Love them or hate them, face tattoos are here to stay, and you can thank hip-hop for them. The advent of SoundCloud rap and a new breed of hip-hop star with a different view on what it means to be a rapper has given rise to an increase in face tats, with the ancient art form becoming a staple of modern hip-hop fashion. So how did we get to this point?
The practice of tattooing one's face isn’t a new phenomenon. The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand and women of the Unuit and Ainu tribes have been tattooing their faces for centuries. It wasn’t until the Romans began marking the heads of slaves and criminals in the 5th century that the process became common in Western civilisations. It soon spread across the globe where it was associated with criminals and people of low social status. They soon became a common sight in prisons throughout America, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when inmates claimed ownership of face tats. Instead of being a negative symbol, criminals turned them into a sign of pride, getting designs to illustrate gang ties and the crimes they’ve committed, helping boost their street cred among the criminal fraternity.
The connection between face tats and hip-hop emerged in the early ‘00s thanks to the likes of Lil Wayne, Birdman and Game. Many rappers making it big during this period sported face tats and had known gang ties, with some even serving prison time (Birdman did 18 months for drug possession). While their tattoos didn’t necessarily imply links to crime, the media didn’t see it this way and were quick to accuse them of being nefarious types, something many of them ran with in their lyrics. Along with the media, hip-hop fans also bought into this image and rappers were happy to play up to this stereotype, with Lil Wayne getting caught up in gun charges and Game exploiting his past life as a drug dealer on his records.
The notoriety of face tats soon led to a multitude of rappers getting inked. While Lil Wayne went with smaller tatts dotted around his face, Birdman got a red star emblazoned on his head and Gucci Mane came through with the iconic ice cream cone on the right side of his face. 21 Savage has a cross in the middle of his forehead, Kevin Gates has red teardrops and Offset has a number of religious symbols and the name of his daughter, Kulture, along his left jaw.
The trend really took hold around 2015 when the new generation of SoundCloud rappers took hip-hop by storm. The likes of Lil Pump, Lil Skies and Tekashi 6ix9ine burst onto the scene and became poster boys for face tattoos, cementing this recent trend as a pillar of current hip-hop culture, for better or worse.
Unlike their older peers who were inspired by prison tats and gang affiliations, these new rappers began getting their faces inked for more personal reasons. Post Malone - who went from no tattoos to having the majority of his body inked in the space of three years - cited low self-esteem as part of the reason for tattooing his face.
Speaking with GQ he stressed, “I’m a ugly-ass motherfucker,” going on to suggest his face tats mask his personal doubts. “It does maybe come from a place of insecurity, to where I don’t like how I look, so I’m going to put something cool on there so I can look at myself and say, ‘You look cool, kid,’ and have a modicum of self-confidence, when it comes to my appearance.”
Lil Xan on the other hand got his first face tattoo, his mother’s name, at age 18 to make sure he would never have to work a 9-5 job in his life. Likewise Lil Uzi Vert got his hairline “Faith” tattoo so he would be forced to focus on his music career. Lil Skies is another rapper who got face tats so he’d never have to work a normal job, with his collection including a hot air balloon, his mother’s name and a large rose.
Now deceased emo-rap icon Lil Peep put more thought into his ink. He got the word “crybaby” tattooed in large cursive above his right eye to remind himself to always be grateful for what he has. In an interview with Montreality he revealed, “I got a humongous tattoo that says crybaby to keep me grateful and remind me not to be a crybaby. I see it every time I look in the mirror, to remind me that I’m blessed.”
Whatever the reasons for getting a face tattoo, they’ve become the must have accessory for hip-hop artists. Similar to the use of the prefix lil, they’re seen as a sign of individuality, credibility and success. As long as young fans find them cool and rappers with face tats keep making bank, it's obvious they'll remain a big part of modern hip-hop culture - so if you're not a fan, you'll just have to get used to it.