For today's youth, tattoos have more or less always been visible. The constellation tattoo on your local barista's wrist or the detailed botanical thigh piece on your best friend are a far cry from the loaded countercultural signifiers they once were, favored largely, as they were, by those outside of professional or public spheres: artists, bikers, those who have been incarcerated, and of course, tattoo artists themselves.
Yet while tattoos feel more normal each year, their subject matter, and even more so their placement, continue to carry loaded social significance. Consider the difference between a flower etched onto a bicep versus a lower back, an inner thigh, or — most visible of all — the neck.
Perhaps it has something to do with the pain involved in tattooing such a delicate, bony area. Perhaps it's because tattoos above the shoulder are harder to cover. Perhaps it's because they, along with face tattoos, just have a reputation as bad, even dangerous, on account of their popularity among gang members and prisoners. (One such iteration is the teardrop tattoo placed under the eye, which can symbolize years spent incarcerated, the murder of a loved one, or even the number of people the wearer has killed.) So how does one explain the recent rise in neck tattoos' popularity?
"We used to call them job stoppers," says JonBoy of New York City's Bang Bang Tattoo, whose dainty, delicate fine line style has attracted increasing numbers of clients seeking neck tattoos, including high-level professionals in the fashion and entertainment industries like Hailey Baldwin, Halsey and Ashley Graham. "You weren't allowed to get your neck tattooed until you basically had your whole body tattooed," he says of the olden days — which came to an end as recently as a few years ago. Indeed, it was only in 2015 that beauty writer Jane Marie of former Jezebel property Millihelen was refused a tattoo on her neck by New York artist Dan Bythewood and called it out, sparking a controversial debate over the honor codes of tattooing and clearly marking a generational divide within the scene.
The tattoos of today are so different than they once were: lines are finer, imagery is softer, and as workplaces become more relaxed, the rules begin to drop away. "In the 18 years I've done this, I've always been told that neck tattoos were trashy, but it wasn't until I started doing these small fine line tattoos where people started to realize, 'Oh, this can look cute, and this can look sophisticated, as long as you do it right,'" JonBoy says.
For JonBoy, it started with Sofia Richie, who requested the word "clarity" a few inches below her left ear. "She was so young, and breaking into the modeling industry," he remembers. "I was like, 'are you sure?' and she was like, 'yeah, of course, I just want it super small in print letters.'" The delicacy of the lettering, the size and placement of the tattoo look undeniably at home on the model's slender neck. From there, the powers of Instagram took over, and the trend was set.
In addition, the newest class of internet famous rappers, including Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage and the late Lil Peep, offer plenty of ink inspiration for the young, fashion-forward population. And what could be easier than a neck tattoo like JonBoy's? "You're not getting some giant neck piece and sitting for hours in the chair. It can take 15, 20 minutes. Plus, there's makeup out there, where you can cover it up if you really need to."
All this may make a compelling case in the trend's favor, but making the decision to get tattooed on one's neck or face must be done carefully and with greater attention paid to skin care, since the skin there is especially prone to age and sun damage. Dr. Jessica Weiser, a dermatologist specializing in cancer prevention and anti-aging at the Flatiron district's swanky New York Dermatology Group, stresses that proper placement is key in tattooing the neck: "The face, neck, and décolletage are some of the most frequently sun exposed and sun damaged skin sites and are also prone to sagging or laxity, and therefore have a high risk of tattoo fading, drooping and changing over time."
Weiser also notes the placement of a tattoo on the neck is crucial and must be handled by an experienced artist — one like JonBoy, for instance, who is happy to take his time deciding where a tattoo needs to be. "Obviously you don't want to do something that's going to blur out when the person starts to wrinkle, but you also have to think about the healing period, when the person's going to be twisting and turning and moving around. For me, it's also aesthetic — just stepping back and seeing how it looks from a few feet away and making sure it looks like it belongs. I make sure that it's 100 percent correct, even if I have to put down the stencil 50 times."
In the long term, Dr. Weiser recommends above all that recipients follow proper moisturizing and sun protective routines every single day. Immediately after getting tattooed, however, the doctor sides with the artist: "To prevent fading and maintain tattoo condition and quality, it is crucial to follow the artist's immediate aftercare instructions to minimize scabbing and flaking of skin." According to JonBoy, each artist has their own way (his involves a transparent, non-porous bandage to be left on for five days), but they all seem to share a few things in common: keep it clean, keep it moisturized, and keep it out of the sun. Dr. Weiser also recommends against tattooing over any existing moles or lesions so as not to interfere with annual skin checks.
A neck tattoo may, of course, still fade. "It's just the nature of skin. When you look at an 80 year old man who has war tattoos, it's definitely blurred out," JonBoy says. "But at the same time, I feel like technology has changed and the needles have changed and people are using really quality ink, so it's all in the application."
Indeed, just about everything about tattooing has changed — even the fact of their permanence. As tattooing technology evolves, so does removal, which is one of Dr. Weiser's most popular procedures, performed with lasers. Removing a tattoo from the delicate skin of the neck may take more sessions at lower levels and must be done carefully, but one thing is certain: Deciding to get a tattoo today is a different kind of choice than it's ever been. And the choice is yours to make.