After a recent Suns practice, Shaquille O'Neal walks up into the bleachers and raises his massive forearm to show off his newest tattoo. It's a bald, shadowy figure with his arms crossed, a big gun in each hand. The image is from the Hitman video game series. "I got this because I am the Hitman!" O'Neal proclaims, slapping his forearm for effect.
O'Neal, who appears in his 15th All-Star Game on Sunday, has a lot of tattoos that reflect the superhero he sees himself to be. When he playfully wraps his bulging bicep around somebody's neck, that person's eyes focus on the big Superman logo etched into his arm.
As O'Neal clowns around and signs basketballs for a group of kids in the bleachers from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Amar'e Stoudemire practices three-point shots on the court below.
Stoudemire, who'll start at power forward for the Western Conference All-Stars on Sunday, is wearing a tight black shirt with very short sleeves, showing off the plethora of tattoos that decorate his finely toned arms. He's got 13 inked into his flesh, and he says every single one means something important to him.
In the previous decades, tattoos in the NBA were more exception than rule. An informal survey by the Associated Press in 1997 determined that 35 percent of NBA players had tattoos. Now, according to sports journalist Andrew Gottlieb, author of the best-selling book In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them, more than 70 percent of players sport some ink. That percentage is higher than the total percentage of people in the United States with tattoos (14 percent, says a 2008 survey conducted by Harris Interactive).
Tattoos used to be taboo — the domain of convicts, gangbangers, sailors, and seedy rock stars. Not anymore. Now, many of the world's most elite athletes use their flesh as canvases. For the Suns players with ink, their tattoos are markers of achievements, homages to their families, and artistic expressions of themselves.
Anybody with tons of tattoos is subject to criticism, and NBA players are no exception. In February 2008, the NBA announced it would push for a "tattoo cap" on players when its collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2011 season. "We feel it is important that our players not scare the bejesus out of affluent demographic groups with gangsta-style tattoos," NBA Commissioner David Stern told Foxsports.com. The proposed cap, as strange as it sounds, would require teams to limit their roster as a whole to 61 percent tattoo coverage of the "upper arms and necks." So if a team has a couple of players covered in tats, conceivably two or three players with flesh as pure as a baby's butt would be needed to offset.
Another point of dissension has been corporate logo tattoos. Even before guard Stephon Marbury, currently estranged from the New York Knicks, tattooed his Starbury shoe logo on his head, corporate sponsors had approached players about wearing their logos in the form of tattoos (permanent or temporary) during games. In February 2007, a marketing company asked Detroit Pistons center-forward Rasheed Wallace to wear the logo of a candy company. Wallace declined, as have other players (because such agreements might violate the NBA's collective bargaining agreement).
For Stoudemire, getting inked is a personal — not corporate — decision. He finds the idea of a tattoo cap in the NBA ludicrous: "That's totally B.S. They can't put a cap on NBA players. It's a part of life. I know attorneys with full sleeves, and politicians with tattoos. You can't judge basketball players like that."
The current tattoo trend in pop culture started in the early '90s, but tattoos were invented about the same time as the wheel.
Many centuries before athletes were getting basketballs and jersey numbers inked on their arms, cavemen and mummies were sporting tribal tattoos. The practice dates back to at least the Neolithic period. Some of the oldest known tattoos were found in the Alps on a mummy — dubbed Otzi the Iceman — who lived between 4,000 and 5,000 B.C. Old Otzi had 57 carbon tats — mostly, basic dots and lines — on his back, knee, and ankle.
Egyptian mummies dating back to 2,000 B.C. also had tattoos. Some scholars estimate that Japan got the jump on everybody, introducing tattooing as far back as 10,000 years ago. Theoretically, primitive people could have been carving pictures on their skin around campfires at the end of the last Ice Age, about 18,000 years ago.