Next time you are grocery shopping, sitting in church or strolling through the mall, look around and guess the percentage of people around you with tattoos.
Now think sports. Count the number of athletes with ink. Without doing a formal survey, you just know the percentage of athletes sporting tats is higher than the rest of society.
Why is this? I cannot be the only sports fan to ponder the tattoo culture in sports. Let's delve into this.
I reached out to several organizations in T-Town; I wanted to talk this over with as many tattooed athletes as possible.
Several of the local organizations declined to participate. Are they protecting their squeaky clean image for Tulsa? Is there still a portion of the population that still considers tattoos to be taboo?
It seems like yesterday tattooing was legalized in Oklahoma. The law was passed in November of 2006. A quick Google reveals more than 30 tattoo shops listed in Tulsa and surrounding areas. People are getting inked.
"My first one is on my leg," said former Tulsa Shock guard Shavonte Zellous. "I was in 10th grade and my great-grandma had passed away. I was like 'Mom, I have to go get this.' I think that started me off."
Zellous started young and with a purpose. She wanted to honor her great-grandma. "In memory of Thema" it reads. This seems to be a fairly common theme with all first timers. My cousin, hardly an athlete, got his first when his father passed away.
Tulsa Shock guard Natasha Lacy lost her father when she was eight.
Her left arm now reads his initials and R.I.P.
"My left arm is devoted to family," Lacy said. "I waited until I was 18 to get it. It was in remembrance of him. All of your parents are an integral part of your life. I was daddy's little girl. I have two brothers and a sister. We all have a tattoo in honor of my father. My sister did it. My brother did it. My other brother did it. I was like, 'I'll do it, too.' Kind of like a family thing."
Memorializing a family member is just one reason. Not all first-timers take the plunge for the same reason. For me, it was a drunken senior trip stupor, but I digress.
Local MMA fighter Tom Jones never dreamt of getting a tattoo until one night on the strip. "I was in Vegas with someone who wanted to stop in a shop," Jones recalled. "I walked in, looked around and I knew I was going to get one."
He left the shop, went back to the hotel and slept on the idea. He woke up in the morning convinced a tattoo was in his immediate future. He started with a couple of small kanji marks before adding on.
That's the thing. Most athletes do not stop at one. Actually, the majority of people with tattoos will tell you the same thing. It's addictive. Every once in a while you run across an individual with a single rose, butterfly or Tasmanian devil.
Professional athletes are a different breed. They did not get to where they are by going small. Lacy has four and is looking to add. Zellous currently sports around 30 and is falling behind some of her friends in the ink race.
Tom Jones has fewer, but his are much larger in profile. His upper-back and shoulders are covered with intricate designed tribal. Lots of thought went into this piece.
"I started looking up the old Polynesian tattoos," he said. "The way of the warriors. They had to sit there for six days. That was part of the rights of passage of becoming a man, becoming a warrior. You had to sit there for six days and not complain. If you couldn't, you didn't become a warrior or a man," Jones said. He drew up the initial diagram and has added on since then.
For Jones, the tribal art helps reinvent his in-cage persona. People watching fights will forget many of the participants on the evening, but many will remember the guy with the mesmerizing back tat.
It takes a unique person to push themselves both mentally and physically to become a professional athlete. If it were easy, many of us would be getting paid handsomely by a sports team. But it is not easy.
Maybe the same mental and physical prowess also triggers the part of the brain that enjoys the tattoo process.
"Some call it attitude -- Others may say I'm too aggressive -- But I call it passion" reads the tattoo on Lacy's right arm. She grew up challenging society norms by playing basketball against the boys. Without the passion, she might not be suiting up for the Shock today.
Few get ink for conversation pieces. Most of the time, the tattoo is personal and the meaning stays with the individual. It could be a special reminder.
"It's just something that I wanted to do," Zellous said of her 30-something tattoos. "It does not mean someone has to come up to me and ask me, 'What's that tattoo?' I am not looking for that. I think it's something I wanted to do for myself."
Jones had not given much thought on the subject until asked: "I don't know if it's the same mentality that lets us fight that we want to do something like this. For me it goes along with my personality and the fighting."
A mostly hidden tattoo Jones sports on his left leg is of the Violator character from the Spawn comic book series.
"I wanted something like that to remind me of my inner demons, and why I try and push myself," he said. "It's elaborate, it took a long time but if no one ever sees it I'm fine. To me, it's a reminder for me."
Sure seems like an additional way to express one's self. The passion and desire to excel might be the same reason tattoos appeal to athletes. It is an achievement of sorts.
Look at the NBA's Denver Nuggets roster. A team full of ink. Now check out the Oklahoma City Thunder? See a difference?
Could tattoos be contagious? Not likely, but it is curious that close-knit groups often enjoy the process in a similar fashion.
As individualistic as tattoos are, perhaps ink helps bond a team.
If you played sports in your youth, you likely heard the motto: No pain, no gain. This fits right in with the overall theme of tattooing.
Pain is temporary, pride is forever.
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