Were I to pinpoint the cause of my brief relationship with body art, the blame would fall squarely on the shoulders of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and their 1991 album, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’. The album was one of the first to shape my taste in music, and its liner notes, which presented each member’s tattoo collection in fascinating detail, were my first intimate exposure to tattoos as an art form.
In the first half of the 20th century, tattoos spoke of rebellion and linked their bearers to a specific mindset and social position. As musicians, RHCP are part of an enclave of society that includes the military and other outsider bon vivants who were classically expected to be ink-adorned. In the early nineties, RHCP helped normalize body art and make it accessible. Tattoos became more about choice and self-expression than rebellion, and suddenly they were everywhere, particularly in pro sports.
Tattoos reflect the reality of excess inhabited by those playing professional sports- a world where ego and hubris are standard. More than normalizing tattoos, pro athletes, along with musicians and celebrities, have established them as desirable, high-end vanity objects. Tattoo culture is ingrained in American popular culture, particularly sports, and in recent years, this culture has stormed the august shores of the beautiful game.
Some argued that the tattoo, paired with Beckham’s shaved head, made him look like a hooligan; the precise image that anyone with a stake in the credibility of English football wanted to avoid. As an extreme judgment of what amounts to simple bad timing (and taste), this reaction reinforces that while tattoos are widely accepted compared to twenty years ago, they‘re still plagued by the stigma of their past, particularly in football.
Does this new brand of posturing matter to football fans? Swagger among footballers is nothing new. A look at George Best and Kevin Keegan in their heyday reminds that for some pros, football has always been about more than on-the-pitch outcomes. But tattoos are different from flashy clothes and cars in that they can be seen during games when it matters most. Despite the distractions of their unruly hair and high, tight shorts, Best and Keegan, like nearly all top-flight footballers until the turn of the 21st century, sported no visible tattoos.
David Beckham, with his global icon status, did for tattoos in football what Dennis Rodman did for them in basketball. And while Beckham may not be the first footballer to sport a tattoo collection, he was certainly the most prominent. His profile as an ambassador of the game made tattoos more acceptable. But the question of their visibility in football, as in any sport, is of aesthetic acceptability. Do they look right? Are we comfortable with heavily tattooed players representing club and country?
The days of being crudely tattooed down by the harbour are past, but the truth is that even as tattoos have become mainstream accessories, many in society still see them as the preserve of rebellious outsiders with loose morals. It’s hard to see clean-cut stars like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard retaining the same level of accessibility and credibility with sleeve and neck tattoos favoured by younger top-flight footballers.
Raul Mierles, freshly of Chelsea, sports a considerable collection, as does his ex-Anfield cohort Daniel Agger. Each player, while contributing members of their respective clubs, is hardly its biggest star. David Beckham, on the other hand, will be the face of whichever club he chooses until he retires. And contrary to Jerry Richardson’s thinking, Beckham’s tattoos have bolstered, not damaged, his popularity, mainstream and otherwise.
As time passes, fans of the game will become more comfortable with football’s growing tattoo culture. Ultimately, footballers are pro athletes, and among the trappings of ego and excess that accompany the life of a pro athlete are tattoos. This isn’t soon to change, regardless of the sport. As younger generations of fans grow into an understanding of body art as another form of personal expression, the stigma that still hangs from tattoos will surely erode. For now, the issue in football is the same as it is in today’s corporate culture: tattoos can be worn but not seen.