In your face: Front-and-center tattoos no longer just a gang trend

Jamar Wheeler , of Oxford Circle, has similar tattoos and piercings on both sides of his face, including an "$OMM" on his left side near his hairline, standing for "Money on My Mind."
Jamar Wheeler , of Oxford Circle, has similar tattoos and piercings on both sides of his face, including an "$OMM" on his left side near his hairline, standing for "Money on My Mind." (PHILLIP LUCAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: January 27, 2012

"LOYALTY" is written in the center of a giant spider web on the right side of Jamar Wheeler's neck, beneath a spider that appears to dangle from his ear.

"I get tattoos like a stress reliever," said Wheeler, 23, of Oxford Circle.

Below a tattoo of a cross near his right eye is a teardrop tattoo, adorned by a facial piercing. The letters "FOE" line the arch of his hairline - Family Over Everything. The same tattoos and piercings decorate the left side of Wheeler's face - except for the "$OMM" near his hairline, which stands for Money on My Mind.

Facial tattoos, once largely confined to street gangs, have grown more popular among teens and young adults, who generally have them done by unlicensed artists in private homes, authorities say.

Wheeler, an underground tattoo artist known as "J Artist," loves visual art, got his first tattoo when he was 17 and has been tattooing others for about two years.

Recently, in a basement in Oxford Circle, the buzz of a friend's tattoo gun on a woman's belly provided the soundtrack for Wheeler to discuss face tattoos.

"Mike Tyson, that's what made me want to get a tattoo on my face," Wheeler said.

Struggles with depression and anxiety four years ago left him unable to work, Wheeler said. "I figured another way of getting money is doing something I like to do," he said.

Body art became an addiction, and six years after the first one, Wheeler has gotten 70 tats all over his body - including on his face, neck and inside both ears.

"I did it to be different," he said. "One thing I didn't think about is what happens when I get older."

Lt. John Walker of the Philadelphia Police Southwest Detective Division, said he first saw facial tattoos on gang members in West Philly about five years ago.

"Obviously, these kids want to announce where they're from," Walker said.

The fad has grown to teens and young adults getting tatts as varied as the names of deceased loved ones or dollar signs and spider webs tattooed on their faces and necks, all in the name of creative expression.

But much of it is done outside the laws that govern licensed tattoo parlors, which are subject to health regulations.

"When there's a new trend, it's always some people that try to top everybody else with the most outrageous of them all," said Darryl Williams, a self-taught tattoo artist from West Philadelphia.

Since buying a tattoo kit in December 2010, Williams has been working "under the table," or freelancing, under the name "Dee the Artist." He learned the craft by reading and watching videos on YouTube, and said he recently tattooed a spider and web on a guy's face.

Williams said most young women who get facial tattoos opt for something subtle that can be easily concealed, like a beauty mark or a star.

"But the guys get weird stuff or initials," he said. "They really don't have a real reason."

Tattoo parties

Underage teens, legally barred from getting tattoos without parental consent, often turn to tattoo parties as a cheap alternative to visiting one of Philly's licensed parlors, cops and tattoo enthusiasts say. The gatherings are even popular among adults looking to save some money.

Prices vary by the artist. Wheeler said he'll usually charge $35 to draw a name or words, $40 for a graphic and about $100 for a portrait. But some freelancers charge less, or offer free tattoos to establish a client base.

"When I have a party, I'll be tattin' from whenever it starts till the next day," Wheeler said.

Teens often visit licensed parlors like Dave's Artistic Tattoo in West Philly to get ideas, or to ask how to cover up a tattoo they're having second thoughts about.

"Most of the time, they were f---ed up at a party," said Anthony Cellucci, an apprentice at a parlor on 63rd Street near Market. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, I was getting tattooed by this guy and he had a blunt in his mouth.' "

Those with buyer's remorse who are under 18 usually have to attend another clandestine party or call a freelancer for help.

"You have a lot of mistakes, people coming to parties to get things fixed," said Kumony McFarland, a tattoo artist in Oxford Circle.

McFarland, Cellucci and others pointed to Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and other rappers with face tattoos as possible factors fueling the trend, along with television shows like "LA Ink" and niche magazines centered on body art.

Some young people might get tattoos on their faces to look tough; others do it to be different. Either way, much of the work slams the door on opportunities before many teens and young adults are even exposed to them.

Although no laws prohibit artists in licensed shops from drawing tattoos on their clients' faces, Cellucci and McFarland said most artists who try establishing a good reputation avoid drawing something a client may later regret in places that can't be concealed.

When clients ask about getting facial tattoos, Wheeler usually talks them out of it and asks them to think about how they plan on getting a job.

"If I had the opportunity to work again, I would," he said. "I wouldn't have tattoos on my face."

A lot of young Philadelphians think they have their lives planned out, McFarland said, and are under the false impression that if they make the right moves early they can be their own bosses, regardless of what's drawn on their faces.

"When you're making a decision at 16, it's probably not something you're going to want when you're 25," Cellucci said. "You're making an adult decision in a child's mind."

Some may not be looking far enough into the future to think twice, and others might not care.

"They either don't have a future, or they feel some type of way about themselves," Wheeler said. "And they want other people to notice it."

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