JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

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.