This article was originally published on VICE New Zealand.
When it comes to the NBA, fandom can take many forms. Some people collect their favorite player's jerseys, while others look to make a name for themselves as die-hard sneakerheads. It's all part of the fun of watching basketball, a sport that banks on the marketability of players like no other. Where would we be without Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or Lebron James? And how else can a fan memorialize these unforgettable, and often historic, moments of greatness?
That's where New Zealand tattooist Steve Butcher comes in. Since he got into tattooing seven years ago, he's been making a name for himself with his hyperrealistic designs of NBA superstars and other pop-culture icons. The tattoos he's done have been showcased on ESPN, SB Nation, SportsCenter, and just about every other site dedicated to all things basketball. His work also takes him around the world, and occasionally the world comes to him; it's not unusual for people overseas to fly to New Zealand specifically to get inked up by the Kiwi.
The trick to getting his tattoos to look so lifelike comes down to one thing, says Butcher: patience. It's all about putting in every single little detail, so when all's said and done, you'll barely be able to tell the difference between the tattoo and the photo it's based on.
VICE: How did you first get into tattooing, and at what point did you start to really take it seriously?
Steve Butcher: During high school, I wasn't that interested in any other subject apart from art, so after I left high school, I went to art school for four years and got my bachelors. While I was there, a friend saw a painting of mine he really liked. He was tattooing at the time and said, "You know, man, you should really give it a go. You should try tattooing." I was like, whatever. Then after my nana passed away, I got a portrait of her. She's always been the person who inspired me to do art, and she was always really good at drawing, so after I got the portrait of her, I got kind of interested in it. Then I pursued it after that, and it kind of took off. I'd been shown the ropes, but I didn't have a formal apprenticeship or anything. I just did my own thing and used my nana's room as my studio for a while.
How did you come to specialize in doing realistic portraits like the NBA ones you've been doing?
Realism has always been my interest when it comes to painting or drawing or anything like that. I've never really been able to do any other style. I've always just been better at realism than anything else; I suppose when I started tattooing that's what stood out to me as the most interesting stuff. Then I started being inspired by the other really good realism artists, and that's what made me decide that's what I wanted to do.
Have you always been into the NBA yourself?
I've been a big basketball fan my whole life. Once I started tattooing, I didn't really have time to play any longer. So this was my kind of filter to still be able to be involved with basketball but not be able to play it. Sadly, I'm a Los Angeles Lakers fan. I'm a die-hard Lakers fan, but they're pretty terrible at the moment. I kind of went for Oklahoma City Thunder this season, and then they lost to the Houston Rockets. I'm kind of floundering, man.
Do you have any NBA tattoos yourself?
I've got three Kobe Bryant tattoos now. He's my life idol. Ever since I was a kid, [I liked him]. It's that die-hard attitude. He just goes out and gets what he wants. He gets it done no matter the circumstance. That whole Mamba Mentality thing, you know? I like the thinking behind it.
Do you get the chance to talk to people about why they've chosen to get sports tattoos?
That's the cool thing about what I do because I'm such a big sports fan. When I have a tattoo for a sports person that day, I'm like, Man, it's going to be a good day, because it's going to be sports talk all day.
What usually motivates them to do it?
I suppose it's the same reason I have a Kobe Bryant tattoo. They're just so inspiring. When you watch basketball especially, it's so fast paced, and you can get pretty riled up pretty fast. People love to idolize those kinds of people and their bodies.
Talk me through what's involved. How long do these types of tattoo sessions take?
It can go anywhere from one to two days. A day is between seven and nine or ten hours. Some of them take 20 hours over two days, while some of them can take 17 or 18. Some of them I can do in a day. It just depends on the size and detail and things like that.
At what point did you realize your work was blowing up overseas?
As soon as I started working at Matt Jordan's shop—Ship Shape, in Auckland, New Zealand—that's when I kind of knew that I had some buzz because he recognized my work and gave me a job. Working under him was good, and it made me a lot better. Then the social media thing started kicking over. That's when it was like, It's time to really push it now.
It's like a dream come true. Being able to say that my work was on ESPN, or SportsCenter, or anything like that. I never thought I'd see my name on ESPN. It's not for playing, which sucks. That'd be nice—as part of the Lakers or something like that.
Has the attention opened up any other opportunities for you?
It's opened up a whole bunch. I get emails from influencer websites and sports brands that want to do collaborations. It's awesome to be able to start getting these kinds of opportunities. I've been traveling for quite a bit now, maybe three years, and it's still getting even crazier. We're off to Costa Rica today for a tattoo convention. I just got back four days ago from Singapore.
You also get people flying to New Zealand specifically so you can tattoo them. That's crazy.
Yeah, it is crazy. I never thought I'd have people flying 36 hours to get tattooed by me.
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