Behind The Fashion Industry’s Cultural Appropriation Of Face Tattoos

When Alessandro Michele premiered his Spring 2017 collection for Gucci, one Latvian model stood out on the catwalk. The model sported a bright pink sweater with GUCCI letters scribbled across the front, accessorizing with a glittery gold tie, and most uncomfortably—Gothic face tattoos inscribed on his forehead, chin, and neck. Despite the shocking appearance of faux ink, the show went on as usual, the audience brimming with excitement over the new line, which was reviewed by none other than rapper Gucci Mane in Vogue.

Face tattoos first appeared on major fashion runways in 1996, in a Givenchy fashion show. Their appearance adds a touch of rebelliousness to an otherwise stuffy fashion show that’s built on a global multi-billion dollar empire. While such power moves by designers have become de rigueur, such an incorporation is increasingly questionable, as young, poor people of color are routinely stigmatized for facial tattoos and disallowed from the fashion industry.

“Face tattoos have strong associations with prison culture and gang culture, and their own complicated semantics within those settings. In 1980s California, for example, gang members began using tattoos as a way to demonstrate their allegiance and instill fear in their rivals. Inking gang insignias on the most visible body part possible, the face, has long represented both a permanent commitment and an unmistakable threat,” describes Alice Newell-Hanson for i-D. “That sense of perceived danger plays into what makes facial tattoos attractive for fashion designers; motifs referencing both gang and prison ink have cropped up on fashion’s catwalks recently.”

The rising trend of face tattoos being present on the runway calls into question the cultural appropriation of hood aesthetics by the fashion industry. From Elle UK’s fumbling of pronouncement of baby hair being a new trend, Alexander Wang’s spray-painted “shirts you can’t get anywhere else,” Rick Owens’ male models wearing du-rags at Paris Fashion Week in 2014, and Kylie Jenner’s transformation to Kylie from the block in a Puma ad à la The Get Down, the additive of urban culture is featured to give fashion collections an “edge,” despite the clothing not being marketed toward those from whom designers have appropriated.

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Shane Oliver, creator of fashion line Hood By Air, is a rare designer in the fashion world who’s incorporated models with real tattoos into his runway shows, as noted by Newell-Hanson: “Oliver doesn’t borrow from countercultures on his catwalks, he represents them. Hood By Air was born out of outsider subcultures and is, to an extent, still embedded in them.” The New York native, whose offbeat street style was influenced by the city’s infamous House of Ninja, is one of the few black designers in the industry who has made it a point to add visual representation in the exhibition of his clothing lines.

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Despite Oliver’s dedication to casting models who are the representation of the garments he’s marketing, the imbalance of people of color who are able to do the same is staggering. “In multiple interviews, members from all areas of the fashion industry—designers, professors, editors, retailers, financiers and communications executives—mentioned several factors, including socioeconomic realities, educational hurdles, the globalization of the industry and fashion’s own core sense of itself as an industry made up of outsiders,” said journalist Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times. “These have all combined, they said, to create the current imbalance, which exists not only on the creative side but also, as [Tracey Reese] points out, ‘on every level: journalists, buyers, merchandise managers, executives.'”

This unequal playing field makes the appropriation of face tattoos even more problematic, as the erasure of people of color who innovate and inspire designers are notably erased in every facet of the industry.

“While high fashion does also inspire face tattoos, tattooing your face with a Gucci logo feels less ethically sus than inserting a reference to a historically maligned or outlaw subculture into a high-end, commercially minded fashion show—particularly when the narrative of that subculture isn’t examined elsewhere in the show,” Newell-Hanson continued.

With a nod to Oliver’s fashion career, here’s to hoping for less cultural appropriation—and more cultural representation from those who are the foundation of a worldwide empire.