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Should the proposed face tattoo ban for under 21s happen?

From felon to fuckboy, the ink’s meaning and social impact has dramatically shifted – we look into whether it still lives up to its ‘job stoppers’ tag

Prison sentences, gang warfare, white supremacy – the face tattoo has taken on various associations within Western culture and very few of them are positive. Yet over recent years, face ink has seen an enormous cultural shift with major-label pop stars such as Justin Bieber, Halsey, and Post Malone all proof of the tattoo’s move into the mainstream.

As a result, the British Tattoo Artists Federation (BTAF) has cited a “huge increase” in the requests for face tattoos, with clients as young as 14 wanting to be inked. However, the rise of ‘job stoppers’ (as they are known within the tattoo industry), has caused members of the BTAF to seriously consider a ban on facial tattoos for under 21s, recognising the serious harm they can cause to a young person’s employment prospects. But, when tattoos act as a form of self-expression and are ultimately an individual’s prerogative, is it right to censure creativity and police our bodies in this way?

It’s said to never get a tattoo where a judge can see it. After all, tattoos and criminality are notorious bedfellows. In the Roman Empire, slaves who attempted to escape ownership would have their foreheads tattooed against their will. In ancient China, the word “prisoner” was branded onto convicted criminals’ faces, and in 17th-century Japan, criminals were demarcated by the crosses inked on their face. “They sort of symbolised fear,” says Delphin Musquet, a resident tattoo artist at Sang Bleu, Dalston. “From gangsters to prisoners, people with face tattoos back in the day were mostly bad news.”

But the associations between tattoos and felony persist today. In a 2016 deep dive, The Economist reported that three-quarters of Florida prison inmates had at least one tattoo and in 2013, criminologists William Bales and Thomas Blomberg found that prisoners with tattoos were 42 per cent more likely to re-offend. This was especially prevalent for those with tattoos on the face. High-profile cases such as Charles Manson, who scrawled a swastika on his forehead during the 1971 Tate-LaBianca murders, did little to dispel the taboo.

Society’s reading of face tattoos has therefore been marred by a long history of criminality which has “a negative impact on employment decisions,” says Dr Duncan Jackson, a reader of Organisational Psychology at King’s College, London. While employers are being encouraged to challenge their unconscious biases, young people with face tattoos are putting themselves at a severe disadvantage when trying to get a job. In a recent YouGov survey, 78 per cent of employers stated that they were less likely to hire a candidate with a face tattoo. 

Lucy Dawe, a consultant at Pulse Light Clinic, which specialises in facial tattoo removal, has reported a staggering increase in enquiries. “The most common reason for laser tattoo removal on the face is because of work,” Dawe says. It would seem face tattoos are incompatible with public-facing roles. For example, the Newcastle Hospital trust has banned visible tattoos on the grounds that they could “impact negatively upon a patient’s impression of the employee and their approachability” and face tattoos are still banned from the police force and the army.

“Once a marker of transgression, the face tattoo has become so ubiquitous in pop culture that it feels like it has lost its impact altogether. See the latest Moschino show, where models are inked with cursive temporary tattoos above their eyes – a testament to the tattoos’ commercialisation”

Knowing this, tattoo parlours must tread a thin line between carrying out a client’s wishes and endangering their future opportunities. “The responsibility, most of the time, is in the hand of the practitioner,” says Musquet. But it’s a responsibility the BTAF are keen to shirk – “It’s concerning for us as professionals because in the future it is going to affect (their) prospects.” The imposition of an age restriction might, therefore, be helpful, considering the potentially life-changing consequences of such decisions.

Of course, the difference here is that many prison tattoos carry semiotic meanings – for these inmates, past demeanours and loyalties can be read on the skin like a CV. A teardrop may symbolise murder, a four-leafed clover white supremacy, and a handless clock the ennui of a prison sentence. Thankfully though, it would seem we are moving past these associations. Once a marker of transgression, the face tattoo has become so ubiquitous in pop culture that it feels like it has lost its impact altogether. See the latest Moschino show, where models are inked with cursive temporary tattoos above their eyes – a testament to the tattoos’ commercialisation.

We owe this in part to the rise of SoundCloud rappers (a kind of DIY, emo-rap). Artists like Post Malone, Lil Xan, or the late Lil Peep are all instantly recognisable by their facial tattoos and have inspired teens worldwide to get inked. But if these musicians popularised the trend, the face tattoo has now reached peak mainstream. Pop juggernaut Justin Bieber has recently got ‘Grace’ written above his right eye and your mum’s favourite Little Mixer, Jesy Nelson, has a queen of hearts tattoo by her left ear.

It is telling, though, that face tattoos have only found social acceptance since being favoured by the (mostly white) genre of SoundCloud rappers – despite many black hip hop artists having facial tattoos before them. For artists like Lil Wayne or Wiz Khalifa, face tattoos will carry a heavier social stigma than on someone like Post Malone. It means that, like so many other aspects of modern African-American culture, under the white gaze, face tattoos have become synonymous with cool. Perhaps, then, before issuing a ban on face tattoos, there is work to be done in unpicking all social discriminations which are embroiled in the tattoo’s negative associations.

Nevertheless, as face tattoos begin to permeate and be sanitised by pop culture, it’s only a matter of time before they spread outwards. After all, Jackson stresses that facial tattoos in no way indicate that “someone will be worse at performing their job.” With various neck and face tattoos, Martin Rosenberg has held positions at eBay, PayPal, Air France, and Delta airlines and insists his tattoos “never caused me any trouble. I think as long as your curriculum is good, people can see past that.” For Rosenberg at least, face tattoos symbolise a resistance to conform – “I got face tattoos as a symbol of being an outcast and not following society’s rules.” It’s all about self-expression.

“To me, it means being comfortable in myself and expressing myself the way I want,” says Tom Mills, a chef with face tattoos. “Every human should have the right to decide what to do with their own body.” In this way, the proposed ban seems to oppose an individual’s creative freedoms. And sometimes it’s simply not that deep. Teddy Corsica, a model and fashion consultant, just wanted “something on my face and decided what to get like five minutes before.” Musquet shares a similar attitude when he jokes that his own face tattoos just mean “a shit-load of pussy.” 

It’s devil-may-care and obviously reckless, but it shows the relaxing attitudes surrounding facial tattoos. And what would tattoos be without a bit of recklessness? From felon to fuckboy, the face tattoo’s meaning and social impact has dramatically shifted. No longer a symbol of fear, a proposed ban would seemingly fuel discrimination and revive an outdated stigma. That’s not to say that Morgan Stanley executives of the future will be inked head to toe, but as codes of formality begin to wane, it is by far an impossibility.