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.

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.

According to yet another arbiter of hip, The Wall Street Journal, “Human barcodes are also hip. The heavy- metal band Slipknot has a barcode logo, with the stripes emblazoned across their prison-jumpsuit outfits. Barcode tattoos are also big, says New York tattoo tycoon Carlo Fodera.”

Who owns these words?

In Galatians 6:17, Saint Paul says, “From this time onward let no one trouble me; for, as for me, I bear, branded on my body, the scars of Jesus as my Master.”

“Since a tattoo to certain levels of society is the mark of a thug, it becomes also the sign of inarticulate revolt, often producing its only possible result: violence.” —SAMUEL M. STEWARD

In order to demonstrate their corporate loyalty, many Nike employees wear on their legs a tattoo of a swoosh.

The Greek philosopher Bion of Borysthenes (circa 300 B.C.) described the brutally tattooed face of his father, a former slave, as “a narrative of his master’s harshness.”

John Allen, who was Mr. Pennsylvania Basketball as a prep star in 2001, said, “I think that on the court, if I didn’t have as many tattoos as I do, people would look at me as—not being soft—but people would look at me as average. When they see me come in with my tattoos and the big name that I’ve got, before you even play a game, it’s like ‘Whoa! This guy, he might be for real.’ ”

Asked what his tattoos mean, Iverson replied, “I got ‘CRU THIK’ in four places—that’s my crew, that’s what we call ourselves, me and the guys I grew up with, the guys I’m loyal to. I got my kids’ names, Tiaura and Deuce [Allen II], ’cause they’re everything to me. I got my wife’s name, Tawanna, on my stomach. A set of praying hands between my grandma’s initials—she died when I was real young—and my mom’s initials. I put shit on my body that means something to me. Here, on my left shoulder, I got a cross of daggers knitted together that says ‘ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE,’ because that’s the one true thing I’ve learned in this life. On the other arm, I got a soldier’s head. I feel like my life has been a war and I’m a soldier in it. Here, on my left forearm, it says ‘NBN’—for ‘Newport Bad News.’ That’s what we call our hometown of Newport News, Virginia, because a lot of bad shit happens there. On the other arm, I got the Chinese symbol for respect, because I feel that where I come from deserves respect—being from there, surviving from there, and staying true to everybody back there. I got one that says ‘FEAR NO ONE,’ a screaming skull with a red line through it—’cause you’ll never catch me looking scared.”

Iverson’s Philadelphia 76er teammate Aaron McKie said, “A lot of guys get tattoos because they think they look nice and sexy wearing them. But I don’t need them. One reason is because of my old college coach, John Chaney. He didn’t allow his players to wear tattoos or earrings or stuff like that. The other reason is because I guess I’m old-fashioned. I don’t see any good reason to pierce or paint my body. I’m comfortable with my natural look.”

“The publication of International Archives of Body Techniques would be of truly international benefit, providing an inventory of all the possibilities of the human body and of the methods of apprenticeship and training employed to build up each technique; for there is not one human group in the world which could not make an original contribution to such an enterprise. . . . It would also be a project eminently well fitted for counteracting racial prejudices, since it would contradict the racialist conceptions which try to make out that man is a product of his body, by demonstrating that it is the other way around: man has, at all times and in all places, been able to turn his body into a product of his techniques and his representations.” —CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS

Detroit Lions fullback Brock Olivo, who has only one tattoo—an Italian flag, on his back, to honor his ancestry—said, “That’s my last tattoo. No more. I don’t want to scare my kids or affect things in the business world by having all kinds of crazy stuff on me.”

Tattoo You

There are plenty of places to go during your lunch break for that Tasmanian Devil. But for a really good tattoo, in a space that’s comfortable and even pleasant, here are five of the best establishments New York City has to offer.

Dare Devil Tattoo (174 Ludlow Street, 533-8303,, a six-person operation co-owned by beautiful Michelle Myles—who “specializes in glorifying the American girl”—is a downtown favorite, peerless for its impeccable traditional, badass aesthetic and for being friendly, professional, and classy in a nice, old-fashioned way. The emphasis is on custom work.

MacDougal Street Tattoo (231 Sullivan Street, 529-6268), famous for giving tattoos to firefighters post-9-11, boasts a “combination of popular artists from different shops,” says tattooist Joshua Lord. When the celebrated East Side Ink recently closed, MacDougal absorbed much of their staff, including Andrea Elston, an old-timer in the New York scene.

Fly Rite (500A Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 718-599-9443, even has “Bright Colors” emblazoned on each of its twin red awnings. With mostly custom work and five full-time artists (including the crimson-bearded “Chops,” and Kelly Krantz, said to be a “backwardsly charming guy”), Fly Rite focuses on traditional and new-school styles.

