Saturday, August 01, 2009

Facial Tattoos: The Last Frontier

Maybe it's the fact that I live in as laid-back a place as San Francisco, but it seems like even full sleeves don't evoke a second look these days. Tattooing has officially gone mainstream, and the sole alternative survivor is the facial tattoo. It's (no pun intended) an in-your-face mod only undergone by A) individuals employed within the body modification industry, B) people who are honestly positive that they can handle looking in the mirror to see their inked design for as long as their eyes remain properly functioning, and C) idiots. Facial tattoos are a big fucking deal - you gotta think that shit through, moreso than buying a house or getting a dog or even getting married. Shit's serious.No matter the motivation for acquiring facial ink, people with such tats are indiscriminately regarded in most social situations as total freaks. Sure, tattoos are all in good fun at this point in history, but when they're located on one's face they seem to take on new meaning. I happened to catch an episode of Tattoo Highway on A&E recently, and as it turns out two 'stars' of the series sport facial tattoos. The host/main tattooist, Thomas Pendelton, rocks the more controversial mug ink of the two - an upside-down cross just below his right eye. This symbol of rebellion is balanced nicely by an Aum (Om) symbol on his left cheek, but judging from past experiences as a modded individual people probably glaze right over the peaceful piece and focus on what can be interpreted as a demonic or anti-Christian statement. Seeing this bold statement broadcast on national TV made me wonder - are facial tattoos on the way into the mainstream?Kat Von D's may be the very first facial tattoos ever seen by some folks. Although more cosmetic than artistic (if that distinction can be made), her stars would certainly be considered a social faux pas if not for her celebrity status and career of choice to legitimize 'em. But there she is, in the limelight, loved, respected and praised for both her talent and her appearance. Now with Pendelton in the public eye as well, proudly sporting his teardrop-esque tats, I'm wondering if visage graffitied folk of the non-celeb variety will benefit from a gentler reception of their ink by the general public...Well, first off there are a few basic problems to get in the way of this change of heart becoming a reality, the most obvious of which being that not everyone gets A&E and TLC. For those who don't, and have thus been only minimally (if ever) exposed to facial tats, the sight of one in real life would probably evoke utter bewilderment and instinctual disdain. Facial tats bad. Facial tats scary. The same goes for those who do indeed get the channel but would never dream of tuning in to a television program based on an immature, unnecessary practice that betrays the sanctity of the human body. Also, generally speaking, stereotypes and mental associations die hard. Try looking at a swastika and not seeing it glow with evil and hatred. Facial tats are a symbol, and the implication is not good.
Still, there are wholesome families out there gettin' their Art and Entertainment on, gathering 'round the tube to tune in and find out where Pendelton and his crew will venture next or what sappy stories will accompany this week's LA Ink tats. Will the grip of history's disdain for tattoos finally loosen for them, allowing the true beauty of ink to slowly seep into their brains and hearts? I'm hopeful about the potential for a generally positive social perception of tats, but let's face it, they are, for the most part, still only understood by a small majority of this Earth's population. Even a hand tattoo could ensure your long-term unemployment, especially in this hurr recession. It'll probably be quite awhile before facial tattoos are a common feature of the urban landscape, but until then, celebs like Pendelton and Kat Von D can't be hurtin' the odds.
I've always wondered what types of negative reactions those with facial tattoos have actually received from people they encounter in public. One would expect a few mishpas with baby boomers and the like, but what about exchanges with children, or with ignorant mofo's who think facial tats are (as they are in some cultures) meant to be a sign of one's mana, power, status, and try to start trouble with them? How bad does it really get?
Lucky for me, San Francisco is home turf for every variety of alternative/subculturally immersed/weird/creative/unique individuals, so I had no problem finding an inked skull brimming with first-hand 411 on the topic.
Gotta be honest, I talked to this fella probably a month ago so I don't recall his name, but just imagine a dark-dreaded dude, tall and muscular, 30ish, sporting all varieties of leatherwear. Not the type of gear typically accompanied by a chain leash or a ball gag, but rather hand-made brown leather cuffs, goggles, pants...pretty much everything he was wearing was leather. I noticed he and his similarly leather-clad mamacita as they entered the park one afternoon, of course taking immediate notice of his beautiful blackwork facial tats. The couple smiled at me as they passed by, and of course I smiled back, acknowledging my appreciation for their wild appearance. I was doing interviews at the time, migrating from group to group gathering info on people's tattoos, and at one point noticed that they had settled into a shady spot under a palm tree, apparently lacing up some leather stuffs. As I was looking over they noticed me and called me over, probably because I grinned my goofy grin at them upon eye contact. I sat down and they were immediately welcoming, telling me all about their leather goods and their "gypsy" lifestyle. I was pretty blunt with the dude, telling him that I'd never met anyone with facial tats before and that I really loved his. They conformed to the anatomy of his face, beautiful curves and swirls everywhere. Definitely some well-done tats. He was super cool about answering all my questions, perhaps because he had never been openly asked about them. I'd think that most people would avoid acknowledging them altogether. Although plainskins can often be heard asking tatted folk "Oh golly, did that hurt?!", I bet they don't make any small talk with this dude. In any case, one interesting thing leatherman told me is that when he looks in the mirror his face just looks "right," and that he doesn't even pay notice to the ink anymore. "If I'm looking in the mirror it's usually to see if I have somethin' in my teeth or on my face, ya know?" Most facially pierced peeps and their loved ones can probably identify with this phenomenon - after awhile the metal just becomes another feature of your everyday appearance!
I felt a bit awkward asking him the next question, but I'm not quite sure why. I wanted to know if it was common for him to get shocked reactions from people he encounters on the streeet. Maybe I didn't wanna imply that he looked like a freak - which, I mean, I think he looks great but if I took him home to Connecticut to meet my mom she would absolutely flip her shit. Dude was, of course, totally cool about answering - he basically said that he doesn't get too many crazy reactions, but that he doesn't pay much attention to what other people think so perhaps he just fails to notice the elderly women fainting all around him as he walks the city streets. Makes sense, I mean, if you're gonna go so far with satisfying your desire for a strikingly unique appearance as to have it permanently cemented into your flesh, you better have some thick skin (too easy...) to go with it. I really respect that. Not giving a fuck is, ironically, a mindstate that takes a strong mind to attain.
We hung out for a bit longer, but after my initial inquiries I chilled out with the drillage. I was content just enjoying the couple's company, and although the opportunity was ripe for me to really deconstruct what it's like to have facial tattoos, it was nice to just chill and chat. I haven't seen the dude since, but perhaps he'll drift my way again sometime and I can do a more in-depth follow-up. Until then I'm interested to see what new arenas tattooing will enter now that it's taken residency in the mainstream. It's already found its way into clothing, cosmetics, and, thanks to Ed "Sellout" Hardy, it's now in the water. Sickeningly trendy, yes, but the appearance of tattoos in so many facets of modern life surely serves to indirectly improve the face value of those with a tatted face. So, reluctant as I may be to accept shit like this...I guess I'll cosign. Ugh I just threw up in my mouth a little....

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