MARK of an athlete Tattoos: Body art is making an indelible impression on athletes, who often see it in many more lights than simple decoration.

December 03, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Let's play word association: Tattoo. It conjures up a member of the Hell's Angels dressed in black leather astride a Harley. Popeye the Sailor with that anchor on his bulging forearm. A small man pointing to the sky and yelling, "De plane! De plane!"

But in the 1990s, tattoos are seen everywhere -- from the wrist of a waiter in your favorite coffee bar to the biceps of an athlete in your favorite sport.

When the Associated Press did a preseason survey of all 29 NBA teams, it found that 35.1 percent of the players have tattoos. But, though the NBA has Dennis Rodman, it does not have a monopoly.

Tattoos are everywhere in sports. They've moved from the arms and chests of bikers and sailors onto the arms, backs, shoulders and ankles of athletes from high school to college to the pros.

The images range from heartfelt memorials to the whimsical -- often on the same body. And the reasons for wearing permanent body art? The answers are as diverse as the individuals who wear it.

Towson University gymnast Heather Hanson, currently blond -- "It's been so many colors, I don't remember my real hair color," she says -- has 22 body piercings and five tattoos. Hanson was 3 when her mother had her ears pierced and 17 when, accompanied by her mom -- "who had to come with me and provide proof of ownership" -- she got her first tattoo, in memory of a former coach who was killed in an airplane crash.

"His name was Stormy Eaton, and he was like my father," Hanson says. "I used to tell him I'd like to get a tattoo, and he'd laugh and say, 'The only tattoo you're ever going to get is my name on your butt.' He coached me at a club at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., for seven or eight years, and my mom knew the kind of relationship we had. When I told her I wanted to get this in his memory, she understood."

She has "Stormy Eaton" tattooed on the back of her hip.

Hanson, 19, repeats what most tattoo wearers say: A tattoo is "addictive." For her, one led to a butterfly under her navel and that one to a Hopi Indian design near her heart and that one to the pair of devilish green eyes between her shoulder blades.

Then, when another friend from home died in a motorcycle accident two months ago, Hanson had his initials, "KT," tattooed in old English script on her right arm.

"The ones I've gotten done of people have been very dear to me," she says. "They've changed my life in positive ways. They're people that I love."

More than a fad

At the end of a Ravens practice, more than a half-dozen tattooed players head for the locker room. Among them is fullback Tony Vinson, who has a large Darth Vader lookalike on his arm with the words, "Know the Ledge." Vinson says a lot of his fraternity brothers at Towson State also got the design.

"Basically, it's supposed to represent a Phi Beta Sigma standing on a ledge," he says of the image he got in 1994. "I did it because I wanted it. There's just something about a tattoo that I like. I wouldn't have gotten it if I thought it was just a fad. I think it's more than that."

It doesn't matter that the tattooing process is painful. "Like a hard pinch," said Ravens punter Greg Montgomery. "Like a cat scratch," said Dave Sobel, a tattoo artist at the Hysterical Tattoo & Body Piercing shop in Ellicott City. It doesn't matter that it's done with needles, or that a color pigment is injected into the skin, more or less for life.

"It's not so painful you can't stand it," said Ravens wide receiver Derrick Alexander, who has three -- a panther, a colorful snake and a scorpion -- despite being "afraid of needles."

Both male and female athletes are getting tattooed.

At Goucher College, soccer teammates Nana Gecaga and Sarah Weaver sport five tattoos between them.

"When people first started getting them, it was to be different," said Weaver, who has a green "W" tattooed on her upper right arm. "All the people I know want something that's different. That's self-expression.

"But some of it seems to be pride in your team. If you look back at the 1996 Olympics, the swimmers had five silver rings. Others make tributes to people. I don't know, it's a permanent thing and it seems to be a reaffirmation of your commitment to something."

And the something can be almost anything.

Montgomery has snapshot images of his life on his upper arms and shoulders.

"They're not things," he said. "They're people I've met, experiences I've had. I've grown mentally and spiritually with them."

Among the symbols is a sun god that stands for power. It should stand for commitment. It took six hours to have it done and represents a tribute to a friend Montgomery made in Florida, Bjorn Maxitmoto. Montgomery credits Maxitmoto, who has a dream of taking a personal watercraft solo across the Atlantic, for inspiring him to new heights.

Tribal symbols

Thousands of years ago, tattoos represented tribal memberships. Later, they became a class distinction, worn by high priests and royalty. In the mid-20th century, tattoos became associated with deviant behavior.

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