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.
For the first few millennia of their existence, tattoos were markers of social or tribal importance, as well as symbols of spirituality. But in about 44 B.C., they became a Roman punishment for runaway slaves, who were marked with words that described their crimes. Other countries, including Japan, would also use tattoos to mark criminals.
By the time tattooing made its way to the Western world, via European sailors in the 18th century, the negative connotations had stuck. So, until not that many years ago, tattoos weren't all that common. Average citizens — unless they'd, say, passed out drunk next to mischievous frat buddies — tended not to have them.
In the 1960s, rock musicians started geting tattoos, leading to an acceptance of them as "art." In particular, blues singer Janis Joplin's floral wrist bracelet, done by San Francisco tattooist Lyle Tuttle, was viewed as a pivotal point in the acceptance of tattoos in popular culture (replica tattoos of Joplin's bracelet are still among the most popular designs for today's tattoo fans). By the 1980s, it was commonplace to see rock stars bearing ink, particularly members of hair-metal bands like Mötley Crüe.
In 1984, Tattoo Magazine debuted, creating the first of dozens of glossy tattoo publications (other popular tattoo magazines include Skin & Ink, Tattoo Revue, and Skin Art). Tattooing had found a niche among rock stars and subculture groups, but sports stars wouldn't embrace it until the 1990s.
The first NBA player most people remember as a human canvas was power forward Dennis Rodman, drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1986. Although Rodman would go on to win five NBA Championships with the Pistons and the Chicago Bulls and be named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team seven times, he garnered more attention in the mid-'90s for his copious tattoos. At a time when hardly any pro basketball players had tats, Rodman had them covering more than 60 percent of his body.
Though Rodman was a great player covered in tattoos, he's not credited with starting the trend of athletes getting massively tattooed. This is probably because his tattoos were seen as the least of his weirdness. Rodman had more than 13 piercings, died his hair Muppet colors, and pranced in front of cameras wearing lipstick and feather boas.
He was considered an anomaly until Allen Iverson was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1996.
Iverson's tattoo collection quickly grew to rival Rodman's. And though tattoos were becoming more popular with NBA players, reflecting the tattoo trend in the hipster community in general, they were looked down on by the NBA — which actually had Iverson's tattoos airbrushed off the cover of the NBA's Hoops magazine in 1999.
Iverson, who starts for the Eastern Conference All-Stars on Sunday, was outraged and called the doctored photo "an insult." He told the Web site Vanishingtattoo.com, "What I put on my body, that means something to me. 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 [tattoos]."
While Rodman and Iverson had to deal with the league's ire over their ink in the '90s, it's unusual for NBA players not to have tats these days. At least a dozen players — including Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, Denver Nuggets center/forward Chris Andersen, Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley, and Memphis Grizzlies small forward Darius Miles — sport two full sleeves of tattoos (ink from shoulder to wrist). Dozens of other star players, such as Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, L.A. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (also All-Star starters), and Golden State Warriors power forward Ronny Turiaf, have prominent ink.
"Once you get [a tattoo], it's pretty addictive," Turiaf told the L.A. Times last summer. "It's a matter of putting something on your body that really means a lot."
Six of the 12 players on the current Suns roster have tattoos, but Suns shooting guard Jason Richardson apparently has more than anybody else on the team. The 27-year-old former Golden State Warrior and Charlotte Bobcat counts 26, and they serve as a pictorial biography of his basketball career.
Richardson's basketball tattoos include the words "THA FACTOR" across his back shoulders — referring to the nickname his teammates gave him during his Golden State years — and the image of a muscle man holding a basketball (it's actually the And 1 Basketball company mascot). Above the And 1 figure is "E.L.I.T.E.," which Richardson says stands for "Enjoy Life into the End." His brother and cousin have the same "E.L.I.T.E." tattoo.
