At last, the lip tattoo: new space for an intimate thought
Nigel Peyton has long had a penchant for body art. He has Chinese script writing, a yin and yang symbol and numerous family dedications all over his body: 25 tattoos in all. He’s also pierced his nipples, ears and penis. One day, about two months ago, Peyton decided to decorate a little more by marking the phrase "VA 804" on the inside of his lower lip.
“I got it because I love Virginia,” said the 22-year-old professional body piercer, who also has a smiley face and the phrase "Welcome to 2007" on his tongue. “I wanted to do something different from everyone else.”
Well, it’s not that different. Lots of people are getting the inside of their lower lips etched in a spot where only intimates, and certainly not parents, peek, according to several artists and tattoo aficionados.
“It’s definitely something that’s becoming more and more popular,” said Brad Buehrly, the owner of the Lucky 13 parlor in Richmond, Va. “It’s a good way of getting a tattoo and it not being visible.”
Clients often have four-letter words referencing anatomical actions written on the inside of their lips as a way to quietly object to authority. But increasingly, Buehrly said, tamer vocabulary has sneaked in. Words like “goofy,” “thug life” and “love” are now just as common. Pictures are rare, because there’s just not enough real estate in the mouth for that.
The secrecy is a large part of the appeal, said Steve Redone, an artist at Fun City Tattoo in the East Village of Manhattan. He noted that he had never done lips on anyone older than 25. “Young people want the satisfaction of knowing they have a tattoo without getting one on the outside of their body,” he said.
To brand the inside of the mouth, a tattoo artist folds back the lower lip to reveal the pink, fleshy area that abuts the teeth. With a needle in hand, the ink starts to flow. There is no pain medication, and the agony can last 10 minutes.
“As far as pain, it’s out there,” Buehrly said. “There’s no anesthetic. We’re not doctors.”
Because they are inside the human mouth, these decorations often don’t last too long. About 40 percent of lip art will fade after a year, according to Kevin Leblanc, a tattoo artist in Toms River, N.J. That’s because the cells in the mouth regenerate faster than those on the external skin.
“The skin in there, it’s just all fatty tissue,” he said. Sometimes when the artwork is administered, the ink just sinks into the flesh and puddles, or runs out into a client’s mouth, he said.
A typical lip job can cost $50 to $125 and is just as safe as a tattoo on any other body part, said Redone of Fun City.
Yet others, namely medical professionals, disagree.
Lip tattoos that don’t heal properly could potentially lead to hepatitis, general infection and nerve damage, said Dr. Shane Methal, who teaches dentistry at New York University.
“The mucosa lining of the mouth is even more delicate than the inside of your eyelid,” Methal said. “Now, the risk is not substantial, but there's a potential.”
Dr. Matthew Messina, a spokesman for the American Dental Association, took a similarly cautious approach.
“I’m struggling to find a benefit of it,” he said of lip art. “If the ink is not sterile, then there’s going to be an entry point for bacteria into the mouth.”
The trend toward lip tattoos actually began in the animal world. The Jockey Club, the governing body for thoroughbred racing, requires lip markings to identify horses. Cows and sheep are sometimes tattooed inside the mouth instead of being branded on the rump, Buehrly said.
For humans, of course, the appeal goes beyond identification, although there are some who like to share their private markings with the public.
“When you’re drinking in a bar and feeling frisky,” Buehrly said, “you can pop it out and show it off.”
Peggy Punch, a shop assistant at Fun City Tattoo, has a four-letter expletive and the word “off” on the inside of her lip, a phrase she says she employs quite frequently.
“It’s my favorite saying,” said the purple-haired Punch, 26, who has lost count of the number of tattoos she has acquired over the years. “I just say it a lot.”
Punch is proud of the fact that after four years and two ink applications, the words are still in place inside her mouth.
“God forbid my lip gets cut off, then it’ll be gone,” she said. “But I don’t think that will happen.”