C.W. Eldridge watches his television set these days and searches
for the smaller pictures inside the bigger pictures. He is the
curator of the Tattoo Archive in Berkeley, Calif., and one of
his goals is to keep an up-to-date file on all the tattoos in
sports. C.W. is a very busy man.
Every game, every athletic event, is a sort of Where's Waldo
puzzle. If a leg sticks out from a pileup at the line of
scrimmage and C.W. notices a panther crawling down the calf, he
writes down the player's name and number. If an All-Star forward
stands at the foul line and C.W. can see the word pip written
across the biceps, he follows the same process. Name and number.
If the foremost boxer on the planet unloads an uppercut
and...was that a picture of Mao Tse-tung that suddenly went
flying past? Name. No number.
The task sometimes seems almost impossible. Tattoos suddenly are
everywhere in sports. "There's never been a time like this in
our country's history," says C.W., a man who is tattooed from
head to toe. "Not in sports. Not in society. We're going through
an incredible tattoo renaissance. Not even during World War II,
when soldiers were getting tattoos for luck before they left
home, was there anything like this. Never has there been such a
broad movement for body decoration across such a cross-section
Nowhere is the movement more visible than on the playing fields
and in the arenas of the land. Who has a tattoo? Who doesn't?
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson has the picture of Mao on
one arm and a picture of Arthur Ashe on the other. Orlando Magic
center Shaquille O'Neal has a Superman logo on one arm and TWISM
on the other, which stands for The World Is Mine. Jerry Rice has
a tattoo. David Justice. Riddick Bowe. Doug Gilmour. Nike CEO
Phil Knight. Dennis Rodman!!!! Rodman seems to have the contents
of the Louvre tattooed across his body.
Ten years ago, maybe a boxer or a professional wrestler could be
seen with a tattoo, but virtually nobody else. Now, wide
receivers and relief pitchers and hockey defensemen can look
like Maori warriors, lifer supply sergeants, Hell's Angels or
Lemmy, the singer from Motorhead. "Athletes are getting
tattooed, but everyone's getting tattooed these days," artist
Gill Montie of Tattoo Mania in Hollywood says. "The entire
business has changed. It's not a bad-guy thing to have a tattoo
anymore. It's like dyeing your hair. People are putting their
inside on their outside. It's always been said that tattoos are
where the elite meets the underworld. Well, athletes are part of
"Tattoos go back thousands of years," tattoo legend Lyle Tuttle
of San Francisco says. "Marking his own body might have been one
of man's first conscious decisions. Chasing an animal down for
food, making fire, building shelter, those were things he had to
do by instinct. Marking his body was something he wanted to do.
"Tattoos have always been sort of a blue-collar item in our
society," Tuttle adds. "Why that's changed, I don't know. I
guess it's just a crazy world we live in."
Each tattoo is a personal, irrevocable, lifetime commitment.
Each tattoo is a story. C.W. says most of the tattoos he applies
these days are custom works to people with their own images of
what they want on their bodies. He, too, is not sure what has
happened--MTV? A simple trend? What?--but says he is delighted
that a lot of those new, tattooed bodies finally play sports.
"These people are certainly visible," he says. "Their tattoos
are visible. You can see the arms, the legs, the shoulders, in a
lot of sports. Fans, kids, see their heroes with tattoos and
they want 'em too."
Now, there's a comforting thought.