His family is a huge part of Richardson's life, so many of his tattoos pay tribute to his loved ones. On his chest, he has an intricate tattoo that includes the names of his brothers, cousins, and three children, along with Asian characters that he says spell out "a personal message I keep to myself." Down the right side of his ribs, Richardson has a tattoo that reads "family" in one direction and "respect" in the other. His right bicep bears the word "rich," and his left bicep has the word "boys," a tribute to Richardson's sons, whom he calls "Rich Boys." On his left forearm are Chinese letters that represent the words "father," "strength," "talent," and "smooth." ("The words describe me," Richardson says.)
Richardson got his first tattoo when he was 15. It read "JRich" and included his high school basketball number. He has since had that tattoo covered with the image of the Grim Reaper holding a basketball. (The Grim Reaper is a popular tattoo among NBA players — Denver Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin, Chicago Bulls shooting guard Larry Hughes, former Denver Nuggets point guard Smush Parker, former Miami Heat guard Robert Hite, and Washington Wizards small forward Caron Butler have Grim Reaper tats, too).
Yet another NBA player with a Grim Reaper tat is the Suns' Matt Barnes. The 28-year-old swingman, formerly with the Golden State Warriors, has the Reaper on his left forearm, along with the Chinese symbol for eternal life. It's one of his many designs, and he says he has too many tattoos to count. "Seriously, I have no idea how many I have," he says. "I got my first tattoo when I was 17, so I'm 11 years into getting tattoos." (Counting tattoos is an inexact science, because some blend together and some can be seen only up-close and personal. We counted as many tats on Barnes as we could see, and our estimate is that he has 25).
Two of Barnes' more prominent and intriguing tattoos are the letters "F.T.H." on his chest, and the image of praying hands with the word "Believe" on his neck. For years, Barnes refused to tell anyone what "F.T.H." stood for, but he now reveals it's "Fuck the Haters." That tattoo and the praying hands are tied together.
"When no one had belief in me, I had belief in myself and belief in God," Barnes says.
Like many NBA players, Barnes wears tattoos that show love for his home state. In Barnes' case, that state is California (he grew up in Sacramento). On his left arm, he's got the words "Sac Town's Finest." On his right arm, he has a large, colorful pictorial tribute to California that includes the state Capitol building in Sacramento, the Golden Gate Bridge, a Dodgers logo, beaches, palm trees, and the words "California Love."
Also like many ballers, Barnes has self-descriptive and self-motivating words inked in his flesh, including "Only God can judge me" on his right arm, the words "faith" and "hope" on his wrists, "By Any Means Necessary" on his chest, "The strong survive" on his leg, and "Against all odds" on the back of his arm. The latter tattoo represents his rise in professional basketball. "There are only 350 people in the whole world who get to play for the NBA, and I'm one of them," he says.
Barnes has some tattoos he got just because he liked the designs (a spider web on his right elbow, an angel and a devil on his chest, a tribal sun, and black panther on his arm). But his next tattoo will be personal. "My mom passed last year, and I want to get something for my mom, but I'm still thinking about that," Barnes says.
Four-time All-Star Stoudemire, 26, grew up poor in Orlando (his father died when he was 12, and his mother's been in and out of prison on substance-abuse charges most his life). The 13 tattoos Stoudemire has tell stories of his trials and triumphs. His first tattoo was the acronym "STAT" ("standing tall and talented"), which he got when he was 18.
"Most of my tattoos are spiritual," he says. "They're all pretty much inspirational words and quotes." He didn't describe all of his tattoos in detail, but the meanings of most are obvious: "POVERTY" in large script letters covering his right bicep, "Knowing is Knowledge" on his left bicep, "Knowledge is Power" on his right bicep, and an entire paragraph on his left forearm ("I was raised in this society and this is how you expect me to be. I do what I want to do," with a replica of his signature at the bottom).
One of Stoudemire's most prominent tattoos is the image of a messianic figure carrying a broken man on his left bicep, with the words "Nobody Knows My Soul." Stoudemire's most visible (and controversial) tattoo is "Black Jesus" on his neck.
