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A Brief History of Tattoos in the NBA

NBA players, in case you were unaware, really, really like tattoos.

NBA players, in case you were unaware, really, really like tattoos. There’s a whole subgenre of bottom-feeder basketball blog posts that consist of page-view-driven slideshows of “The Worst NBA Tattoos” or “The Best NBA Tattoos” that are just excuses to show Deshawn Stevenson’s Abraham-Lincoln’d neck.

More recently, Adrei Kirilenko’s World of Warcraft-inspired full-color back tattoo made the rounds on the internet, galvanizing reactions that ranged from “whut” to “LOL.” It looked like this:


In the pre-blogophere days, getting inked was more controversial. Dennis Rodman was something of a tattoo pioneer in the league, but his tattoos—along with his piercings, his dyed hair, and his wedding dress—were just a signifier of his wackiness. Allen Iverson, a bona-fide star and not just a talented sideshow like Rodman, was the guy who brought tattoos into the mainstream, and established their place in the subtextual race conflict of the NBA.

See, the league has had a not-so-secret perceived problem for many years: How do you get your white upper middle class fans to root for players who are prominently black, and mostly “rap video black” rather than “presidential candidate black”? Iverson ran up against the NBA’s anti-ghettoization machine in 2000, when a photo of him on the cover of Hoop magazine (owned by the NBA) was airbrushed to remove his tattoos. Since then, the powers-that-be have gotten more subtle with it, instituting a dress code to make the players appear more “professional,” while incidentally forcing them to conceal their tattoos when they’re in front of the public and not on the court.

Nowadays, no one—except for maybe a few blowhard columnists and talking heads—complain about tattoos on players. Instead, players with unmarked skin, like Shane Battier and Steve Nash, get referred to as “good guys” and “class acts” way more often than dudes with hieroglyphics on their arms. For example: When LeBron made his much-maligned “Decision” to go to Miami where he would get paid millions of dollars to play ball and win championships with his friends, Durant was held up as the wholesome, Middle-America, lo-cal alternative, a “Good Guy Superstar who Is Not a Fraud.” (There has been an epidemic of fake superstars, I guess.) People were shocked when this supposed good guy coyly lifted up his jersey to reveal:


Durant’s ink illustrates an important point about NBA tattoos: There may be a lot of them, but most are fucking lame. I mean, a cross? Some text about “faith”? Way to be original, Kevin. The other problem is that the vast majority of these tattoos are black ink on dark skin, meaning they’re pretty much illegible on TV, especially when covered in a layer of sweat. Take JR Smith, for instance:

What the hell is happening all over his arms? Does he get tattoos like he jacks up threes (that is to say, indiscriminately)? Let’s take a closer look:

Oh, it’s Michael Jordan dunking through a field of fire. With stars at the centers of the flames. How old is JR again? I wonder if the superstars’ tattoos are any better…

Kobe Bryant got these to commemorate his wife not divorcing him for fucking that 19-year-old. The illegible text below says “Psalm XXVII,” which I assume refers to the biblical verse about how you shouldn’t have buttsex with groupies if you’re rich and famous because they’ll accuse you of rape. Still, those “angel wings” look like a Rorschach test, and is that a butterfly on the crown? Barf.

Chris Andersen, on the other hand, knows how to get inked. He looks like a walking incarnation of Ed Hardy, but like Kirilenko’s dragon rider, his tats are extremely well-rendered and noticeable from a distance as more than just smears of black. You aren’t going to stand out in today’s NBA if you get a bunch of lame “I LUV MY GOD+GRANDMA+SECTION 8 HOUSING” tattoos, and what’s the point of tattoos if you don’t stand out? We can thank human canvases like Andersen and Kirilenko for bringing the tattoo back to what it was in the days of Rodman—a sign of eccentricity, if not downright instability. God bless them.