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 of society."
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 the elite."
"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.