Defacing ourselves

A hippie can cut his hair, but a tattooed mug is forever

Published July 3, 1996 6:20PM (EDT)

BERKELEY, Calif. --
At a body piercing studio on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, a grimy, dreadlocked, pierced, 18-year-old punk named Brian is about to make a lifelong commitment to social deviance. Brian is tattooing his face.

Black bars will soon cut horizontally across Brian's cheeks, forming a
geometric pattern with three black dashes that already adorn his goatee zone. The warpaint-like lines will set Brian apart from other urban primitives, most of whom advertise their dedication to their subculture on body regions that don't require 24-hour exposure: the upper arms, torso, back or legs.

Body modifications like tattoos and body piercing, once associated with bikers, inmates and others at the lower end of the social scale, have now become mainstream fashion statements. But tattooing the face remains taboo. Even the most hardcore, in-it-for-life tattoo artists refrain from indelibly marking their own mugs. Not a single Bay Area tattoo studio interviewed said they were willing to ink up a customer's face. Those, like Brian, who want their cheeks, chin, nose or forehead adorned have to look for inkslingers who work out of bedrooms and vans and, typically, bear facial tattoos themselves.

Why would anyone want to wear a tattoo where everyone -- including employers, landlords, creditors and law enforcers -- can see it?

"My actions are a rebellion against the mainstream," says Brian, whose face is being done by a friend. "They let everyone know I'm not a part of your society. No matter what you take away from me, you can't take away that."

But more than defiance is involved. Brian believes those who live in high-tech industrial cultures should regain the ancient pagan knowledge of tribal peoples. One way to spread the knowledge, he says, is by "forging my own tribe."

Brian's ideas echo those of scores of disaffected Westerners, from
devotees of Eastern religions to the hippies of yesteryear. But unlike
many of the '60s counterculturalists -- who eventually cut their hair
and went yuppie -- Brian will have a hard time changing his mind and rejoining the nine-to-fivers with tribal markings all over his face.

That, he says, is the point. "This is a commitment. Someone could get a mohawk and then grow it out, or cut it off in a second. I can't cut this off." As for turning off would-be employers, Brian isn't worried. "I know people with facial tattoos who have jobs. I could work at a co-op or a recycling place, or I could deliver phone books."

Alan, a 21-year-old piercer and sometime inkslinger, also sports two
neo-tribal tattoos. A black diamond graces the crest of his forehead, and a gray, Native American-derived design covers his chin. More prominent than the tattoos are his enormous, Buddha-like stretched ear piercings.

Like Brian, Alan says he feels an affinity for non-Western traditions.
His bookcase is jammed with tomes on Buddhism, the Kaballah and Native America. Part Algonquin, he sees the chin tattoo as a revival of an Algonquin Indian ritual. But unlike Brian, Alan wants to bring tribal knowledge and aesthetics to the widest audience possible. With that end in mind, he did some modeling for Levi's, with his piercings and tattoos in full view. "I'm using Levi's to assimilate," he says. "I'm getting to people through them."

Ben, 25, isn't so sure about the ultimate worth of face markings.
"Sometimes I hate these things," he says of the black scratch marks he's worn on his face for six years. A veteran of the New York City squat scene, Ben has found that facial tattoos don't go over as well in Grain Silo, Iowa, as they do on New York's Lower East Side or San Francisco's Lower Haight. Ben concedes that he sometimes wishes he could go "incognito."

Brett Reed, drummer for the platinum-selling punk act Rancid, is one tattoo-wearer who has retained that option. Reed has a couple of black stars on his forehead, but they are minuscule and close to his hairline, easily concealed with a comb.

He may be wise to hedge his countercultural bets. If the pagan look becomes passi, Alan -- who supports himself by tattooing and piercing his contemporaries -- may have a hard time finding a new career. And while Brian may feel he's assured at least a subsistence-level job, if corporations keep downsizing and real wages keep falling, he may find himself competing with tattoo-free Berkeley grads for minimum wage work.

Quotes of the day

Innocent, 18 years too late.

"It's been pure hell....The police just picked up the first four young black men they could and that was it. They didn't care if we were guilty or innocent."

-- Dennis Williams, 39, freed by the Cook County Criminal Court after spending 18 years in prison, most of them on Death Row, following his wrongful conviction for murdering a white couple.

"We are victims of this crime, too. I want people to know that this could happen to anybody and that's a crime."

-- Kenneth Adams, 39, who along with Williams and Willie Rainge, 38, was also released yesterday. A fourth man, Verneal Jimerson, 43, was cleared of the crime last month. (From "After 18 years in Prison, 3 Are Cleared of Murders," in Wednesday's New York Times.

By A. Clay Thompson

A. Clay Thompson, a former activist in the squatter movement, has just returned from a two-month reporting trip to Germany and other countries in northern Europe.

MORE FROM A. Clay Thompson

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