Tattoo You: The New Needle of Hip Hop

posted June 09, 2010 12:00:00 AM CDT | 73 comments

As anybody who follows mainstream Rap and the people who create the leading soundtrack for our Hip Hop culture can confirm, a unique sense of fashion is just as important to the rhyme-sayer as his or her flow. While having the latest footwear and clothing is a plus, many entertainers have found a more personal way of establishing their brand among fans.

Hence the accessory of choice for many an emcee: the tattoo.

A longstanding fixture among Rock artists, the tat has quietly become an extension of a rapper’s image as well as a documented reflection of important experiences in life. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the late Tupac Shakur. With close to 20 tattoos, the rapper/actor’s body became a window into his soul as well as a blueprint for the attitude and imagery surrounding today’s Rap scene.

Translated as “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” Shakur’s abdominal “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” ink took on a life of its own by becoming one with its owner. The immortal Rap icon’s music and lifestyle became the definition of what was on his stomach, which was decorated in 1992. From well-publicized run-ins with the law to outspoken views on various issues to disputes with Rap peers, the public’s perception of a ‘thug’ and all its sides were personified with one name:

Tupac Amaru Shakur.

Goodbye Rock exclusivity. Hello mainstream acceptance of the tattoo within Rap circles. It wasn’t enough for a rapper to possess a way with rhyme and a go-getter attitude. A vehicle for reinforcing what was portrayed in song and the public eye was needed. With the tattoo came the elevation of the arrival of the embattled hardcore Rap star as well as a more personal connection between the artist and the fan.

Like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, tats are one of the best ways for supporters to show love for an entertainer. Whether it’s getting an emcee's name or face tattooed on their body or lyrics to their favorite song branded, fan appreciation can be found on the fans themselves.

Last year, a cult-followed emcee in Cormega, not someone ever considered mainstream, explained to HipHopDX encountering two such dedicated fans: "The most humbled I’ve been is by the fans. I’ve been to California, and I met a Mexican brother, he got something from The Realness [tattooed] across his back. I’m doing a show at B.B. King’s a few years ago, and I met this white girl – I’m talkin’ ‘bout beautiful, and she has one of my quotes tattooed on her foot. I [was shocked]." From GZA to G-Unit, there's plenty of other artists with such fans out there. Sometimes, in warmer months, we see them in the streets.

To put it simply:  A person’s love for their favorite lyricist goes deep.

A fact not lost on rappers who emerge from their crews by making themselves extra noticeable. Sure, the talent and unity are there, but would DMX be just another Ruff Ryder if you never saw tats displaying the love he had for his dog Boomer on his debut It's Dark and Hell is Hot?

What about band-mate Eve? The double R’s “pitbull in a skirt” may stand out with her flow, blond hair, and tattoos on her bicep, shoulder and wrist, but it's the paw prints on her chest that solidify her brand while separating her from other red carpet starlets with markings in the usual places. Additionally, while DaBrat had a similar tattoo, it gave Eve a unique piece of sex appeal against her once-competition of Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina.

And who can count out Busta Rhymes? Armed with Celtic tats on his shoulders and forearms to go with his animated personality and flow, the former Leader of the New School  continues to be the center of attention within his own Flipmode Squad. A definite standout if there ever was one. With the ink dating back to the '90s, perhaps these accents allowed fans to accept watching a Natives Tongues affiliate goofball transition into his more contemporary hustler and "mule kick you in your chest" raps.

While DMX, Eve and Busta will forever rep their respective collectives, it’s their solo adventures on and away from the a mic that keep them on our radar. The tattoos are a bonus. Sort of like medals of honor for navigating the jungle of the music industry.

This brings to mind the current king of the machine: Lil Wayne.

To get into how many tats the New Orleans rep carries would take a whole 'nother article. What can be said is that Lil Wayne could be the second coming of Tupac in light of all the skin art inhabiting his body.

Like his west coast counterpart, each tattoo tells a personal story. Tears representing those who have died or time served in prison, “God Bless” on the neck. “Fear God” on the eyelids. Then, there’s the gun on the palm, the New Orleans symbol on the right ear, the phrase “I am music” that appears in red, the bird on the right shoulder as a salute to his label boss/mentor/ father, Birdman and a homage to his former group, the Hot Boys (the word "hot" on one hand and "boy" on the other hand).

It should be noted that the late '90s/early '00s Cash Money Records group played a key role in Rap's relationship with tattoos. As the early videos will show you, members tattooed their label on their backs and chests. Ironically, by the end of the decade, only Lil Wayne remained a Cash Money artist - as B.G., Juvenile, Turk and Mannie Fresh all defected, citing bad business as reasoning. The deed however led many artists and labels to copy this trend. From G-Unit to Shady, new rappers often don their employer in permanent ink as a sign of loyalty and promise. This often ends ominously though, just ask Game.

No doubt, tats representing a rapper’s  group or close circle of associates are a plus. Say what you will about the misspelled "Slaughterhouse" tattoo on Crooked I’s arm, but the west coast rhyme slinger is 100% committed to the four-man lyrical super group - even if the first ‘h’ in Slaughterhouse was missing.

Professional motivation aside, tattoos are personal business. Look at Eminem, who always has his daughter, Hailie Jade, with him via a large portrait tattoo of her on his upper right arm, complete with surrounding roses and the name of a song dedicated to his pride and joy (“Bonnie & Clyde”) underneath it.

The Detroit lyricist's love for Hailie can also be found on the back of his lower right arm with a name tattoo, “Hailie Jade.” According to reports, the tat was added the day Hailie was born. Go to Eminem’s upper left arm and family is represented again with a tat honoring the man who introduced him to Hip Hop, his deceased uncle, Ronnie Pilkington.

