Jack London famously once wrote “show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” In the years since, a tattooed exterior has less become an epedermis-marked road map for a rough and tumble existence, and more an every day accepted part of society. Gone are the days of the “tattooed man and tattooed lady” at the freakshow – where parents paraded little children past those that looked different and feasted on the abnormality – telling Little Jimmy and Cutie Pie Pam to offer up butterscotch sucker punches at the men and women covered in body art. From soccer moms looking to add a little wild streak to their mini-van existences, to ancient rituals that honor religious and cultural traditions, we’re a nation of people who want to leave our mark one way or the other.
In 2012, the tattoo related industry accounted for $2.3 billion dollars. That’s a lot of nautical stars, angel wings and tramp stamp landing pads for various sexual secretions. In the vaunted and hard to reach 18-25 demographic, 36 percent of men and women are inked. Add another 38 percent to those in the 30-39 age group, and obviously there’s a trend. More than a third of people are sporting body ink and there isn’t enough real estate on planet Earth to cross the street every time you encounter a person with a tattoo like days of yesteryear.
Yet, there still seems to be one arena that vilifies tattoos despite it’s participants being some of the most heavily inked: pro sports. Specifically, journalists whose job it is to cook up controversy even when nothing is really brewing. In the 2003 book In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them, data stated that more than 70 percent of NBA players are inked. I’d assume the number is nearly that high in the NFL, with slightly smaller numbers spread out across the MLB, NHL and MLS. Critics don’t talk about LeBron James’ tattoos. Media members don’t point to Kevin Durant’s massive back piece or Derrick Rose’s and David Beckham’s painted facades because they know that these superstars are proven commodities who have shown that there is no direct correlation between skin imagery, rap sheets and statistics. It’s only when it’s convenient that tattoos become the culprit.
With the recent arraignment of Patriots Tight End Aaron Hernandez for murder, media members all seem to point to his tattoos as some kind of justification for his actions – as well as preliminary warning signs that New England should have seen when drafting him. Hernandez sports a tattoo on his arm which reads “if it is to be, it is up to me,” which seems fitting because modus operandi has little to do with what you wear on your sleeve if your head and heart are in the right place. The grand jury is literally out…but the reporting seems to dictate a common thread:
“He appeared in court in similar attire, although his hands were cuffed in front of him. Visible were Hernandez’s numerous tattoos.”
– Sporting News
“A jury will decide the six charges, which include five weapons charges. I already got him guilty of stupidity and cowardice. Hernandez has plenty of tattoos to explain what he has been through in life. Tattoos he once told me were about good days, bad days and at the end, heaven. What Hernandez lacked was the gravitas to walk the walk that his tattoos talked.”
– Hartford Courant
“The tattoos raise suspicion, the sheriff said, and investigators will follow up with interviews to further determine the significance of what they saw.”
The arrest of Hernandez comes on the heels of a recent editorial in the Washington Post by Jason Reid who insinuates that the Washington Wizards shouldn’t give point guard John Wall a maximum contract simply because he’s shifted his opinion on tattoos – going from none to several in a span of a few years – and thus this is a person the organization simply can’t trust. If we can’t control flopping in the NBA, there’s no use chastising flip-floppers – especially if it relates to personal body image. Wall has a choice, much like the Wizards do. Believe me, if tattoo practices were affecting a player’s bottom line and preventing endorsement opportunities with blue chip brands, there would be less ink on biceps and just as many John Hancock’s on lucrative deals.
Prior to the questioning of John Wall’s body art, members of the media gawked at the tats of recently minted starting QB for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick. In a piece by David Whitley for Sporting News he led off with, “San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback. That must make the guys in San Quentin happy. Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough “Lockup” to know it’s close to accurate. I’m also pretty sure less than 1.3 percent of NFL quarterbacks have tattoos. There’s a reason for that. NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.” After Kaepernick’s success which ultimately led to a trip to the Super Bowl, his tattoos never got any more press. Why? Because like in the case of Hernandez, it’s only convenient to revert to old world thinking about tattoos when it fits a macabre and titillating narrative.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_