Ask most tattoo artists if they’ll ink a design on your face or neck, and the chances are they will do a double-take. A barrage of questions are likely to follow, with the main theme being, “Are you sure?”
Why does the idea of permanently decorating the skin above the shoulders produce this reaction? Why do most artists rarely venture there? Is getting tattooed on the most visible part of your body really such a taboo?
Given the fuss some professionals make about face and neck tattoos, you could be forgiven for thinking that they are a new and unwanted phenomenon. Certainly, they are not something you see every day walking down the street. But actually, the face and neck, like the rest of the body, has been a canvas for tattoo artists for thousands of years, just not so much in Western culture. In older civilizations, the face has been prime real-estate for ink, though not for the purely decorative reasons we think of today. Historically, facial tattoos were an essential means of communicating identity and status.
This was most evident in the Maori men of New Zealand. Their elaborate face tattoos, called moko, were their way of signaling their high status. Every moko was unique, and showed rank, ancestry, and abilities. They were like an identity card and Linked-In profile rolled into one. Maori women were also inked, though their facial tattoos were simpler, and thought to be decorative rather than functional.
It wasn’t just identity that saw heads being tattooed in other cultures. Before Islam arrived in North Africa, the Berber women of Algeria sported fine dots on their faces. They were a rite of passage, added at key points in the woman’s life. They acted as a form of talisman and were thought to protect her from possession by evil spirits or other such afflictions.
Here in the West though, we have other associations for facial tattoos. Whilst we also see them as a way of signaling identity or personal history, we tend to assume they are advertising membership of a gang, or are evidence of time spent in prison. These negative connotations are undoubtedly the basis for the social taboos around facial tattoos in particular.
And yet, getting inked above the neckline is not as unusual as it once was. When mainstream celebrities like Justin Bieber get a tattoo on their face (he sports a small cross below his left eye) and neck (he wears angel wings reminiscent of David Beckham’s infamous back tattoo), it’s a sign that times are changing.
Justin has more than one hundred and twenty million followers on Instagram, which could help explain why the social media generation are so enamored with facial and neck tattoos. What better way to stand out in a group of millions than by going where few have gone before? Posting a picture of your newly decorated face to #facetattoo is a surefire way of showing you are different.
Despite the recent rise in popularity, a majority of tattoo parlors are still wary of tattooing above the neckline. When singer Aaron Carter asked his artist Herchell Carrasco, also known as RockRollG, to ink a bold design down the side of his face and neck, the artist claims he tried to talk him out of it. He only accepted once he was certain that his client had considered the consequences, and when he was sure that he was not under the influence of any mind-altering substances stronger than regular tobacco.
Why the reluctance? For the simple reason that the face cannot easily be covered. Getting a permanent design that you later regret plastered across an arm or leg is not a disaster. Limbs are easy enough to wrap up and hide. But the face or neck? Not so simple. Any body art above the shoulders is going to be seen by everyone you come into contact with, whether you like it or not.
A Question of Identity
Our face is our identity. It’s how we recognize each other. It’s how we interpret each other’s feelings, intentions, and desires. To decorate this almost sacrosanct stretch of skin is to make a huge statement, and one that cannot easily be erased or hidden. A facial tattoo won’t change who we are, but it will undoubtedly change how other people see us. Depending on the tattoo, that change could have profound consequences.
The face and neck then, are not the ideal place for a first tattoo. If you have never been inked before, consider putting your first design somewhere more discreet. Somewhere that can be covered up or hidden should the need arise — like a job interview for example. There’s a reason some artists call facial tattoos ‘job stoppers’!
A Sensitive Subject
There are other reasons to keep the ink below the shoulders. The skin covering the face and neck is some of the most sensitive on the body. It is also that which is the most exposed to the elements and therefore most subject to the ravages of time and the sun. Both will make it wither and wrinkle with age. These changes can have a big impact on the appearance of tattoos, so it’s vital to consider how a design will evolve as your body matures.
The delicate nature of facial and neck skin also affects how tattoos are erased, should the need arise. Whilst laser removal technology is getting better all the time, the flesh is tender and must be treated with care. It usually takes several trips to the clinic to get even a small tattoo removed from these parts of the body. It will be deleted little by little to prevent permanent burning and bruising.
If, after careful consideration of the consequences, you decide that a face or neck tattoo is for you, you’ll need to take some extra precautions to protect it. Most importantly it will have to be hidden from the sun. That may mean you cannot go outside for up to a week after getting inked. You’ll also want to moisturize regularly to safeguard your skin. And it goes without saying that keeping your new tattoo clean, particularly in those critical first few days, is super important to prevent infection.
The Choice is Yours
That just leaves the question of what tattoo to choose. Lighter designs with finer lines are generally seen as more classy than heavy blocks of color or bold images. Certainly, they are perceived as less threatening.
Classic designs for the face include a teardrop, although be careful — in some communities this is a symbol for having been imprisoned or having committed murder! Permanent eyebrows are fashionable and discreet. And of course, words and names are always a popular choice.
The neck, being less in your face than, well, your face, is a place where you can be a little more experimental. Stars, hearts, and wings are ubiquitous. Signs of the zodiac are also a common choice. For something more daring, consider a tribal design harking back to the origins of the art form. If you like it, you can build upon it later, working up towards and even across the face.
Be Mindful, Not Afraid
The face and neck might be the final frontier for tattoos, but they are not a forbidden territory. With careful consideration of the consequences, and the advice of a skilled and experienced artist, there’s no reason not to venture above the neckline when looking for places to get inked.