Just as easy is it to express love, rappers have no problem putting their hate in tat form.

Eminem’s ex-wife, Kim Mathers, has been on the receiving end of many a diss from her former spouse. So is it any surprise the Oscar-winner would reportedly take his disdain for Kim to a new level after a fight by getting her name and an open grave tattooed on his stomach with the words “Rot in Pieces?”

Love is truly a fickle thing.

For better or worse, Nas’ tattoo of Kelis on his forearm was a unique look at the then- apple of his eye in all her topless glory. Little did he know the body art would be a wasted effort. The couple eventually called it quits after a little more than five years of marriage and is currently engaged in a public divorce. According to reports, Nas has altered the art with a new head - that of a lion.

The moral of the story: Be careful when using your body to voice your love, appreciation or loyalty for royalties.

Canibus takes it in an even weirder direction. He can attest to this as his admiration for LL Cool J’s microphone tattoo reportedly caused the end of the pair’s brief alliance and ignited their infamous beef during the late ‘90s. The pair met when Cool J invited Canibus to rhyme with him, DMX, Method Man and Redman on the classic song “4,3,2,1.”

According to RapCentral.com, Canibus asked LL if he would mind if he got a microphone tattooed on his arm just like his then-idol. Mr. Smith jokingly responded that Canibus should only get a microphone tat if he truly felt he was worthy to get it. The conversation resulted in Canibus’ original “4,3,2,1” verse that included the following line:

"Yo L, is that a mic on your arm? Let me borrow that!"

Although Canibus said the remark was meant as a show of respect, Cool J took it as a diss and used it as the motivation for his “4,3,2,1” verse, which closed the song. Canibus later confronted the Rap veteran about his verse, which led to a promise from both parties to change their respective parts. Canibus re-recorded his verse without the microphone tat line, while Cool J’s verse remained on the song unchanged.

And the rest is Beef history. All over a tattoo.

Body art may not have been the root of the beef between Game and 50 Cent, but it was used to drive home Game’s falling out with his former rhyme affiliate. Located on the Black Wall Street leader’s left elbow next to his Hurricanes logo tat , the G-Unot tattoo was a spur of the moment decision made in the midst of spearheading a movement against 50 Cent and his G-Unit crew.

“When I got that tat done, that’s just how I was feeling that day,” the rapper confessed to Inked magazine. “Whatever I’m feeling on a given day is just how it fucking is. I’m day-by-day.”

To say that Game’s body art is there just to be there would do the rapper a disservice. His ink count totals more than 50 and represents everything from his son to his beloved L.A. Dodgers/west coast allegiance to deceased Rap legends.

Like tattoos displaying various aliases and acknowledgment of family and close friends, many rappers use the ink on their bodies to highlight their love of God. The shoulder serves as the perfect location for Bow Wow’s "Prayer of Jabez" tat as well as the praying hands found on Atlanta rhymesayer Ludacris.

“You wake up, and you go to sleep, and you thank God for everything you have,“ Luda said about his tattoo.

For Nelly, it’s more a connection with certain people in the good book. Bearing the name of Moses on his right arm, the St. Lunatic revealed the Biblical leader’s story is something he can relate to “as far as leading people out.”

"Servants of God" may be Nelly’s choice, but his contemporaries have found other ways of getting their religious point across. Nas has Psalm 23:4 scripture tattooed on his forearm in a scroll, while Sean “Diddy” Combs doesn’t mince words with a neck tat that reads “God’s Child.”         

All in all, religious tats are a small part of the total body art gallery found on various emcees. Lil Wayne may be the most obvious contender for Shakur’s tat crown, but there are a few other heirs to the throne.

With close to 80% of his body tatted up, Wiz Khalifa is a viable candidate. So much so, the rapper proclaimed himself as “the king of ink,” in a 2009 interview with YouHeardThatNew.com.

“I am the king of ink when it comes to this shit. There’s nobody with more tattoos than me except for maybe like two or three people,” the rapper stated. “… there will be no one with more ink than me. So ink and tatted that’s perfect. I gotta do that.”

 That could be true, but it’s hard to deny multi-tatted competitors like Soulja Boy, Birdman, Game and Rick Ross, who boasts former US Presidents on his chest and legendary figures such as comedian Richard Pryor on his stomach.

Not to be outdone are burgeoning Rap vocalists Cashis and Tyga. While Cashis sports everything from a smoking skull to a giant eye and hand to a message (“You Die Slow”), Tyga keeps his torso rooted in a large tat portrait of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross with “Fear None But God” covering his chest above angel wings.

The tat is one of more than 30 found on the Young Money rapper, who started getting skin art done on him at age 14 and has half his body covered in tattoos. Last year, Lil Wayne made his own contribution to the entertainer’s tattoo collection by giving Tyga a face tattoo in 2009.

Tyga's tattoos may carry weight in rhyme arenas, but what happens when the rapper ventures outside music to make a mark in other realms?

If you're 50 Cent , that means shedding your tats for greener pastures in the world of film. Media sources report the G-Unit general's decision to remove the tattoos from his arms last year was made to help secure more movie roles.

In April that same year, Pharrell Williams opted to get rid of most of his tattoos. The motivation behind getting off the tat train came not with being ready for a close-up, but more with knowing it’s time for a change  as the producer looked beyond his wallet to see the benefit of going back to a life without tattoos.

"…fuck it, it's worth it,” Williams told the Daily Mirror in 2008. “I got fire on my arms, I don't need fire on my arms! I'm a grown man."

Pharrell may have a point. As much an eye catcher as they are, will small and large tattoos still reside on the body of a rap star that transitions into an elder state of mind? That could well depend on the emcee.

No matter what, Hip Hop is marked for life. Past, present and future. Temporary and permanent. Tats are the new bling. Hate it or love it.  

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