According to this amusing diagram in Cracked, facial tattoos mean “I will never have a job that pays taxes.”  Many economists would presumably insist, “It’s not causal.  The kind of people who tattoo their faces just have low productivity.”  I admit that selection is part of reason why people with face tattoos rarely make the big bucks.  But I bet that a lot of the effect is causal: A tattoo signals low productivity – and the market penalizes you accordingly, even if you’re the high-productivity exception than proves the low-productivity rule.  Ponder the following thought experiment:

On your 18th birthday, your worst enemy slips something in your drink, then tattoos your face.  You’re too chicken to get the tattoo removed.  Question: How much would this tattoo affect the present value of your lifetime earnings? 

Remember to account for the effects on your occupational options, compensation, promotions, and unemployment.  Plus any additional channels that come to mind.  Can you really keep a straight face and say that a prominent, scary facial tattoo would reduce the present value of your lifetime earnings by less than 25%?