From Charles Manson to Post Malone: A brief history of face tattoos

Marks that were once hidden under sleeves and collars have confidently crept up to the face. So how did we get here?

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The New York Times declared it last year: Face tattoos have gone mainstream. Justin Bieber now has one above his left brow (even if it is the kind of tat that says, “I’m not fully committed to this”). Almost every SoundCloud rapper has them; and of course, Lil Wayne, Post Malone, and their younger imitators are all marked. But the real point here is: Bieber! Mainstream! Mum-friendly artists with face tats!

Marks that were once hidden under sleeves and collars have confidently crept up to the face. Now it’s just another space on the canvas. So how did we get here?

Only a few decades ago, these were the stamps of weirdos and outlaws; killers like Charles Manson, who had a swastika scribbled on his temple; hardmen who’ve done time; the kind of dudes you wouldn’t dare make eye contact with. In reality, though, the history of face tattoos is more complex. Put simply, they have meant different things in different cultures at different times.

The oldest known tattooed human mummy was discovered in the Alps in 1991. The Iceman, as he’s known, lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. He had over 50 tats, but none on his face. There is evidence, however, that face tats have been common among tribes across the world for centuries. In the Inuit community 4000 years ago, women bore face tattoos. This symbolized a girl transitioning into a woman, with some Inuit people believing that, without these tattoos, a woman could not transition into the spirit world.

The European explorer Captain James Cook was the first to discover the Polynesian tattoo, in 1769. Tribes there reportedly used a needle and thread technique, or “skin stitching”, to create their swirly tattoo patterns. In their culture, face tattoos signalled that you were from a high social class.

By contrast, way back in 316 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine officially banned face tattoos on religious grounds. And over in ancient China, during the Qing Dynasty, tattoos were used as punishment. The word “prisoner” was commonly engraved on convicted criminals’ faces. And similarly in 17th century Japan, criminals were marked with crosses on their face as a form of punishment.

In the US, the first known tattoo artist was a German immigrant called Martin Hildebrandt. He opened a shop in New York City in 1846 that became popular among soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. These guys were tough as nails, drank loads, and no doubt had a bar brawl or two. This arguably fueled the taboo of tattoos in 20th century America. By 1961, in New York, it was even declared “unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being”. Unbelievably, it remained illegal there until 1997.

Face tats gained a particularly bad rep during the height of US counterculture when Charles Manson bloodily carved a swastika between his eyebrows during the 1971 trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders. Both the press and onlookers seemed to agree: Who else but a crazy convict would ink their face – their face?!

It didn’t help that the 70s saw the birth of the brutal MS-13 gang on the streets of LA. Its name was typically etched into members’ faces. In the wrong place, at the wrong time, this simple mark could mean a death sentence or brand you a social pariah for life. In the US it carried an unprecedented social stigma. Here was another clear mark of the miscreant.

Gang culture, along with other anti-establishment subcultures, carried over into music in the 80s and 90s. Rappers and punks were inked from neck to toe, though few, still, dared ink their face. Think Henry Rollins or Tupac. These artists’ most fawning fans followed suit, and suddenly it wasn’t so strange to have tattoos on your arms, legs, or anywhere other than your face. For many, it was a sign of belonging to a tribe – punk, goth, whatever.

By the 2000s face tats were creeping up Travis Barker’s neck and onto his head. Emo kids got stars inked behind their ears. Tats had never been so visible in modern western culture. A broad aesthetic was shared not just by members of one subculture, but by people who crossed tribes. Lil Wayne, who had two teardrops under his right eye by 2002, brought trap music and skate culture together. His influence bled over, with skater-turned-rapper Jeremy Rogers getting a musical note under his eye.

With the arrival of Instagram, the scumbro look came into sharp focus. The men’s fashion trend combines streetwear brands like Supreme and Palace with absurdly expensive trainers and tattoos. Vanity Fair called it “a catchall for the R.E.I.-clad trustafarian co-ed meets Supreme.” And now with scumbro, Instagram, and SoundCloud rappers, face tats have officially gone mainstream. Well, almost. What was once a literal hallmark of outlaw status, a don’t-fuck-with-me ethos, is now squarely in the public eye. Again: Justin Bieber! Along with Post Malone, Wiz Khalifa, the late Lil Peep, the late XXXTentacion - all key players in face tattoos’ assimilation into mainstream culture.

Today, face tats are no longer just for hardmen. They’re not shocking like they used to be. Spot someone in a Thrasher tee and a beanie sporting one and you wouldn’t cross the street. But at the same time, let’s be real: they’re not so prosaic that you’d see a suited HSBC worker’s face covered, smiling at you in the lunch queue at Pret. It’s one thing to work in entertainment with a face tat, but working for Goldman Sachs? Yeah, probably not gonna happen.

They have been embraced by the mainstream only to an extent. A recent Jeremy Kyle Show featured the subtitle: How Could My Boyfriend Destroy His Own Face? A man with an inked face comes onstage. The audience gasps. Kyle snarls at the man, referring to his face: “That’s ridiculous!” The audience cheers in agreement: this man should not have marks on his face.

It’s hard to imagine a day when face tats will be 100% accepted, when you can walk into an interview for any job and not have the interviewer stare you down like, Why’d you even bother showing up? Though the US military does now allow tattoos, it comes with one catch: they can’t be on the neck, hands, or face – no matter how much you argue “self-expression”.

Will it ever happen? If a slice of Bieber’s broad fan base, including the white-collar workers of tomorrow, head to the parlour, then yeah, perhaps. Visibility changes everything. On-the-street visibility, in-the-office visibility, Instagram-selfie visibility. That’s when attitudes change about what’s acceptable. And if that happens, well, SoundCloud rappers could be in for a heavy identity crisis.