CS tattoo can only be given by a trusted friend who also has a CS tattoo to ensure they understand its cultural weight. While this is his first face tattoo, he plans on getting his other sideburn tattooed, as well. As to why he got the tattoo in a highly visible part of his body, Eddie says, "Because I was honored to have it, and what better place to show how true I am to the game!"
The reactions to his tattoo have been positives. He says he's gotten compliments for the "dope lettering," and having a "fresh tat." For Eddie, the tattoo is meaningful in an artistic light, too. It's about giving and receiving to the tattoo community and being aware and proud of his own personal history. "It shows that my fellow artists or homies respect me, so I am honored to know I have real pride in what I do and knowing my homies will always have my back."
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Tattoo Artist at Ink It Up Tattoo
With a face covered by 12 tattoos, including both eyelids, Luka has been involved in tattooing, on both the giving and receiving ends, since his late teenage years. Having apprenticed and worked in various tattoo shops in both LA and the Bronx (the latter, his hometown), he didn't get his first face tattoo until 2008 at age 22. His friends and body art colleagues Spider and Joel of Tuff City Tattoos have done the majority of Luka's face tattoos, as he is close with both and has seen their progress as artists throughout the years. "I wouldn't just trust anyone to tattoo my face," he says.
The first one he received, which lies on his right brow, says "LA 1986." The letters reference both a former girlfriend, a nickname, and the Californian city where he spent some of his life, and he was born in 1986.
The tattoos have various significance, with some of them chosen for their aesthetic qualities, while others were picked for more personal reasons. For example, he has an Arabic phrase on his left cheek in red that means "Empty of fear," chosen as a reminder to not be scared to live life. "It's a permanent reminder to live more freely," he says. "Most people, including myself, are often too afraid to live and even more afraid to die."
The AK-47 under his right eye has nothing to do with gang affiliation, but rather is a gesture of respect for Kalashnikov's engineering marvel. As Luka puts it, "It's kind of a metaphor for the person I strive to be. Unbreakable."
The rest of his face tattoos include a shark wearing a top-hat and monocle (a symbol of duality: "I'm really a kind soul, but because of my surroundings and upbringing, I also have that shark side in me."), the lip lines inspired by Sylvia Ji (an artist known for her Day of the Dead paintings), and the logo for the movie 300 above his left eyebrow (a movie that Luka thoroughly enjoyed and thought was "cool").
Sometimes, having what others consider to be an abnormal appearance can lead to unsavory comments. Once in a train station, a man shouted at him that he was the devil, completely out of the blue. "That's mean, just a mean thing to say," remembers Luka dejectedly.
As he's getting older—he turns 30 this month—Luka is taking tattooing as an art form more seriously and plans to try to win awards at conventions and the like. While he doesn't regularly do face tattoos on others, he has given about a dozen or so over his whole tattoo career. He generally refuses to do anyone's first face tattoo, though. As for his own face, he says he has no plans to get more. "But that's always subject to change," he adds.
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All photos by the author