On the Eve of the NBA All-Star Game, Phoenix Suns Players Show Off Their Tattoo Canvases

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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.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea