Tattooed Teardrops: The Tragedy of The Tattoo Fad in Hip-Hop

African American, Culture, Music & Hip-Hop, Uncategorized

Tattooed Teardrops: The Tragedy of The Tattoo Fad in Hip-Hop

I have worked with young people ages 15 to 21 who are involved in the criminal justice system for the past four years. During this time, I have noticed an alarming and increasingly popular trend not only in the culture of Hip-Hop, professional sports and television but on the skin of the young people I work with, tattoos.

Despite not having any tattoos, I support the idea of individulaity and self-expression. However, my concern is that teenagers are getting these tattoos without considering the long-term implications there ink will have on the way they are perceived in our society.

Some of the tattoos I have seen on the youth I work with in the past four years have included numerous tattooed teardrops, which historically signified that you killed someone, even though the youth typically explain that their teardrops are for ‘lost loved ones.’ I have seen youth tattoo their hands with words like, ‘Certified Goon’, ‘Real Shit’, ‘Not a Goon But a Ghost’, and many other street idioms.

One of the most memorable tattoos was worn by a slender light skinned African-American who was only 16 year old. His most prominent tattoo covered his entire neck and read ‘215 – Killadelphia’ a salute to the city of Philadelphia and its reputation for brotherly slugs. The tattoo was replete with buildings in the background and two small handguns on each end of the tattoo firing bullets towards the lettering. This tattoo was definitely an interesting piece of art but the problem was that I would expect to see this type of art on a 40 year old ex-con or a inmate on MSNBC’s ‘Lockup’. Instead I am seeing this type tattoo on a young men and women who have not even matured through adolescence yet but who will undoubtedly have to bear the burden of their decision to be ‘inked’ for the rest of their lives.

It should not be a mystery to anyone that people with tattoos are discriminated against in our society and typically have a more difficult time finding employment, especially in jobs where they are required to interact with the public. Should employers discriminate against people with tattoos? I would say no, they should not but I also understand that employers have to make good business decisions and hiring someone with tattoos on their face, hands, neck and fingers could cause customers and/or coworkers to be intimidated. These young people don’t have millions of dollars and jobs in entertainment which could ameliorate any discrimination they may indeed face.

I have searched the Internet looking for interesting articles on the rise of the tattoo culture in Hip-Hop and I have not been able to find much out there. I do believe that the Tattoo culture began increasing in popularity in the Hip-Hop generation in the late 1990s with artists like Tupac, DMX, and C-Murder to name a few. I also beleive that Allen Iverson, who entered the NBA in 1996 with only a handful of tattoos but within a couple of years was tatted from head to toe. Allen Iverson started a trend that many other professional athletes would eventually adopt. Nowadays, you cannot watch a college or professional game without seeing tattoos on display including on stars like, LeBron James. In Hip-Hop you have also seen a rise in the tattoo fad with artists like Lil Wayne, the Game, Baby, Wiz Khalifa and Gucci Mane all displaying tattoos in the most visible of places, especially their faces. There art is now being featured in magazines like, Urban Ink, that targets young people of color.

Getting tattoos has also become much easier with tattooing equipment being sold on eBay and other stores online, many young people are forgoing traditional tattoo shops and apprenticeship schools to become amateur tattoo artist, working for a fraction of the cost of licensed tattoo artists . According to the youth I work with, they are regularly invited to ‘tattoo parties’ where the cost of admission is minimal and amateur, possibly unsanitary, and oftentimes shoddyy tattoos are administered. For around $30 or less they can get large and prominent tattoos that immediately bolster their street credibility and self-esteem. These types of ‘tattoo parties’ make it difficult for parents to prevent their children from getting tattoos because no parental consent forms are necessary and the tattoos are seen as something cool and normal because so many of the young people’s idols have them.

This trend has impacted the lives of countless youngsters, who without much critical thought have decided to’ ink’ their hands, arms and faces with tattoos with questionable and antisocial messages. This trend is not isolated to males either because I have also seen a rise in the occurance of young females getting visible tattoos as well. What are the long term implications for these young people? How will they be able to overcome the sterotypes inherent in the tattoos they now adorn? How will they get highly sought after jobs? Have they given up on traditional forms of employment? Do they understand the impact their tattoos will have on their lives? With tattoo removal processes being costly and often times ineffective, these questions have no easy answers and given the permanence of tattoos and their increasing popularity there will undoubtedly be long term repercussions for thousands of young people who are following this trend.