New York Adorned (47 Second Avenue, 473-0007, is the kind of shop that also sells expensive toe rings and does henna design. Its large, teeming-with-jewelry-and-plants storefront—emblazoned with its name in lavish gold-leaf script—has struck some as too trendy or fancy. With Virginian Chris O’Donnell on board, though, it’s earned the right to its reputation.

Inkline Studio (513 East 5th Street, 614-0094, is Anil Gupta, who works in painstaking detail and is known worldwide for his “Miniatures,” which replicate the paintings of the Old Masters. Since he “prefers not to finish other artists’ work,” you can’t stop in for a touch-up of an old piece—but Gupta (who has some celebrity clients) is inarguably one of the best there is. —Hillary Chute

According to one more arbiter of hip, Rolling Stone, Paul Booth is “the tattoo artist of choice for rock stars who love death, perversion, and torture.” His “black-and-gray tattoos of blasphemous violence echo the same nihilist madness of the metalheads he inks,” musicians from Slipknot, Mudvayne, Slayer, Pantera, and Soulfly. His East Village shop features cobwebs, rusty meat hooks, a mummified cat, medieval torture devices, a gynecologist’s black leather chair with silver stirrups, a human skull given to him by a Swedish gravedigger, and a note from a customer written in blood. His arms are covered in tattoos, his face is studded with silver loops, and he’s enormously fat. Some of his most popular tattoos are “weeping demons, decapitated Christ figures, transvestite nuns severing their own genitals, cascading waves of melting skulls, muscled werewolves raping bare-chested women.” His clients come to him “because they share his frustration and rage, his feelings of anger and alienation. He understands those emotions and brings them to the surface with his needle. His gift lies in transforming the dark side of his clients—their hurt, their torments—into flesh.” Evan Seinfeld, the bassist for Biohazard, said, “We’re all trying to release our negative energy, our frustration with the world. Through our art and our music, we’re getting it all out.” Shawn Crahan of Slipknot said, “I have a lot of dark ideas in my head. Paul develops those same emotions in very powerful pieces.” Booth said, “If I woke up one day and became happy, I probably wouldn’t tattoo anymore, because I wouldn’t see a need to do it. I would lose my art if I became happy.”

Revelation 17:5 says of the Scarlet Woman: “And upon her forehead was a name written, ‘MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’ ”

Former Chicago Bull Jud Buechler said Michael Jordan wanted “me and [teammate] Steve Kerr to get tattoos” after the Bulls won their first championship. “I thought about it but didn’t do it because I knew my mom, wife, and mother-in-law would kill me.”

“The human body is always treated as an image of society.” —ANTHROPOLOGIST MARY DOUGLAS

“By the early seventeenth century [in Japan], a generally recognized codification of tattoo marks was widely used to identify criminals and outcasts. Outcasts were tattooed on the arms: a cross might be tattooed on the inner forearm, or a straight line on the outside of the forearm or on the upper arm. Criminals were marked with a variety of symbols that designated the places where the crimes were committed. In one region, the pictograph for ‘dog’ was tattooed on the criminal’s forehead. Other marks included such patterns as bars, crosses, double lines, and circles on the face and arms. Tattooing was reserved for those who had committed serious crimes, and individuals bearing tattoo marks were ostracized by their families and denied all participation in the life of the community. For the Japanese, who valued family membership and social position above all things, tattooing was a particularly severe and terrible form of punishment. By the end of the seventeenth century, penal tattooing had been largely replaced by other forms of punishment. One reason for this is said to be that about that time decorative tattooing became popular, and criminals covered their penal tattoos with larger decorative patterns. This is also thought to be the historical origin of the association of tattooing with organized crime in Japan. . . . In spite of efforts by the government to suppress it, tattooing continued to flourish among firemen, laborers, and others at the lower end of the social scale. It was particularly favored by gangs of itinerant gamblers called yakuza. Members of these gangs were recruited from the underworld of outlaws, penniless peasants, laborers, and misfits who migrated to Edo in the hope of improving their lot. Although the yakuza engaged in a variety of semi-legal and illegal activities, they saw themselves as champions of the common people and adhered to a strict code of honor that specifically prohibited crimes against people, such as rape and theft. Like samurai, they prided themselves on being able to endure pain and privation without flinching. And when loyalty required it, they were willing to sacrifice themselves by facing imprisonment or death to protect the gang. The yakuza expressed these ideals in tattooing: because it was painful, it was proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them forever outlaws.” —STEVE GILBERT

“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

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

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