Over the past few years, the face of hip hop has changed dramatically due to the enormous influence of rappers rising to fame via SoundCloud. Nowadays artists are becoming instantly recognizable through face tattoos, symbolizing everything from occult wisdom to drug culture—serving both as markers of intense personal transformation, as well as bold marketing ploys designed to generate clout. This new generation of self-made rappers have departed from the symbols traditionally donned by face tattooed artists of the past. Instead of face tattoos serving as symbols of gang culture, violence, and criminality, the symbols chosen have become more esoteric, confessional, impulsive, and vulnerable.
The popularity of face tattoos has migrated into the mainstream music scene, beginning to make appearances on some of the most well-known faces in the industry. Rap, punk, and tattooing have always been associated as mediums for the counter-culture and influential vehicles for societal change and unbridled self-expression. In this article we will take a look at some of rap’s most iconic face tattoos, the meaning behind their symbolism and how they have worked to shape the new landscape of hip hop.
You can’t mention face tattoos without thinking of late underground rap icon Lil’ Peep. The emo-rappers most notorious face tattoo is the term “crybaby” written in cursive over his eyebrow. During an interview with Montreality in April of 2017, Peep explained the meaning behind the tattoo saying this:
“I definitely think the planet is very sad….and I think a lot of people are also very ungrateful which is another big problem. That’s why I got the crybaby tat on my face. 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”.
Aside from his trademark crybaby tattoo, the late musician also collected a memorable piece on the side of his head from tattoo legend Ed Hardy during one of Hardy’s tours to London. The original design for this specific piece originated in 1980 as poster art to promote a show for Dean Dennis, a legendary tattooer who got his start mentoring under Lyle Tuttle.
Some of Peep’s face tattoos were a bit more impulsive, serving as markers of emotions and “attitudes” that he embodied during various periods of his life. Peep described his favorite style of tattooing and how the anarchy symbol on his face came about during an interview with GQ:
“There almost is no style, because it’s just me. If I’m feeling really punk, like fuck everything, I’ll get a weird red anarchy logo on my face…I don’t really think there is one particular style, but if I had to choose my favorite it would probably be like cholo style tattoos, for sure”.
The tattoo adorned face of late rapper XXXTENTACION gave life to many of the sentiments and struggles expressed in today’s indie rap scene. Fans watched throughout the course of his short-lived, but highly successful career, as he collected various pieces on his face speaking to his personal spiritual beliefs, as well as emotional hardships. Though the rapper passed away in 2018, the symbols that marked his face live on as a visual reminder of the messages behind his art. In remembrance of X, a number of his fans decided to tattoo these same symbols onto their faces as a form of homage to the musician.
One of X’s most well-known and earliest face tattoos was the word “alone” written above his eyebrow. When asked about the meaning of this tattoo X shared this: “Alone is the biggest concept for me. Alone is literally my idolization. People whether they are in relationships or among a thousand people, you are still alone. Your lies are not known to the people. Your sins are not known to the people. Nobody knows your story, nobody knows your feelings, and therefore nobody really understands you. Hence, we are all alone.”
Another infamous tattoo of X’s was the numeral “17” on his forehead. When asked about the motivation behind this tattoo X stated:
“My sanity left me when I was 17, my heart broke beyond repair when I was 17. I realized the pain is and always will be a cycle when I was 17.”
Many of X’s most well-known face tattoos were reflective of the notions of pain and alienation that fueled his greatest artistic achievements. These tattooed sentiments serve to paint a picture of the emotional undercurrents that lead millions of fans to resonate with X’s music.
“Rock star” rapper, Post Malone, first rose to fame in 2015 with his hit song “White Iverson”. Today he has reached incredible success, and is one of the most easily recognized artists, due in part to his unique face tattoos. During an interview with Capital Xtra, Post revealed the motivation behind tattooing his face saying “anything to piss my mom off”.
“I got a face for radio anyways, so why not?”- Post Malone....Malone’s aesthetic has become so popular that temporary versions of his face tattoos can be seen for sale all over the internet. When asked about the famous sword tattoo on the side of his face, Post joked “Whenever I was a little kid, I was like 12, I had a collection of swords and I loved it”. What boy doesn’t love swords?, Also Braveheart is like the ultimate ‘guys’ movie”.
Post Malone wasn’t always admired for his aggressive array of face tattoos. When he first began sporting the now famous imagery, it was speculated in the media that he must have been struggling with “severe mental illness”. Attitudes surrounding face tattooing have slowly begun to change, in place of judgement and condemnation, a new fascination around the aesthetic has emerged. In an interview with Post Malone about what influenced him to get tattooed in the first place, he admitted that pop superstar Justin Bieber was his inspiration. During a segment of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Post jokingly quipped: “We were working on Stoney, and then we had a tattoo artist come through, and I was like, ‘You know what? Justin Bieber’s got some tats, and I love you, but I know I’m way tougher than you”. Strangely enough, the tables of influence have turned, and Justin Bieber now has a minimalist face tattoo of his own.
Thanks to the surge in popularity surrounding underground alternative rap, many unexpected celebrities and musicians have decided to embrace the newly popularized trend of face tattooing. The underground has always influenced the mainstream, and now we are seeing the proof more than ever. The raw emotion and unapologetic honesty of the new underground hip-hop scene is best depicted by these famous tattooed faces, and the stories behind their symbolism. Traditionally, face tattoos were markers of self-imposed social exile, worn by members of fringe societies, depicting commitments to lawlessness, and painting visions of violence. Thanks to the artistic contribution of these game-changing artists, the very definition of what a face tattoo means has changed. Face tattoos used to effectively separate people from mainstream society, but they have now morphed into catalysts for widespread connection, recognition, and even success in the traditional world.