Young African-American and Latino youth have so many challenges facing them in terms of access to quality education, community violence, abuse and neglect, the lure of the drug trade, poverty, single parent households, parental abandonment, disproportionate incarceration rates, high rates of unemployment, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, etc. It seems that a significant segment of these young people have resigned to forgo entry into the professional and academic world to battle for their rights and have opted instead, to wear their dismay at our society in their bold and prominent ink. I believe they are rebelling in a self-destructive and self-limiting way, even though I empathize with them and admire of their creativity and rebelliousness. I believe this form of creativity and rebellion is short sighted and problematic. Young people must begin to think critically about the cultural trend of tattooing and ‘think before they get that ink.’

Below is a YouTube video in which hip-hop entrepreneur, Master P, speaks on on this issue. Above you will also find a gallery of images of individuals who have chosen to wear their ink in bold ways, highlighting the points mentioned in this post. What are your thoughts on this issue? What can be done to protect young people from making costly decisions that will follow them for years to come? Leave a comment or share this article.

Master P Speaks on the Issue of Tattoos in Hip-Hop


23 thoughts on “Tattooed Teardrops: The Tragedy of The Tattoo Fad in Hip-Hop

  1. “How will they get highly sought after jobs? Have they given up on traditional forms of employment?”

    If you read the headlines, you’d realize even the most talented college graduates can’t get those jobs, assuming they exist. Everything is about ‘becoming an entrepreneur’ (which is a tell-tale sign that the original mode of economics has failed). It’s hard to convince people to think about their future when they see that even privileged races and classes don’t have a future.

    1. Steve thanks for checking out the post. I have to disagree with your first point about “most talented college graduates can’t get those jobs”. I think they can get a good job, or a decent one and move up when the opportunity presents itself. Second point, you are right on the money with it, we must become entrepreneurs, creators and innovators. We must also be optimists because pessimism makes you not even try your hardest. I think American has a great future and so does our world!

  2. I think that tattoos in hip hop are getting completely out of hand, especially after seeing Gucci Mane get a tattoo of an ice cream cone on his face. It scares me to think that young people of color may go out and try to emulate this behavior without thinking about the future consequences. It is already hard enough for people of color to gain employment in certain fields. These young people do not need to make it harder on themselves. I support creativity and tattoos but I want people to think about the placement of these tattoos before they get them. I have one and plan to get a few more but seeing that I want to teach at a university I know that all of my tattoos have to be in places that can be easily covered with clothes.

    1. Toya thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! You are right on the money. Its not about creative expression but its about mitigating oppression. Why make it harder on ourselves by choice. Nonetheless, maybe as America diversifies and develops, maybe we’ll have to stop blaming white folks for being the ones with the craziest tattoos and piercings. Maybe we’ll take over the arena of craziness too! When I saw some of the photos though. I really wanted to laugh but it is not funny and I actually feel for these folks, because one, or in some cases many, poor decisions can limit your potential for career advancement. Who wants to be ostracized. This is why the Hip-Hop generation needs more mentors, counselors, teachers, fathers etc. One young man I know said the teens are getting the tattoos so they can get more girls and some girls want a ‘bad boy’ with tattoos. I have to stay encouraged but I tell these young men with prominent tats that they are going to have to have the best social skills, credentials and character to overcome the stereotypes on their skin! Thanks again Toya!

  3. I didn’t receive any information about these excess of tattoos in youth here, but what is normal in Brazil too is tattoos with a meaning in the criminal life. The decision of to do a tattoo is certainly personal and shouldn’t influence these people life, but unfortunatelly we live in a world where appearences are really important. I really think is necessaire to do a job with those kids that can make them more conscious about this kind of issue. I just don’t know how is the best way to do it.

    1. Yeah Daniela I didn’t notice too many outrageous tattoos in Brazil but I’m sure with how much Brazil looks to the US and Hip-Hop especially for trends and fads you will begin to see some of this. Hopefully, you wont though. The young people tend not to think about the long term consequences until they are already inked up. Its never too late and no one should give up on their future no matter what’s on their skin! We do have to be mindful that we cannot blindly follow what our Hip-Hop superstars are doing. The first step is to raise the people’s consciousness which you are already doing! The second step is to show them how to rebel the right way not in self-destructive ways! The third step is to get your priorities straight…would you rather have a Lexus or Justice a Dream or some substance, a necklace a Beemer (BMW) or Freedom! Education is the key!

