36 Tattoos

"You put a tattoo on yourself with the knowledge that this body is yours to have and enjoy while you're here. You have fun with it, and nobody else can control (supposedly) what you do with it. That's why tattooing is such a big thing in prison: it's an expression of freedom—one of the only expressions of freedom there. They can lock you down, control everything, but 'I've got my mind, and I can tattoo my body—alter it my way as an act of personal will.' " —DON ED HARDY

image: Mirko Ilic'

Who owns these statements—the people who said them or the people who wrote them down or the person who has gathered them together here or the person who reads them?

During the early Roman Empire, slaves exported to Asia were tattooed "tax paid." Words, acronyms, sentences, and doggerel were inscribed on the bodies of slaves and convicts, both as identification and punishment. A common phrase etched on the forehead of Roman slaves was "Stop me, I'm a runaway."

Peter Trachtenberg, the author of 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh, told me: "The most obvious reason African Americans didn't get tattooed until recently was that the old inks didn't show up on black skin. Newer, clearer pigments didn't come into use until the mid to late '80s, which coincides with the introduction of tattoos into the African American community. I also wouldn't be surprised if tattooing's association with working-class culture—redneck culture in particular—made it unpopular with African Americans. You don't come across many black country and western fans, either. Charlie Pride's fan base is entirely white. My guess is that there were two principal routes of diffusion: the first from rap, the second from black college fraternities (some of which also used branding as an initiation rite). Starting in the late '80s, a number of gangsta rappers adopted tattoos, most notably Tupac Shakur, who had 'THUG LIFE' tattooed in block letters down his torso. It would be interesting to go back through magazines of that period and see if photos of tattooed rappers predate those of tattooed ballplayers." They do. "Also, to find out what percentage of NBA players belonged to black college fraternities." Some, but not a lot. "There's some irony at work here. The tattoos mark their wearers as gangstas or gangsta-wannabes, but one of the hallmarks of black gangsta rap is its appropriation of white organized-crime terminology, e.g., the group Junior M.A.F.I.A. and admiring references to John Gotti in several songs."

"White folks are not going to come to see a bunch of guys with tattoos, with cornrows. I'm sorry, but anyone who thinks different, they're stupid." —CHARLES BARKLEY

A few years ago, the shoe company And 1 created an advertisement in which Latrell Sprewell said, "People say I'm America's worst nightmare; I say I'm the American dream." In the background a blues guitar plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" in imitation of Jimi Hendrix's version of the anthem (And 1 couldn't afford the rights to his version). Seth Berger, the president of the company, said that MTV created a youth market in which blacks and whites are indifferent to color: "It's a race-neutral culture that is open to endorsers and heroes that look different. These people are comfortable with tattoos and cornrows."

In the 1890s, socialite Ward McAllister said about tattoos: "It is certainly the most vulgar and barbarous habit the eccentric mind of fashion ever invented. It may do for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat."

Upon hearing that the NBA's Hoop magazine had airbrushed his tattoos off the photograph of him on its cover, Allen Iverson responded: "Hey, you can't do that. That's not right. Hey, I am who I am. You can't change that. Who gives them the authority to remake me? Everybody knows who Allen Iverson is. That's wild. That's kind of crazy. This is the first I've heard of it, but I personally am offended that somebody would do something like that. They don't have the right to try to present me in another way to the public than the way I truly am without my permission. It's an act of freedom and a form of self-expression. That's why I got mine."

Who owns this body, this body of words?

David Shields is the author of Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and, most recently, Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography.

« Previous Page