Ethan Swan, who runs an art gallery in downtown Los Angeles, believes that "so much of art is about the creation of meaning through image." He also believes that "tattoos are a great way to mark pain."
So Swan is naturally interested in how body ink plays out for others. It's become what he admits is a quest.
As the founder of the blog NBA Tattoos, Swan tells NPR's Michel Martin that in 2010, he got a new cable package and started watching a lot of basketball.
"There's just these kind of recurring questions that come up — especially when you're watching these mid-season less interesting games — of, 'how many people do have tattoos?'" It turned out that fact wasn't so easy to find out. "I thought, there's 30 teams. There's 15 guys on a team. That's 450 people. It shouldn't be that hard to just sit down and say, 'does this guy have tattoos or not?'" he explains.
Of those 450 players, he counts 55 percent as being tattooed. "They're each individually creating meaning, and for me on a bigger level, I think basketball is very much about personality, I think that's why I'm drawn to it more than other sports," he says. "You see friendships, you see rivalries, there's so much visible on the court with players, that tattoos became another way for me to think about these personalities."
On whether players have any fun tattoos
There are tons of just for fun tattoos, I think. You know one of the ones that always jumps out to me is Wilson Chandler. On his leg [he] has just a ton of cartoon characters like Beavis and Butthead, or some of the characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I'm probably 10 years older than him so a lot of the cartoon references aren't meaningful to me, but again, it's this creation of meaning, of 'this is a thing that's important to me, and I'm going to wear it on my leg.'
On who has the most heartbreaking tattoo in the League
Randy Foye, the portrait of his mother he has tattooed over his heart who, you know, when he was 3 years old, his mother left the family. He's never seen her since, but to him it's really kind of almost this act of forgiveness, of saying 'if my mother were in my life, she would be so important to me so I am trying to replicate that experience or show how important she could be to me.' That one's crushing.
On using tattoos to mark important changes in a player's life
One of the tattoos I've been thinking so much about lately is Tyson Chandler who plays for the Knicks...when Tyson Chandler came into the League, he had a copy of an Allen Iverson tattoo which was a cross that said around it 'Only The Strong Survive.' And this past year, Tyson Chandler who is now 32, had all the lettering that spells out 'Only The Strong Survive' crossed out — just with a single line — so it's still readable but it's just struck through. And there's a great interview with him online where he says, 'You know, this isn't a thing I believe any more. I'm older. I have a different definition of strength. I think very differently about what these things mean, and I don't know that I want to walk around with this on my arm anymore, but I also want to make clear that this was a thing that was important to me and now I've changed.'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The NBA finals ended on Sunday with a victory for the San Antonio Spurs. And while many of us have debated the merits of age versus swagger and Michael versus Lebron, did you stop to ask yourself which team has the most tatoos? It turns out that the Heat win the tattoo index. Sixty percent of the Heat are tatted up, compared to 43 percent of the Spurs. How do we know? - why, Ethan Swan's online database, of course. It's called NBA Tattoos. For the past four seasons, Ethan Swan has been documenting the league's tattoos, which, he says, now adorn at least 55 percent of the league's players. If you are wondering why he does it and why it matters, well, he's with us now. Ethan Swan, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
ETHAN SWAN: Thank you so much. It's an honor.
MARTIN: How did you get started on this?
SWAN: I guess, 2010, I bought League Pass for the first time, which is, like, a subscription service. And I guess at the time, I didn't realize how much basketball I was going to be watching. I usually watch two a night. And then there's just these kind of reoccurring questions that come up, especially when you're watching these mid-season, less interesting games of kind of - how many people do have tattoos? And I thought it would be a statistic that would be really easy to find, but then nobody had really come up with a definitive answer there. So it was kind of more rumor. And I thought, there's 30 teams. There's 15 guys on a team. That's 450 people. It shouldn't be that hard to just sit down and say, does this guy have tattoos or not? - especially if I'm watching a couple games every night, and everything is so visible in the games.
MARTIN: So it became a quest?
SWAN: Yes, a quest - absolutely. Yeah.
MARTIN: And you're an artist yourself. I know you run a gallery. I mean, I'm just wondering why tattoos as opposed to, you know, how many guys are invested in Walmart or something like that? There's lots of things that one might want to know.
SWAN: (Laughing) Sure - well, that's a great point. You know, my wife and I used to talk about the guys that wear zero and if there was a certain kind of energy that makes a person choose the jersey number zero. That's another thing that's a little bit tough to find - that information. But with tattoos, you know it's - like you said, I'm heavily involved in art. So to me, so much of art is about the creation of meaning through image. All the same images exist - the basketball, the cross, the RIP tattoo - these kind of really basic categories of tattoo that exist in the NBA. But then you see how these 450 guys - a little more than half of which have tattoos - they're each individually creating meaning. For me, on a bigger level, I think basketball is very much about personality. I think that's why I'm drawn to it more than other sports. You see friendships. You see rivalries. There's so much visible on the court with players, that tattoos became another way for me to kind of think about these personalities.
MARTIN: So let's do two different categories. A lot of these tattoos really are rooted in pain, right? - and painful stories right?
MARTIN: So who has the most heartbreaking tattoo?
SWAN: I've said before, on the blog that, that Randy Foye - the portrait of his mother he has tattooed over his heart - who, you know, when he was three years old, his mother left the family. He's never seen her since - but to him it's really kind of almost this act of forgiveness, of saying, if my mother were in my life, she would be so important to me, so I'm trying to replicate that experience or show how important she could be to me and it's crushing.