Like "STAT," Stoudemire's "Black Jesus" stems from a nickname, but Stoudemire told Web site Zimbio.com in December 2007, "Just to clarify, I don't consider myself Black Jesus."
Continuing the Biblical theme, Stoudemire has: "So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called but few are chosen. Matthew 20:16" tattooed on the left side of his chest. Just below this is: "God blessed the child who holds his own."
The rest of his ink, Stoudemire says, is meant to be a legacy for his children. "Most of my tattoos are driven [by my beliefs]," Stoudemire says. "My kids will know what I stood for . . . when I die. All you have to do is read my tattoos and you will know a lot about me and what I lived for."
Less tattooed than Stoudemire, but with just as many self-descriptive and self-affirming words and images, is 36-year-old O'Neal, who has about a dozen tats. And he says every single one had to be approved by his parents. "I have all these tattoos because my parents let me get them," Shaq says (and swears he's not kidding). "I have to fax the designs to them beforehand."
So the first design O'Neal faxed to his parents was the Superman logo, along with the words "Man of Steel," that he has on his left bicep. It was O'Neal's first tattoo, inked in 1993, and he says he chose it "because I'm Superman."
Above the Superman logo, O'Neal has the word "Diesel" (the name he used when he made hip-hop records) with what he says is "supposed to be an Omega head" (as in Omega from the Transformers cartoons). He's also got "Diesel Mafia" tattooed on his chest.
O'Neal has a tattoo on his left forearm of a player dunking a basketball inside a target, with the words "Public Enemy No. 1." O'Neal explains, "I'm public enemy number one, because when you're the best, everybody's out to try to shoot you down."
On his right bicep, he has a fist holding a diamond, an ankh (the Egyptian symbol for eternal life), and the acronym "TWISM" (The World Is Mine) and words "Against the Law." ("Because I'm so good it should be against the law," O'Neal says with a wink). Some of his tattoos are for family, too. Above the diamond on his bicep, he has the name "Taahairh" (his daughter). He's also got wrist tattoos of his kids' names that he calls "bracelets of love."
His right forearm bears the words "Lil' Warrior," a tattoo that stems from O'Neal's first and middle names (Shaquille Rashaun), which mean "Little Warrior" in Arabic. Below the words is a tattoo of a huge muscle man. "This is me right here when I take my clothes off," O'Neal says smiling, pointing to the buff tattoo.
While Richardson, Barnes, Stoudemire, and O'Neal sport more ink than the rest of the team, two other Suns have smaller, less noticeable tattoos. Reserve forward Louis Amundson, the former NBA D-League Rookie of the Year, has one tat. It's on the right side of his chest and has the words "R.I.P. 34" surrounded by flames. He got the tattoo to commemorate the life of his best friend, Billy Feeney, a teammate at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colorado, and a player for the University of New Mexico Lobos. Feeney hanged himself in August 2003. Amundson doubts he'll get another tattoo.
Guard Leandro Barbosa has three small tattoos. On the inside of his right wrist, he has a star. On the back of his neck, he has the words "Love, sacrifice, and union." On his lower left rib, he has his mother's name tattooed in Asian characters. Barbosa's mother, Dona, died in November after fighting pneumonia for more than a month in a Brazilian hospital.
Suns legend Dan Majerle, now an assistant coach for the team, has a single "secret" tattoo. On his right ankle, he's got a tiny lightning bolt, which he says he got because his nickname is "Thunder" but also because, "It was for a girl. I was young and dumb." When Majerle pulled off his shoe to show the tattoo after a recent practice, Suns coach Terry Porter couldn't resist ribbing him. "Don't show that tattoo, Dan," Porter said. "Show the little flower tattoo you have!" (Porter was kidding, we hope).
