Arrow-right Camera


Basketball players’ tattoos share lives, feelings

No stain, no gain.

Basketball player Sam Dower got the message during his freshman year at Gonzaga University from Robert Sacre, the big man on campus with an outsized personality to match.

In four seasons with the Bulldogs, Sacre made his points in the paint. He even brought the paint – dark hues of tattoos on a mobile, 7-foot canvas.

Sacre also made an indelible impression on Dower, now a junior, with some skin in the game – and the game on his skin. Below his neck, a basketball sprouts wings and proclaims a simple message: “One love.”

“Basketball is my one love,” Dower explained. “I love basketball, so you’ve got to get a basketball tat.”

For Dower and other area college basketball players, a tattoo is nothing more than art imitating life – their own.

For them, a tattoo doesn’t scream, “Here I am.” It merely says, “This is who I am.”

A lasting mark

The oldest tattoos date to 3,300 B.C. in the Swiss Alps, where a hunter was found with 50 various markings. The ancient Egyptians used tattoos to mark their slaves; the Chinese did the same to bandits and criminals.

On the other end of the social spectrum, the English gentry and royalty made tattoos a fad in the late 19th century; even Winston Churchill wore an anchor on his forearm.

Hardly mainstream stuff, until today. According to research conducted two years ago by the Wall Street Journal and others, the nation’s 15,000 tattoo shops earn $2.3 billion annually. Almost one-quarter of adult Americans have at least one tattoo; that figure jumps to 36 percent for 18- to-25-year-olds, despite the $80 to $100 average hourly cost of getting inked.

“They do it to feel part of something,” said Todd Hechtman, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Washington University. “The interesting thing about tattoos is it’s to the point where it’s no longer just sailors and bikers. Now it’s gotten to the point where it’s more and more common.”

Their tats come in all shades, but society views them in stark black and white. For every American who sees them as an expression of individualism, skeptics see pointless rebellion, a generational divide marked in bold lines of defiance. To them, the Egyptian slaves didn’t have a choice, in contrast to the modern slaves of fashion who are willing to part with hundreds of dollars in return for several hours of pain.

By getting a tattoo, “You’re engaging in a safe kind of rebellion,” Hechtman said. “You’re not really dropping out of school … it’s a way to seize control of yourself and make a kind of statement about self-determination.”

Tattoos are here to stay, thanks partly to pop culture and sports. At Body Language Tattoo in Cheney, owner Gary Short fondly remembers the Seattle Seahawks, who until six years ago held their summer camp at nearby Eastern Washington University.

Defensive lineman Chad Eaton and his teammates would embellish their physiques with a few specialty tattoos.

“I sure miss ’em,” Short said of the Seahawks. “They would draw in the younger people.”

That goes double for basketball, where the tattoos are up close and personal to fans in the stands.

About 60 percent of NBA players have at least one tattoo, including reigning most valuable player and world champion LeBron James.

For many impressionable young athletes, the tattoo-covered James is the ultimate role mural.

“I definitely think that some of these guys look up to the NBA,” Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford said.

Said Hechtman, “It’s an expression of collective identity. By getting a tattoo, you’re saying ‘I’m identifying with that group.’ ”

First impressions

On a personal level, the debate over tattoos usually centers on one question: “Why?”

Or, “Why the heck?” when the question is posed after the fact by disbelieving parents, friends or co-workers.

“I don’t know,” admits Kevin Winford, a senior point guard at Eastern Washington. “Some athletes get tattoos just because it’s the cool thing to do, but others believe in art. I do believe to a certain extent a lot of it is crazy.”

Nevertheless, to Winford, who was raised in a military family, the reason to get a tattoo came as suddenly and liberatingly as his 18th birthday: because he could.

“The whole idea drove my parents nuts,” said Winford, who’s not the rebellious type and has the tats to prove it: a basketball. His brother’s initials. Clouds and stars. Hands clasped in prayer. “That symbolized our family,” Winford said.

For many athletes, tattoos are an article of faith.

Dower’s first tattoo was a Bible verse from Psalm 73: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Said Dower, “It’s one of my favorite quotes in the Bible and a certain thing I live by.”

