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The Social Implications of Neck Tattoos

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I woke up this morning with the weary perception that life may have changed — or at least the way that I look or am perceived could have. A painful twist of the head confirmed this: I had the remaining facets of my neck tattooed the day before. Three new pieces now covered both sides and front of my neck, the back of it having been previously tattooed in Bangkok in 2005.

I have tattoos that stretch down my arms, hands, fingers, over my torso, down my legs to the floor, and have even have a medium sized aka-oni on the back of my neck, but, somehow, having a couple of sparrows and a banner etched upon the front and sides of my neck seems to have been taken as some sort of extreme act of tattooing. I thought it was standard operating procedure: I am already heavily and visibly tattooed, what does it matter now if the tattoos extend all the way over my neck?

My tattooed wife thought different, “I don’t like neck tattoos,” she complained. My poor mother takes neck tattoos as being something septic. I just thought that tattooing my neck would be taken without much notice or care from the people who wager large in my life — everything else on me is tattooed anyway. I thought wrong. The full tattooing of the front and sides of the neck, perhaps like the face, seems to provoke some sort of deep, instinctual impulse in many people. I’ve noticed the reaction.

But I cannot say that this was my intention. Collect enough tattooing and eventually it will crawl up over your neck. As I travel, as I grow in life, tattooing increasingly claims new territory on my exterior. In this way, tattooing my neck was as natural and no bigger of a decision than tattooing my legs, arms, or hands. It is the full project that matters — the complete collection, you could say — and the visible areas of my body, not just the ones can be tucked under a shirt or pair of long pants, are a part of this. I take whatever consequences that my come with a touch of pride.

Neck tattooed at Garage Ink, Mexico City

I laid upon the table of Jesus in Garage Ink, a tattoo studio in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City. He pinned down my head like I was his opponent in a Mexican wrestling match. With his elbow solidly holding my head in submission, one hand pushing down hard and stretching the skin on my neck, and the other hand on the tattooing machine, Jesus put on the three traditional pieces in under two hours.

“How many necks have you tattooed before?” my wife asked Jesus.

“Around ten or fifteen,” was his answer. Tattooed necks are becoming increasingly more popular, especially in Mexico — which, in my opinion, is one of the modern tattoo epicenters of the world.

Neck tattoo designs

In my opinion, I have probably observed more obtuse or otherwise terrible tattoos on people’s necks than almost anywhere else on the body. In point, the neck seems to be a difficult area to place tattoos that move within the natural curvature of the body, and many designs simply cannot be placed there.

I have looked at the shape of my neck for many years with the purpose of finding a tattoo design for it that would flow with its natural contours. This was no easy task, the neck is a complicated area to place a picture: it is a crooked rectangle-like space that can be moved in many directions. There are four planes to the neck: back, two sides, and throat, all of which can be moved up and down and side to side. In point, the neck is one of the most movable areas of the body, and a tattoo placed there must take this into account. The space on the neck is also limited by other contending body spheres: the jaw, back of the head, shoulders, back, and nape. These other body parts greatly limit the liberty of a tattoo placed on the neck area.

Sparrow tattoo

Taking these limiting factors into account, I knew that I needed a design for my neck that would flow in a diagonal direction, moving downwards and towards the front, and would be simple enough to tell what it was at a distance — along with being something that I aesthetically appreciated. I also wanted a design that just about any person from just about any culture could identify easily without having an associated meaning spring from it. I do not want strangers squinting their eyes and scrunching up their faces as they lean in to inspect my neck. I also do not want to incite a riot because some excitable locals misinterpret one of my tattoo motifs — which actually nearly happened once in India when I was surrounded in the street by a group of locals who thought that the tattoo on the back of my neck was a devil.

The neck is a billboard. Perhaps the only place where a tattoo is more obvious is the forehead.

I travel perpetually, I interact with various cultures in the world on a daily basis, and I know that many of them have no qualms about satiating their curiosity by sticking their face directly into my own, making assumptions, and broadcasting them to anyone near enough to hear. I also know that many cultures — particularly in small villages — have the tendency to operate as mobs: a misconstrued tattoo could put me in troubling circumstances.

I have an oni — a character from Japanese folklore tattooed on the back of my neck. I know what the design is of, Japanese people do as well, but I did not take into account that in other cultural settings this tattoo looks like a devil. Getting this piece done in red in sealed the deal: the tattoo on the back of my neck is of a devil, not a character from Japanese folklore, in most cultural settings that I find myself in. This misinterpretation can be dangerous. In India, the people seemed to think that I was some sort of demon.

For the sides and front of my neck, I knew I wanted a simple design, something that everyone in the world — without regard to culture or place of origin — could tell what it was with a simple glance, something that would not provoke questions, that did not carry any potentially sensitive cultural meanings. I looked no further than traditional American motifs — old sailor images, old traveler tattoos.

Sparrow tattoo on neck


For 12 years straight I have been traveling, and the word. I found the word “Nomad” to be suiting enough to place upon a banner running across my throat. On both sides of this banner are sparrows — tattoos that are traditionally said to be earned when a sailor crosses the Tropic of Cancer, though today have a meaning that does not extend much deeper than the aesthetic. I have birds in flight tattooed all over me: perhaps there is a reason for this.

Social impacts and finding work

If you are planning to climb the fortune 500 ladder, a neck scrawled with letters and images is not going to work in your favor. If you work in any sort of professional capacity, tattooing outside of the shirt line is going to be a major disadvantage. This is especially true if seeking work in a country outside of the USA, Canada, Europe, or Australia. Tattooing in a shear sign of class in many cultures, and it is truly not indicative of professionalism. I must admit that my heavy tattooing does limit my employment options when traveling abroad.

But even if I was wiped clean of tattoos, I would still not work in the professional setting. I dislike teaching English, and I almost welcome my limited potential to return to this line of employment. I generally work for myself as I travel — I run vagabondjourney.com and pen articles for various publications. I am also multi-skilled and employable in a wide range of fields, and, even with visible tattooing, I have always still been able to find work when needed.

Though I am honest with myself, I know that in most cases extensive tattooing is not particularly advantageous in terms of landing formal employment — especially abroad. In large part, visible tattooing has encouraged me to live creatively, and to work on small businesses and projects that I start up and run myself. I am not only self-employed by preference, but because I know that some of the most available work options abroad are limited for me because I chose to tattoo my hands, fingers, and neck.

Conclusion

I set out in the autumn of 1999 to tattoo my entire body, and my neck is part of it. I knew this was my intention from the start, so my hands were tattooed rather early on in the process, the back of my neck soon followed, and my fingers later received the ink. As I continue working on my body suit of tattoos from around the world, I am seeing the project come together. I have been tattooed by 36 artists in 11 countries and 7 US states. To date, I have spent 173 hours being tattooed. My head and face are perhaps the next frontier, but I will leave this for my next phase of tattooing.

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Filed under: Art and Music, Tattoo

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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