36 Tattoos

A tattoo is ink stored in scar tissue.

Archaeologists believe, based on marks they've seen on mummies, that human beings had tattoos between 4000 and 2000 B.C. in Egypt. Around 2000 B.C. tattooing spread to southern Asia to Japan and from there to Burma and Scythia.

image: Mirko Ilic'

In 1998, 35 percent of National Basketball Association players had tattoos. Now, as the league nears the October 29 tipoff of the 2002-03 season, well over 50 percent have tattoos. According to The Christian Science Monitor, that arbiter of the down and dirty, the number of Americans with tattoos is "as high as 15 percent."

Asked by Playboy, that arbiter of hip, what he'd like people to know, Allen Iverson said, "Tell them not to believe what they read or hear. Tell them to read my body. I wear my story every day, man." At the very end of the interview, Iverson said, "The minister at [his close friend] Rah's funeral said to look at your life as a book and stop wasting pages complaining, worrying, and gossiping. That's some deep shit right there."

In body-contact sports, such as basketball and football, there's a much higher percentage of tattooed players than in "cerebral" sports such as baseball, golf, or tennis.

While watching a basketball game on TV, Dakkan Abbe, president of the marketing firm Fifty Rubies, came up with the idea of NBA players selling space on their bodies to plug products with temporary tattoos. Abbe wanted someone with "bad boy" appeal, so he approached Rasheed Wallace, who two years ago set an NBA record for the most technical fouls in a season, about a candy-bar tattoo. Wallace's agent, Bill Strickland, said there's "nothing on the books [the basic agreement between the players' association and the league] that says he can't do it." An NBA spokesman said, "We do not allow commercial advertising on our uniforms, our coaches, or our playing floors, so there's no reason to think we'll allow it on our players." Abbe said, "The NBA is defining tattoos as part of the players' uniforms, but a player's skin is not part of his uniform. I find it offensive that the league would not allow something on someone's skin. Whenever the topic of tattoos comes up, the league says things like 'We prefer if players didn't have tattoos.' " It's interesting which stars don't have tattoos: Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen—pretty boys with all the endorsement deals. "The NBA scared people off. I just think the very nature of tattoos is disturbing to the NBA. The league is a little bit out of touch with the players and fans. Tattoos are a very explicit example of that. They just don't understand what tattoos are about." Strickland said, "Being a lawyer, I thought it presented some interesting free-speech issues." But he finally decided not to press the case. Stephon Marbury of the Phoenix Suns, asked if he'd wear a tattoo advertisement, said, "Depends on how much money they'd pay. If they're paying the right money, yeah." Selling, say, his left shoulder to a shoe company, would Stephon Marbury be losing control over his body or exerting control over capitalism?

In a Tattoo magazine supplement to a New Orleans tattoo convention, an inordinately buxom but somehow slightly demure-looking blond babe is on the cover, wearing a sailor hat, fishnet stockings, a short red skirt, white gloves, a bra top, and a couple of tattoos. Behind her in black shadow is a dark-haired woman dressed in a leopard costume. The function of the blond babe's tattoo is to portray her in the process of being transfigured from sailor girl to jungle cat and back again (and the eros of this tension between civilization and savagery).

"As for the primitive, I hark back to it because we are still very primitive. How many thousands of years of culture, think you, have rubbed and polished at our raw edges? One probably; at the best, no more than two. And that takes us back to screaming savagery, when, gross of body and deed, we drank blood from the skulls of our enemies, and hailed as highest paradise the orgies and carnage of Valhalla." —JACK LONDON

According to a third-century account of the Scythians' defeat of the Thracians, the Scythians tattooed symbols of defeat upon the Thracians, but as a way of turning "the stamp of violence and shame into beautiful ornaments," the Thracian women covered the rest of their bodies with tattoos.

In the 19th century, Field Marshal Earl Roberts said that "every officer in the British army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. Not only does this encourage esprit de corps but also assists in the identification of casualties."

Marcus Camby's first name is tattooed on his arm; Kirby Puckett also has his first name tattooed on his arm. Scottie Pippen has small tattoos on his biceps and legs. Michael Jordan has a horseshoe-shaped fraternity brand. Dennis Rodman's tattoos include a Harley, a shark, an ankh (the loop of which encircles his pierced navel), and a picture of his daughter. Mike Tyson has a tattoo of Che Guevara on his abdomen, a tattoo of Mao on his right arm, and one of Arthur Ashe on his left shoulder. Shaquille O'Neal has a Superman tattoo on his left shoulder. Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace has a tattoo of the Big Ben clock tower on his right biceps, with basketballs for clock faces; he also has two tattoos of Taz, the Tasmanian devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

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