  4. girls love tats that’s why the fad got out of hand…dudes (especially the youth) will do anything for vajayjay and instead of a way to express yourself in an artistic way it’s become a way to bait women…that might be a good reason why men are more likely to get them in more visible areas…

    1. B, you are so right I have had heavily tatted young people explain that they got these tats to impress girls. They said it was all about image. These young people need to learn that women will respect you if you respect yourself. Unfortunately some girls like the thug image and think it cute. What do you think can be done to reverse type of thinking in young ladies?

      1. I believe that the attractive component to this issue is surface level. Why does it seem that women and men alike find this attractive? I think that our culture, through mediums you have brought to attention, has normalized the idea of body art/ modification. As you have said, young people, although I would add older as well, have enough going against them. To name a few, fatherless and/or motherless homes, unemployment, high incarceration, and your list goes on. Although people of color have made remarkable strides, how many of those successful POC’s are getting national and even international attention? How many of them would I allow my son and/or daughter to emulate? The question is less about what girls/boys think is attractive. The real question is why? If young POC’s are generally lacking father/mother figures or positive role models, they will ultimately acquire the skill set from the media. This is where normalization comes into play. If the majority of the young people in their networks are all pulling from the same source- music videos, television shows, movies, etc. then these formats become more than just media. These formats become their parents, role models and guidance counselors. So in answer to your last question, I think that instead of trying to reverse this type of thinking in young ladies and men alike, we should be showing them that there are other options, other forms of attractiveness, that if they can learn to logically prioritize they will be far better in the long haul. This education should start at home. As parents, educators, friends, cousins, or in whatever capacity we are connected with the youth, we must assume a responsibility to actually talk with the youth and not “to” the youth. We need to teach media literacy at younger ages, be that adult that the youth can call role models, but above all, we must also recognize and analyze our own biases and prejudices. That is so very important.

  5. I have given alot of thought to the extreme tattoos that are becoming a part of mainstream culture. The future choices are limited for these individuals but I don’t know if you can qualify their tattoos as the major factor. These individuals come from communities where their opportunities are limited. The bond they hold with the family members, friends, and slogans tattooed on their bodies outweighs that which they share with corporate America. Instead of looking at corporate America as a savior,the relationship is looked at by today’s hip-hop youth as adversarial except when they are ready to be consumers.

    1. Chris I think you made a number of very valid and insightful points about the tattoo fad and the relationship between many disaffected young people and corporate society. You are right that these young people come from marginalized communities that often lack access to strong educational institutions and job opportunities. The tattoos are oftentimes a reflection of their values and friendships and yes, their future prospects have been impacted by society before they decided to ink themselves, however, the tragedy of the ink is that should at some point they decide to participate in our nations corporate and professional society their appearance will add an additional barrier to their empowerment, which is so critically needed. You also make an important point about the adversarial view of corporate society except in terms of consumerism, which is a good point. I think that the tattoo fad itself could also be seen as an outgrowth of this consumerism and materialism that corporate america has marketed to our youth. Would the tattoo fad be what it is if it wasn’t for TV shows like Miami and LA Ink or the glamorized photos of entertainers with tattoos? Maybe the proliferation of tattoos is a sign that the corporate and entertainment world are continuing to mislead our youth, who sacrifice their futures to besupportive momentarily cool. These neighborhoods that are disadvantaged educationally have dealt with these circumstances for years but the churches and mosques have provided rich amounts of support despite theproject societal neglect. Are these great institutions losing their foothold as corporate America markets this secular and materialistic culture to our youth? I appreciate the discussion let’s keep it going!

  6. This was a good conversation. I have much to say about it, the underlying thoughts and realities but that would take an article that I do not have the inclination nor inspiration to write at the moment. I have written extensively on the good and bad of black life and life here in AmeriKKKa but will not publish it here as this is not my forum. It is, however my hope that you will continue to publish relevant, thoughtful, insight-filled articles such as these.

    1. Thanks for the comment it is appreciated. Visible tattoo is a critical issue facing the youth of America. More importantly, this is an issue particularly prepared to negatively impact young lives of color and economically marginalized communities more significantly than any other segments of society. It is hoped that with more dialogue and discussion social norms can truly become more compromising and understanding of today’s youth culture, which is as rebellious as any youth culture has ever been. The question of importance here is, what makes today’s trend of more visible tattoos more significant than fads of the past and even more recent times? Also, will society becoming more tolerant of an already marginalized people and will our community begin a dialogue to seriously discuss the implications the color of our ink will have on the color of our future.

      Check this link, where Drake discusses Lil’Wayne’s admonishing and advising him not to get a tattoo and to be mindful and appreciative of his image and staying himself.

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