Jordan Railey, a redshirting center at Washington State University, said he was 17 when an aunt showed him a Bible verse, James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

Said Railey, “That kind of fit into how my life was at the time and what I was going through.”

Fair enough, said Hayford, the EWU coach. “But I tell my players that a tattoo is a permanent reminder of how you felt at that moment, so really make sure that that moment really means something to you.”

Maiki Viela, a sophomore guard for the Gonzaga women’s team, took it slowly. Back home in Lahaina, Hawaii, she invited her mom along for the first session.

“We talked about it and I told her what I wanted and she said OK,” said Viela, who now sports five tattoos – including a $750 tattoo with an outline map of her home island of Maui along with a heart marking her hometown and a heart-shaped basketball.

“It means love for my town and basketball,” Viela said.

Said Winford: “It’s an art form, and some of it is beautiful.”

‘Shootin’ for the sleeve’

On a Saturday night in Cheney, the ink is flowing at Body Language Tattoo.

A young woman lies on her stomach as the artist shoots indelible ink deep into her skin while Short consults with a 20-ish man who’s obviously a repeat customer.

“He’s shootin’ for the sleeve,” said Short, owner of Body Language since 1997.

Short proffers his own arms, covered in two long sleeves of tattoos. “See? A lot of people want to shoot for the sleeve.”

That includes athletes, who are never short of ambition.

Wendell Faines, a reserve forward for the Idaho Vandals, is a starter on the regional all-tat squad; they’re sprinkled over his 6-foot-9 frame.

Faines’ tattoos are big on words: the names of his mother, father, cousin, grandmother, Jesus Christ and Malcolm X. “Those are the people who have influenced me and helped me through college,” Faines said.

Another tattoo shows a street sign – 30th and M Street in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb. “It’s where I’m from,” Faines said, repeating the art-imitates-life theme.

There’s more: A portrait of Malcolm X graces Faines’ upper left arm. “I always wanted to get it as a kid, but I had to find the right artist,” Faines said. “He is one of my heroes.”

Idaho teammate Michael McChristian has half a dozen. “The ones on my chest underneath the one on my shoulder are my sisters’ names,” McChristian said. “They’re kind of in clouds, in the sky.”

Rethinking their ink

But if the sky is the limit for tattoos, common sense says otherwise.

“I don’t think people are putting a lot of thought into this,” said Hechtman, the associate professor of sociology. “They’re not asking themselves: ‘Is this going to give me trouble later?’ ”

First there’s the cost, financial and otherwise. “Shooting for the sleeve” is good for the tattoo business, but the cost can run into the thousands of dollars.

Then there’s the physical pain of the needle. “That’s the main reason I didn’t want to get one,” Dower said. “He (Sacre) said it was worth it. It’s pretty painful, but it’s not the worst pain in the world.”

That may come later, when the same tats that looked so great under the arena lights beg to be hidden from the harsh glare of the corporate world.

At Advanced Aesthetics in Spokane, Dr. Kevin Johnson is working with a 24-year-old client employed by a government agency. The skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his neck is covered by a bandage.

“So he needs to have it removed,” Johnson said. “A lot of people have visible tattoos, but they’re looking for advancement and so they need to have them removed.”

According to a report last year in Forbes magazine, most human resource managers say that all things being equal, they will hire the more clean-cut employee. According to 37 percent of managers queried by Forbes, body piercings are the most likely attribute that may limit an employee’s career potential, followed by bad breath and visible tattoos.

“I don’t plan on getting any more,” said Winford, a business management major at Eastern who plans to earn his MBA. Winford assesses his tattoos, which are confined to his upper arms and torso, then points to his forearms.

“Getting out in the real world, I won’t have them in these areas,” Winford said. “No way.”

For some athletes, the real world may cause them to rethink their ink. A Wall Street Journal report published last fall shows that roughly half of tattooed adults will attempt to remove them. Removal involves four to 12 laser sessions at roughly $100 each, Johnson said – a painful exchange of blue ink for the red of personal debt.

No matter what, Railey isn’t quitting now.

“I think right now I’m at 12 and I’m pretty sure I’m just going to keep going. … Obviously, one day I’m going to have a family and stuff, so I want to have room for my kids.”

Staff writers Christian Caple, Chris Derrick and Jim Meehan and correspondent Josh Wright contributed to this report.