Red lightning bolts burst from a scoop of ice cream towards an eyebrow. The pointy tip of a cone descends like a dagger towards a chin. Right in the middle of a cheek sits the word "Brrr," etched into the crackly circle of the cone's mouth. This picture is written in ink on the face of rapper Gucci Mane (Radric Davis).
The tattoo has company on his face, where an assortment of inkblots and scribbled words create a graffiti wall of flesh. It's more silly than intimidating, more unbelievable than troubling.
The face tattoo, whether ice cream cone or otherwise, has a way to go before it is commonly accepted. But if any face can change that, it might be that of Ryan Gosling.
In his new film, The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling is littered with tattoos, many of which are revealed in the film's first shot. He has bleached blonde, Marshall Mathers hair and he wears raggedy white t-shirts that hang loosely over jeans. Underneath his left eye is a small downward pointing dagger with a drop of blood gently falling from its tip.
The tattoos are part of the construct of the character's traditional American masculinity. He is muscular, smokes cigarettes and doesn't talk much. Like James Dean from the trailer park. The ink is excessive and Gosling told me at a recent press conference that even fake tattoos leave a mark.
"I had this face tattoo that I regretted immediately. I said to Derek [Cianfrance], I can't do this, I look ridiculous. It's going to ruin your movie. And he said that's what happens when people get face tattoos, they regret them," said Gosling.
It's hard to say whether Gucci regrets his decision to tattoo an ice cream cone on his face or any other decision he's made for that matter. But face tattoos get a variety of reactions on different bodies, and on different skins. On the famous, hunky face of Gosling, it's unexpected and jarring. In other contexts, face tattoos get pigeonholed into representing either some sort of jail or gang affiliation. It's that or they're viewed as a kind of anthropological element of a culture other than American.
The Maori, an indigenous Polynesian people from New Zealand, utilized face tattoos to distinguish high-ranking people amongst the community. Receiving the permanent face marking, known as Ta moko, marked an important moment in a young man's transition into adult life. Often the markings would make men appear more attractive to the opposite sex.
European colonization in the 19th-century changed the frequency and popularity of Ta moko markings but in the last two decades there has been a resurgence in interest. Modern Ta moko markings are applied with both tattoo machines and the traditional uhi, or chisels.
They have been adopted into American culture, most notably on the face of Mike Tyson. Seeing these intricate, swirling markings on American faces conjures a different feeling than viewing them within their own original cultural bubble. It takes the heritage out of the equation, replacing history with aesthetics. There is something jarring, hyperbolically aggressive about the placement of Tyson's tattoo and the sheer amount of space it occupies on his face.
According to Tyson himself, he initially intended upon getting hearts etched on his face where the tribal marking currently sits. At the suggestion of his tattoo artist, he quickly abandoned this idea.
Tyson has never had to worry about intimidation, so the ink is not playing up an intentional masculine aesthetic. He's had that for years, despite the fact that he ditched ear-biting for pigeon-keeping long ago.
But many face tattoos in American culture bear a deep and varied code, stemming from conceptions of masculinity.
The teardrop, for instance, represents a rich myriad of symbolism. Placed underneath one's eye, the tattoo can be a signifier of prison affiliation, representing each year spent in incarceration or the number of times an individual has been raped while behind bars. It can also simply indicate that the wearer has killed someone or lost someone close to them. Clear tears, as opposed to filled ones, can portray attempted murder.
There is no defined mythology behind the tattoos that adorn Ryan Gosling's body in The Place Beyond the Pines. But they don't read as intimidating on his chiseled face. It could be because he's famous; it could be because it's not permanent; it could be because he's white.
Tattooed black faces commonly get affiliated with gang activity in the United States. It's a shortsighted misconception because any typical white group affiliated with violence, white supremacists specifically, litter their faces with permanent ink.
The portrayal of masculinity in hip-hop conflates the problem to a degree, with rappers like the recently comatose (physically and lyrically) Lil Wayne wearing teardrops on their faces. The meaning behind his is unclear, as are the reasons why he does most things. But it plays into masculine aesthetics as face tattoos do for Maori men and Ryan Gosling onscreen.
The decision to put this ink on Gosling's face, and making the image itself so reminiscent of the teardrop, is a conscious reference to the American concern about gangs and related violence. It is playing off a latent fear in the American psyche, often one that is racially motivated.
When Cianfrance finished shooting The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling could wipe the knife off of his face, taking the regret and shame he felt with it. But teardrops in real life don't dry up and the cultural codes they write are inscribed in something more permanent than ink.
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