Reasons vary as to why the remaining Suns have no ink on their bodies. Steve Nash, who wasn't named an All-Star this year for the first time since rejoining the Suns in 2004, says tattoos look cool but he has "never felt the urge to get one." (If he were to get one, he says, he'd get a tribal pattern tattoo on a half-sleeve, from shoulder to elbow.) Forward Grant Hill didn't want any regrets down the line. "Ten, 15 years from now, I don't want to look back and go, 'What was I thinking?'" Hill says.
Reserve center-forward Robin Lopez says, "I don't have anything against it. It's a unique way for people to express themselves. Being an artist myself, I can appreciate that." (Lopez says he draws in pastels.) Reserve Alando Tucker comments, "I don't have a single tattoo. Only thugs have tattoos." (After growing up amid crime and gang violence in Illinois, Tucker made a pact with his older brother Antonio to never smoke, drink, or get tattooed).
While Shaq ran every one of his tattoos past his parents, the tattoo-less Suns cited parental disapproval as the most common reason for not getting inked. Reserve forward Jared Dudley says his mom forbade him from getting a tat, and back-up guard Goran Dragic laughs at the idea: "My father would kill me."
Coach Porter comes across as a tough guy but says the same thing about why he's sans ink: "My dad's 82 years old, and if I got a tattoo, he'd still kill me."
Some tattoo artists are almost as famous as the people they tattoo.
Amar'e Stoudemire had all his work done by Los Angeles artist Mark Machado, a.k.a. Mister Cartoon. Machado started his career as a graffiti artist in L.A., then learned from a friend how to tattoo. His first celebrity clients were members of the hip-hop group Cypress Hill, but it wasn't until he tattooed Eminem that his business really exploded. Machado's other clients now include Justin Timberlake, Travis Barker from Blink-182, Method Man, and Beyoncé Knowles. Stoudemire says he's "pretty much done" with tattoos, but if he were to get another one, it would come from Mister Cartoon.
All of Matt Barnes' tats were created by high school friend Ryan Hill, now with American Graffiti studio in Sacramento, where Barnes grew up. Barnes brought Hill more NBA customers — he's also done work on Golden State Warriors point guard Monta Ellis, Atlanta Hawks point guard Mike Bibby, and Golden State Warriors small forward Stephen Jackson. Hill says he lets Barnes pay for his tattoos in NBA gear most of the time. "I charge money from every one of my other customers, so when it comes to Matt, I'd rather get a jersey or some game shorts," Hill says. "There's nothing better than a pair of [L.A. Clippers center] Chris Kaman's smoothies [shorts] after a hard day's work."
Hill plans to give Barnes another tattoo, in honor of his late mother, whenever Barnes is ready (probably during the off-season, as many players won't get ink during the season because of the chances of damaging a fresh tattoo on the court).
Shaq plans to get another tattoo, a back piece that reads "I Am Legend." He's not sure where he'll get that done. Most of O'Neal's tattoos were inked by Rob-G, a Kissimmee, Florida artist who also did work for Lil Jon, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Eve, Lil Kim, DMX, and LL Cool J. Rob-G was one of the first tattooists to have a large hip-hop clientele. Once sports stars saw Rob-G's work on hip-hop stars, they went to him for their ink. In addition to O'Neal, Rob-G also tattooed Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, New York Knicks forward Al Harrington, L.A. Clippers guard Ricky Davis, former Miami Heat point guard Jason Williams, and Miami Heat forward Shawn Marion.
Rob-G was found dead at his home in Orlando on January 26, an apparent suicide. O'Neal and the tattoo artist were good friends; the Suns center often shot hoops with Rob-G's son.
Jason Richardson also mentioned getting a back piece, here in Phoenix. Since he and O'Neal are both relatively new to the Valley, we suggest they check out some PHX tattooists for their next piece (heck, maybe Nash could even pay a visit to one of them and get that half-sleeve).