MARTIN: That is heartbreaking. Right on every level. And what about just for fun? There are just for fun tattoos right?
SWAN: There are tons of just for fun tattoos. I think, you know, one of the ones that jumps out to me is - Wilson Chandler, on his leg, has just a ton of cartoon characters, like Beavis and Butthead. There are some of the characters from "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." I'm probably 10 years older than him so a lot of the cartoon references aren't meaningful to me, but the creation of meaning - this is a thing that is important to me, and I'm going to wear it on my leg.
MARTIN: Why do you think that tattoos have become so much a part of the NBA style these days? Any thoughts about that?
SWAN: Well, I think some of it traces back to Allen Iverson. Obviously he wasn't the first tattooed player but something about Iverson's defiance, tenacity and drive. You see a lot of players really do look up to him, and you actually will find many quotes from players who say, I got my first tattoo because Allen Iverson has a tattoo or something like that. Somebody like Nate Robinson, for example, said, my first tattoo was a bull dog that I got when I was thirteen because of Allen Iverson's bulldog.
MARTIN: You know, one of the other points, though, that I heard you make, though, is that there has been a lot of negative judgment around these tattoos. Do you think that's true?
SWAN: I think negative association is a great way to put it. Of course, when I sat down to start doing the work - a lot of what I do is just search for players on the Internet, search for images or search for interviews where they talk about their tattoos. And a side effect of that - every website that covers sports has done a 20 worst tattoos in basketball - 20 stupidest decisions with a tattoo - that kind of thing. And on that level, it's a judgment that I don't really understand. But it gets so much deeper when critics try to use it as a way to talk about a player's character, you know. You guys are in Washington, D.C. where John Wall plays. And John Wall, one of my most favorite players in the league - when he came into the league, there was a great Washington Post article about him, where he talks about his relationship with his father, which is another really heartbreaking intense thing to follow. And he said, I probably won't get any tattoos because I don't want to mess up any opportunities to get sponsorships. And he said, but if I were to get a tattoo, I would get a tribute to my father. And at the end of last season, in the 2012-2013 season, he did. He covered his chest and I think his back, as well, with tattoos.
And somebody, another sportswriter in D.C. said this is why you can't trust this guy. This is why he won't be the leader of this team because he went back on his promise about getting tattoos. I think holding a 23-year-old responsible for something he said when he was 20 is absurd. Again, his tattoo is super personal. He's got a attribute to Raleigh, North Carolina, which is where he grew up, and these kind of heavenly creature, and so I don't understand - you know, it's sports. It's analytics. There's so many ways to judge these guys. You can look at how they score. You can look at how they pass. I mean that's the whole terrain of sports, right? -is judging someone based on the decisions they're making on the court. So the idea of using this kind of arbitrary side activity as a way to judge them just seems ludicrous to me.
MARTIN: You have some tattoos yourself.
SWAN: It's true.
MARTIN: I take it. Yeah. And what are yours about?
SWAN: Well, I think tattoos are a great way to mark pain in a lot of ways. You know, I have a tattoo of a rabbit - I had a pet rabbit that I lived with for 10 years - that I got shortly after his death - like a portrait of him. I have a tattoo that says absent friends - a tattoo that I got in celebration that has since kind of turned its energy is - I have tattoo of a rooster, and the rooster's beak is the letter J for my sister Jordana. My sister died about a year and half ago now, and so it has this kind of different way that I think about it - about her presence or her continued importance in my life.
MARTIN: I'm sorry about your sister.
MARTIN: Do you think your tattoos kind of connect you to those guys in some way? I mean, you're not seven foot tall, but you do have some tats. You got some ink.
SWAN: Well, I think that - you know, one of the tattoos I've been taking so much about lately is Tyson Chandler who plays for the Knicks - and this goes back to the Allen Iverson thing. When Tyson Chandler came into the league, he had a copy of an Allen Iverson tattoo, which was across that said around it, only the strong survive. And this past year, Tyson Chandler, who's now 32, had all the lettering that spells out only the strong survive crossed out just with a single line. So it's still readable, but it's just struck through. And there's a great interview with him online where he says, you know, this isn't a thing I believe anymore. I'm older. I have a different definition of strength. I think very differently about what these things mean, and I don't know that I want to walk around with this on my arm anymore. But I also want to make clear that this was a thing that was important to me, and now I've changed. And I think that that aspect of marking a change, of marking a thing that was important - you know, I have a lot of tattoos that I have done myself that you just do with like sewing needle and India ink.
MARTIN: OK. You're telling me more than I want to know. Sorry. That's OK. You're crossing my comfort level there.
SWAN: Sorry. Sorry.
MARTIN: OK. But anyway - go ahead. You were saying -finish your thought.
SWAN: Oh sure. But the - but those stick-and-pokes, you know - they were done at kind of lower times in my life, and I'm glad I have them because I do think they mark this thing that I just can look at and say wow. that was - in 2005 - that was a tough year, you know, and I think that, in that way, watching these players' biographies unfold in this way through the tattoos that they get, I think, is really nice for me to think about the way that my tattoos or the people I care about that have tattoos unfold in that similar way.
MARTIN: Ethan Swan's blog is called NBA Tattoos. He also runs a gallery in Downtown, Los Angeles. We caught up with him at our bureau in Culver, City California. That's NPR West. Ethan Swan, thanks so much for joining.
SWAN: Thank you Michel. It's really a treat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.