Athlete tattoos: The world of unoriginal thought

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Once upon a time, tattoos stood for something. They were rebellious; angry, even. They were worn by bikers and bouncers and tough guys, and they screamed, “Don’t f#$% with me!” Whenever my mother saw someone with a tattoo, she would whisper to me, “I think he’s one of my probationers.” (Note: This was not in any way racial. My mother was a probation officer in 99.9%-white Putnam County, N.Y.).

Then, the NBA came along in the 1990s and—BOOM!—tattoos changed. They were no longer unique; no longer made statements of originality. In fact, it was just the opposite. Tattoos became incredibly unoriginal. ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME and ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE became ubiquitous slogans atop backs and biceps. Tom Gugliotta got that ridiculous barbed wire around his bicep, and dozens of others followed suit. Even though basketball is, come day’s end, merely a game played with a rounded piece of rubberized skin and a metal rim, ballers started tattooing odes to the sport everywhere. Balls atop balls atop balls; NBA insignias; etc. Before long, you were an outcast in the NBA if you didn’t have a tattoo. Two tattoos. Three tattoos. Twenty tattoos.

Then, it spread everywhere. Because we are a species akin to sheep, people saw all the cool NBA guys donning tatts, and they had to get some, too. So now most NFL players have tattoos—usually inane “tribal markings” to accentuate their steroid-enhanced muscles. They’ll have the Chinese symbols for STRENGTH and COURAGE—not realizing that the illiterate tattoo artist from Urbana, Ill. mistakingly wrote SNOT and I LOVE SEX WITH ELK MUFFINS.

The whole tatt insanity really hit me a few weeks ago, when I strolled around Sesame Place with my wife and kids and saw tattoos upon tattoos upon tattoos. There was Snoopy slugging a beer and Barney Rubble shooting pool. There was Gene Simmons’ bloody face and a lightning bolt splitting a tree. Tatts upon tatts upon tatts—all in an unoriginal search for originality.

Every so often, I’ve considered getting a tattoo myself. My great-grandmother died in a concentration camp, and I thought it’d be righteous to find her camp number and affix it somewhere on my body. “What better way to remember the Holocaust?” I told my wife. “I’ll think about it all the time.”

My wife, a wise woman, was unmoved.

“Do you think your great-grandma would want that?” she said. “Do you really think so?”

Alas, the answer is no.

THUG LIFE FOREVER will have to do.

7 thoughts on “Athlete tattoos: The world of unoriginal thought”

  1. My personal fave that pops up over and over and over again is “The Chosen One.” Good lord, so many have been chosen, it appears.

    My favorite NBA player tat has always been Greg Ostertag’s Fred Flintstone, who may or may not have been handling a basketball in some shape or fashion. Always thought it said a lot about Ostertag that, while his teammates were getting pit bulls and stupid-ass self-aggrandizing slogans … he was all about Bedrock.

  2. Just got back from a trip to Jmiaca, and almost every person there, black, white, Asian or whatever, except my wife and I, had a tattoo. So, two pasty white people in a sea of sunbathers with tats. It was a little weird.


  3. I have a good friend who is Japanese by birth but has spent most of her life in the U.S. She’s fluent in Japanese and also knows most Chinese symbols.

    One of my favorite all time “shut up” moments was when we were in a store that had unoriginal “artsy” stuff and there were hats that looked like Yankee hats but had an Chiense symbol on it. The store owner/worker, who had the same symbol as a tatt, was informing EVERYONE that it was the Yankees logo in Chinese.

    My friend just looked at it for a minute and informed him that what it actually was was a company logo and had nothing to do with the NY Yankees. Basically, this guy had a tatt of something equivalent to “New Era” or “Coca-Cola” or whatever.


  4. Sorry to burst your sports bubble, but the NBA didn’t usher in the tattoo phenomenon any more than They’ve simply been growing in popularity from all sides, be it sports, music, and even corporate America.

    Also, they have become much more socially acceptable, so there isn’t the stigma attached that there used to be.

  5. You should stop by the Jersey Shore. One out of 6 people doesn’t have a tattoo.

    I think having no ink is more impressive these days – Kobe before Colorado.

  6. You are giving way too much credit to the NBA for starting the trend, most likely because you follow the sport closely. The same excessive credit might be given by others who are big fans of the NFL, rassling or other pastimes.

    A single friend of mine in his early 40s has been dating a lot of chicks his age of late, and he commented that nearly all of them have at least one tattoo. I had no idea that the practice was this prevalent, as those same women certainly did not have them when I was dating in college in the late ’80s.

  7. This is why I think Allen Iverson is the most influential athlete of the post-Jordan era. Someone needs to write a book about this…Jeff?

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