One of the best tattoo shops in the Phoenix area is Club Tattoo in Tempe. Founded by Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington and his friend Sean Dowdell in 1995, the tattoo shop has grown to include four locations around town and will open a Las Vegas shop in March. In addition to touting one of the most sterile environments (Club Tattoo prides itself in exceeding OSHA standards for sterilized equipment), its artists list many celebrities on their résumés. Musicians inked at Club Tattoo include former Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch, members of Wu-Tang Clan and Kottonmouth Kings, Miranda Lambert, and, of course, Bennington. Athletes have gotten inked there, too, including former New York Giants tackle Russell Davis, former Pittsburgh Pirate Jay Jones, former Kansas City Royals outfielder Abraham Nuñez, New England Patriots tackle Anthony Clement, and former Suns star Marion, who went to the Miami Heat in the Shaq trade.
Another local shop worth visiting is Blue Dragon Tattoo in Glendale. The company was founded by tattoo artist Dick Goldman in 1991. Goldman's been doing tats since 1979, and his work has been featured in tattoo publications like Skin Art, Tattoo Revue, Skin & Ink, and Flash. Blue Dragon also prides itself on its sterile environment, saying it performs monthly spore tests on its equipment and requires artists to complete the Bloodborne Pathogen Certification Course. (Although the health risks of getting tattooed — such as hepatitis C and HIV — have diminished in the past decade, it's always a good idea to ask about a tattoo shop's sterilization techniques before getting inked.) Blue Dragon's motto: "Cheap tattoos are not good, and good tattoos are not cheap."
(Quality tattoos can be expensive — renowned artists such as Mister Cartoon charge anywhere from $500 to $1,000 an hour, and there's often a three- to six-month waiting list. A good local tattoo shop will charge anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on the size and colors of tattoos.)
Another good bet is Immortal Art tattoos in Scottsdale, recommended particularly if bright colors are desired. Immortal Art tattooist Mike Fite has 10 years of experience and will draw original sketches for people who have an idea that they can't get down on paper.
Jason Richardson, who says he wants to get a back piece but isn't sure what he wants yet, should hit up Fite for some ideas. All JRich knows is he's not taking his next tattoo lightly: "I don't get tattooed unless I'm 100 percent sure."
Not surprisingly, Charles Barkley has a strong opinion about tattoos on basketball players. Despite reports that the former Suns forward offered to tattoo a civilian officer's name on his ass if she could get him out of his DUI on New Year's Eve, Barkley has no tattoos. He told David Shields, author of Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, "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."
But Barkley's wrong. The 2007-08 NBA season set a record for highest average attendance and highest total attendance, beating the attendance records of the three previous seasons. The number of NBA players with tattoos has doubled in the past 10 years as game attendance has spiraled — so tatted players haven't stifled fans' enthusiasm.
All the same, NBA Commissioner Stern still plans to seek that limit on the number of tattoos players can have in 2011. The proposal came on the heels of an NBA dress code enacted in 2005. Concerned with the "hip-hop image" he saw overtaking the NBA, Stern now requires players to dress in business-casual attire when traveling to and from games. Players haven't been thrilled with Stern's telling them what to wear (Allen Iverson said, "The dress code is not who I am and doesn't allow me to express myself"), and they like the tattoo cap even less.
"We were talking the other day about how many players, percentage-wise, have tattoos," Lou Amundson says. "I think it's like 60 or 70 percent."
So some players might have to be cut because of their tats, he says, possibly even star players.
As for accepting offers from corporations to tattoo logos on themselves, the players (with the exception of Stephon Marbury, who has the Starbury shoe logo on his head) aren't exactly getting behind that, either. Amundson says, "It's kind of like selling out."
Tattoo-less Suns reserve Alando Tucker restates his "only thugs have tattoos" mantra, adding that "Starbury's a company thug."
Besides, many tattooed players (at least on the Suns) consider their tats personal and meaningful. They consider any kind of corporate control — including an NBA tattoo cap — contrary to the culture of today's game.
Matt Barnes, who says his tattoos "express what inspires me," points out, "If you look around the NBA, almost everybody has some kind of work.
"Tattoos are our generation."