There are tattoos, and then there are tattoos. On the whole, in terms of commonality and social acceptance, tattoos have come a long way since the days when they were seen as the exclusive province of motorcycle gang members and other such “undesirables.” Forbes Magazine, hardly an icon of the counterculture, recently attested to the growing acceptance that tattoos receive in workplace settings. There are limits to this new spirit of acceptance; the article mentions a survey in which 31% of employers indicated that visible tattoos would discourage them from promoting an employee, and the article ends by cautioning that “tattoo flaunting is still probably best reserved for post-work hours.” Nevertheless, the overall tone of the article demonstrates a growing tolerance for tattoos among just the sort of community – Forbes writers and readers – who might have once been their most steadfast detractors.
But then there’s Mike Tyson. The former boxer has been in the news again lately, speaking frankly about his struggle to stay sober. When these new articles about Tyson include photographs, they provide another opportunity to gaze upon his prominent face tattoo. Face tattoos, it seems to me, have largely been excluded from the growing trend of tattoo acceptance. Why? Part of the issue may be the sorts of celebrities who get face tattoos – Tyson, whose past escapades range from the bizarrely awful to the just plain awful – might not be the greatest spokesperson for them. But I think the issue goes deeper than that.
The face is a unique part of our anatomy. It holds a great deal of cultural and social significance. In many ways, our face represents, defines, and identifies us. When a person is depicted in a photograph and there isn’t room for a picture of the person’s entire body or such a picture isn’t available, we don’t see a picture of their foot or their shoulder – pictures depict faces. Our face represents us to the world with a power and permanence that is virtually unsurpassed. I may wear a shirt with a political message on it, but the next day I’ll be wearing a different shirt. I may get a tattoo on my arm (I won’t, but I could), but I could wear a long-sleeve shirt to cover it up if I feel such an act is appropriate in a given setting. Faces are a different story. It’s not as if we can never alter the appearance of our faces; the existence of the burqa and the entire cosmetic industry demonstrate that we can and do. But ultimately, it’s difficult to avoid being identified with your face. Whether you like it or not, in the society which we live today, your face is the image of yourself that you project to the world and that the world responds to.
This is even more emphatically true for those with face tattoos. To have a tattoo on your face is to have a tattoo on your very being, at least as our culture currently understands it. The relative permanence of faces and the inevitability of being identified with them make a tattoo on one’s face a statement that resonates with an intransigence that a tattoo on one’s arm or back lacks, or at least possess to a much lesser degree. We therefore look at the person with a face tattoo as inflexible, as unwilling to adapt his or her presentation of self to varying settings. The person with a face tattoo, according to this dominant cultural understanding, cannot be trusted to “go along to get along.” He or she presents a rigid insistence on sending a unique message to the world, with a degree of single-mindedness and obstinacy that our society views as irrational, extreme, and indicative of significant psychological problems or malignant tendencies.
Of course, such a response to face tattoos is the product of the culture in which we live. It need not be inevitable. And in the abstract, most of us would probably accept that a person with a face tattoo is not necessarily psychotic or violent or anything else. Let us compare the face tattoo to the hoodie. In the discussion surrounding the Travyon Martin/George Zimmerman case, a number of commentators offered their two cents on the significance of hoodies. Hoodies are inanimate objects whose cultural significance is constructed, not inherent. The particular cultural association that our society has attached to hoodies is that of the dangerous, often racialized young man. The hoodie is seen as representative of that which is – according to prevailing cultural understandings – worthy of suspicion. Sociologists have critiqued these understandings for their role in perpetuating prejudice and oppression.
If hoodies – why not face tattoos? Should we as sociologists critique the stigma associated with face tattoos? Do we have the desire to do this? If not, why not? The question also cries out for a Bogardus social distance scale – would you be friends with a person with a face tattoo? Would you hire them to work for you? Would you marry them? If you are already married and your spouse came home one day with a face tattoo, how would you react? Personally, as much as I’m capable of a detached deconstruction of how the face tattoo came to take on its particular cultural significance, and as much as I’m capable of recognizing this cultural significance as a construction and not an inevitability, I’m not sure I’d be able to shake the negative understandings of face tattoos that are so widespread in our society. Perhaps it’s because, while we know that the association between face tattoos and malevolence is not inevitable, it – the association, not its relative accuracy or lack thereof – is a reality, a social fact. We don’t live in a world in which some alternative cultural understanding is attached to face tattoos; we live in a world in which they are stigmatized and seen as indicative of stigmatized people. By not reacting to them as though they were indicative of malevolence – by supporting a spouse’s decision to get one, or even by getting one myself – I could take a step toward challenging the assumptions of malevolence that end up bringing malevolence upon those who are presumed to have it (just as the assumption that hoodies are worn by violent people can lead to violence being used against those who wear hoodies). I could make the point that getting a face tattoo might be best seen as one’s reaction to having malevolence visited upon him or her, rather than an indicator of that person’s intent to inflict malevolence on others. But am I willing to make that effort on behalf of justice? Am I willing to get that face tattoo? No, I’m not, and I don’t think that most others would be either. A face tattoo, it seems, is still a bridge too far.