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Society isn't quite ready for facial tattoos

By Astead Herndon, Special to CNN
updated 7:21 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
TV personality and tattoo artist Kat Von D is part of the growing number of celebrities with highly visible tattoos. In her autobiography she calls her body the "canvas" of her experiences. TV personality and tattoo artist Kat Von D is part of the growing number of celebrities with highly visible tattoos. In her autobiography she calls her body the "canvas" of her experiences.
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Celeb tattoos: You know that's forever, right?
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tattoos have come a long way; in 40% of households somebody has one, according to a poll
  • Highly visible tattoos on the face, neck, head or hands may not be as accepted by the mainstream
  • Seattle tattoo artist says those with visible tattoos face rejection from employers, landlords
  • Famous people can get away with face and head tattoos, but regular folks have a tougher time

(CNN) -- "I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach." -- Kat Von D, tattoo artist

Tattoos have come a long way.

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Once lambasted as professional kryptonite and social sabotage, inked skin has now rooted itself in mainstream culture.

In May, NBC News/Wall Street Journal released a poll that found 40% of Americans have someone in their household with a tattoo, up from 21% from 15 years ago. Last year, Forbes magazine said tattoos were becoming "increasingly unproblematic across the board," even in the workplace.

But the workplace doesn't seem to be ready for tattoos in certain areas -- mainly the face, head and neck.

In 2011, 31% of employers nationwide told job website Career Builder that having a visible tattoo would hinder a candidate's likelihood of being promoted.

Earlier this year, Army Regulation 670-1 enforced new rules prohibiting soldiers from displaying tattoos on the head, face, neck, wrists, hands and fingers.

"Tattoos are getting more and more accepted," said Alivia Foley, a 24-year old tattoo artist who has been inking clients full-time for six years in Seattle. "But we're not there yet."

"People will start treating you differently once you become a heavily tattooed person," said Foley, who has head and neck tattoos.

Potential employers, law enforcement and even landlords can look askance at facial tats, in her experience.

"I just don't think they're for everybody," she said.

The accepted few

Of course when Foley says highly visible tattoos are not for everybody, she means everybody who wants a professional job.

For years American society has openly accepted celebrities who choose to sport highly visible tattoos.

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Boxer Mike Tyson, who had his face tattooed with a tribal symbol in 2003, was an early adopter of the look. Rapper Gucci Mane said he inked an ice cream cone on his cheek because he's "cool as ice" and top-selling rap artist Lil Wayne has teardrops and "Fear God" on his eyelids.

Neck tattoos can be seen on anyone from urban youths to international arbiters of style. Rihanna and David and Victoria Beckham each have them.

Even Oscar winner Jamie Foxx appears to have gotten a tribal symbol permanently drawn on the back of his head.

"Tattooing has gone from being counterculture to being something everyone is doing," Foley said. "But societal repercussions are still there, especially with highly visible tattoos on the face, neck or hands."

This is certainly true with nonfamous men and women.

Canadian rapper Drake was irate when a young fan followed the instructions from his song, "Free Spirit," and got a tattoo of his name on her forehead.

And take Jeremy Meeks, the "Hot Felon" who boasts a Facebook fan page with more than 228,000 likes, but has had his teardrop tattoo PhotoShopped out of some Internet memes.

The teardrop, often associated with gang culture and violence, does not fit the high-fashion aesthetic of his dreamy blue eyes. Perhaps our culture is more willing to overlook a criminal history than a conspicuous blotch of ink.

Anyone considering a facial tattoo should be warned about the repercussions, said Foley, the Seattle tattooist.

"If a tattoo artist is not giving a lecture on a face tattoo, they're not doing their job."

Foley will ink clients' faces only if they are already heavily tattooed -- and even then she will meet with them beforehand to ensure they have a clear understanding of the societal risks.

But those who want them can still get face, head and neck tattoos without proper consultation and warning. In fact, some crude designs are done by nonprofessionals at home or in prison settings.

"Honestly, the tattoo community used to be very tight-knit," she said. "But now you can buy kits off of Ebay and call yourself a tattoo artist without any apprenticeship or traditional training."

'I feel more like myself'

No amount of warning deterred Vin Los.

Canadian model Vin Los
Canadian model Vin Los

Los, a 24-year-old aspiring fashion model, spent years getting rejected from agencies because of his diminutive height. Finally, he says, after a New York modeling agency told him he'd never get hired, he decided to make some changes to his appearance.

Drastic changes.

Los has more than 30 phrases tattooed on his body, including 12 across his face. They include words like fame, play, iconic face, sex, lick, Tokyo, and "the most famous."

He estimated that his tattoo plans were initially rejected by eight artists.

"I know I'm intense and I live my life to the fullest," he said. "But now I don't have to tell people 'this is who I am or these are my dreams.'"

"Now they can read it and they can see it."

Sounds like Kat Von D.

Los thrives on the media attention he receives but still has not completed his dream of signing to a modeling agency. He works as a bagger in a Montreal, Canada, grocery store.

"I don't get why people judge me," he said. "People look at me, but no one will say anything. A lot of people think I'm crazy."

People's reactions, and Los' subsequent shock, come as no surprise to Michael Mantell, a San Diego psychologist.

"Tattoo lovers are bold, often rebellious and extremely identified with their body ink," he said. "They have a strong sense of identity and they have no intention of hiding. They are not scared of public opinion and would love to let others know what they believe in."

However, Mantell, who wrote an article titled "The Psychology of Tattoos" for San Diego Magazine, said this boldness does not necessary translate into comfort with one's self, especially when it comes to highly visible tattoos.

"Tattoos on the upper body in a spot that's not typically covered says someone doesn't care what other people think -- but don't mistake that for a healthy sense of individuality," he said.

"It's more likely a sign of rebelliousness."

Mantell and Foley urged individuals to think before they ink highly visible tattoos on the face, head, neck and hands, again citing mainstream exclusion.

But Los said he's never felt more like himself.

"For 10 months, I was wearing makeup to hide the tattoos and little by little I began to show more," he said. "I am an artist and have always had the need to express myself, now I'm just doing that on my skin."

Los said he is very happy with his decision and loves the way he looks.

He never felt a part of society, and now he has the face to match.

Do facial tattoos change your opinion of a person? Share your take in the comments section below.

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