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Saving Face: The Taboo of Facial Tattoos

December 15th, 2008 by

Dr. Hook recently wrote,

“The New Zealand Maori Moko is probably the most famous example of the warrior facial tattoos, but by no means the only one. Many European, and Native American tribes did much of the same thing, just not to the extent the Maori took the facial tattoo.

More than a few debates have been started on the web over Maori descendants who will either have the traditional Moko, or a modern equivalent done, and those who imitate them because they think it’s cool.”

Introducing Holly Brewer of the gypsy-punk band Humanwine who has decided to defy societal norms with a design covering her neck and chin that is more than a little reminiscent of the tattoos historically sported by the Maori. The tattoo began fourteen years ago – when Brewer was only sixteen – and has been completed over the years in friends’ living rooms and basements in Vermont and Oregon, since no licensed, reputable artists would perform it, especially on a 16-year-old girl.

“Most tattoo studios will refuse to do those kinds of tattoos on the face, or antisocial ones. If you really want that kind of tattoo, you will have to go far and wide. … A lot of tattoo studios will be thinking down the road, you’re going to regret that,” Terisa Green, author of “Ink: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo,” told ABC news.

“People have come in and asked us to do facial tattoos, and I think it’s a terrible idea,” tattoo artist Scott Campbell, who owns Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn, N.Y. said. “People’s faces are such an important way to how they communicate. It’s such a bold statement that takes place over an extreme period of time, it obscures someone of anonymity. … You can never just be a person walking down the street. You’ll be the person walking down the street with that tattoo.”

There’s no doubt that facial tattoos are still considered taboo and invite the stigma all tattoos used to enjoy before their induction into the mainstream. Facial tattoos, generally speaking, are associated with prison culture and make a bold, antisocial statement. Utah prison inmate Curtis Allgier is a prime example, with a face full of swastikas, the words “SKIN HEAD” etched permanently across his forehead and countless other epithets of racist garbage.

Brewer admits to being accosted by people demanding to know why she did it.

“If people seem like they really can’t handle it,” she said, “I’ll say it’s henna” – a natural dye that stains the skin impermanently. Although her own mother thought the black ink that dribbles down her chin and down her neck “very feminine, like a permanent necklace,” her father couldn’t help but cringe.

I don’t have any opinions I would consider informed enough to make here so I will just post the following comment by sindelu on an article on Brewer’s taboo tattoo instead:

“I’m 46, and my mother is 79. We both got tattoos from Todd Close this past August. It was Mom’s idea. This is the same woman who, when I was 12, wouldn’t let me get my ears pierced because she thought it was slutty. Personally, I wouldn’t get a tat on my face, but I wouldn’t judge someone else negatively for doing so.”

3 Responses

  1. tuhiarangi

    if she was really hardcore she’d get her lips done as well…the ancient Maori used to say, about a woman who had her moko but not her lips done ‘she is going topless.’ Many Maori today still have full facial moko, it is a sign of rank and status, ‘mana.’ Unfortunately lot of white NZers associate it with gang tatoos but for the most part a proper facial moko is accpetable in polite society, and is becoming more and more common.

  2. ink2xs

    my facial ink experience – for many of us full facial ink is the ultimate expression of our free spirit, freeing us from the conventions and constraints of the everyday world. Many people look at us with awe, shock, approval and distain; such is the range of emotions we evoke in those who look at our tattooed faces. from the time I was sixteen I knew I would eventually get my face, head and neck completely covered with tattoos because I needed to satify my curiousty to know what the experience would be like afterwards. What influenced my decision was knowing that it would always be visible and that it was permanent, and once done there would be no turning back,I wanted full facial tattooing so badly I had to go forward just for the experience of knowing what it would be like. I knew this decision would be a critical turning point in my life so I laid out careful plans as to what I wanted tattooed on my face and I anticipated many routine things in my life that would change dramatically. after all my plans were in place, I set a date and time to begin the transition which would irrevocably change my appearance permanently. The preparations to move forward with my facial transformation was a time of great excitement, tension and stress such as I have never known before and most importantly, it was invigorating. getting the work was probably the most exciting phase, it occurred for several weeks with multiple sessions of getting my face “drilled” a couple times a week, the buzz of the tattoo machine actually becomes soothing and reassuring, music to a tattoo junky’s ear that I was getting closer to my goal with each session. occassional breaks during each session was always an oppurtunity to get up and stretch and go have a smoke or sometimes have a beer with my buds and of course checking myself out in the mirror how my facial work was progressing. It gives you a hell of a rush as you see black and colored tattoo inks being indelibly worked into the skin of your face by ink covered needles pricking the skin 80 to 150 times a second to the buzz of the magnetic induction coils of the tattoo machine. you see your face slowly disappearing as the indelible ink marks ever increasing areas of your face. there is puffing and swelling in some areas as a result of being assaulted by by the high priking of the tattoo machine needles. A few days after coverage is completed and the last areas are healed and the few remaining scabs fall off it is awesome to experience the “rush” you’ll get when you stand before the mirror and admire your new face and you realise that you made your dream a reality – for me that was ten years ago and it’s all been good with absolutely no regrets!

  3. Morgrad

    Holly Brewer’s tattoo isn’t a real Ta Moko, is it? it’s kirituhi firstly. I’ve never seen a Ta Moko with stars.

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