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Facial Tattoos

At a body piercing studio on Berkeley California's Telegraph Avenue, Brian -- a grimy, dreadlocked, pierced, 18-year-old punk -- is about to make a lifelong commitment to social deviance. Brian is tattooing his face.Black bars will soon cut horizontally across Brian's checks, forming a geometric pattern with three black dashes that already adorn his goatee zone. The war paint-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 the stigmas of people at the low end of the social scale -- have now become fashion statements for the mainstream. 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 San Francisco Bay Area tattoo studio interviewed said they were willing to ink up a customer's face. Those folks who, like Brian, 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. (Brian's face is being done by a pal).Why would someone want to take such an extreme oppositional stance -- displaying the tattoo for all to see, including employers, landlords, creditors and law enforcers? Why not settle for the body tattoo that can be covered or exposed to suit the occasion?"My actions are a rebellion against the mainstream," Brian says. "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 sixties 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 feels a profound affinity for non-Western traditions. His bookcase is jammed with tomes on Buddhism, the Quaballah, and Native America. Part Algonquin, he sees the chin tattoo as a revival of an Algonquin Indian ritual.But unlike Brian, Alan has no desire to separate himself from the rest of society. He 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."While Brian and Alan are convinced their markings are worth whatever social price tag they carry, Ben, 25, isn't so sure. "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 who is currently traversing the country via various low roads, Ben has found that facial tattoos don't go over as well in Grain Silo, Iowa, as they do on the Lower East Side or the Lower Haight in San Francisco. Ben concedes that he sometimes wishes he could go "incognito."Brett Reed, the twentysomething drummer for the platinum selling punk act Rancid, is one tattoo-wearer who has retained that option. Reed may have a couple of black stars suspended on his forehead, but they are minuscule and right beneath the hairline, easily concealed with a comb.Reed may be wise to hedge his countercultural bets. If the pagan looks becomes passe, 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 menial job, if corporations keep downsizing and real wages keep falling, he may find himself competing with tattoo-free Berkeley grads for minimum wage work.Meanwhile, from Brazil to Borneo, the indigenous people whose low-tech cultures provide inspiration for young Americans are being driven from their ancient practices. As Brian dons his cheek marks, the physical and cultural survival of native peoples is anything but assured. But neither is that of their young emulators.

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