“If Tattoos Could Talk”

By Peter Weston Wood on November 15, 2015
“If Tattoos Could Talk”
If Wilder’s tattoos could talk, what would they say? Well, there are four basic categories.

Tattoos are, simply, trendy. Since the 1990s, more and more fighters have sought their identity, or toughness, in a tattoo, but it’s their vulnerability I see…

If you have a tattoo, you’ll hate this article. So, don’t bother reading it…As long as lightweight Billy Tully agrees with me, I’m okay.

                                                                * * *

I met Deontay Wilder at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn shortly after he returned from the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he won the bronze medal. At that time, “The Bronze Bomber” had one tattoo on his arm—a depiction of a pair of hands in prayer clutching a rosary.

Since then, he’s covered the majority of his massive six-foot-seven-inch body with ink. “I’ve got over a thousand hours on me,” the WBC heavyweight champion says of his extensive tattoo work. “Easily.”

“Everything that I’ve got on me has meaning, from my neck down to my feet. My body tells its own story with all the art on there.”

If Wilder’s tattoos could talk, what would they say? Well, there are four basic categories:

“Love.”

“Scripture.”

“Family.”

“Championship Belt.”

In Jason Bracelin’s article, “Tale of the Tats,” Wilder explains. “’I’m a very passionate person,” he says. “I’m a lover and a fighter.” Wilder underscores this point with a tattoo of a feather pen writing out ‘Love’ in cursive. “I feel,” he continues, “if you give me love, I’ll show you love in return, whether I’m in a relationship or whether it’s just friendship.’”

“Wilder is a spiritual person,” writes Bracelin. “If you’re lacking a Bible, his ink can serve as a substitute.”

“I love scripture,” affirms Wilder. “’So I’ve got some of my favorites on my body.” In addition to Psalm 27 on his back, he also has a portion of Psalm 144 on his hands, which read, ‘Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight.’

Wilder’s third favorite tattoo topic is his family. He has various tattoos related to his four children—Ava, Deontay Jr., Dereon and Naieya. “They remind me why I’m doing this,” he says. “I tell people all the time my children are my boss. I work for them, trying to build a future for them.”

Perhaps Wilder’s most poignant family tattoo depicts him and his daughter, Naieya, holding hands after she overcame spinal bifida. “While she was going through all the different obstacles that she had to go through, I was going through the same thing in my career, trying to support her. The tat shows us both walking down ‘The Road of Success,’” he says.

Wilder’s fourth favorite tattoo topic is his WBC Championship Belt. It took him seven years to earn, and another six hours to get inked on his thigh. “Once I unify the heavyweight division, I’m going to tat each belt on me.

If that happens, Deontay will certainly make his mark—both in the Boxing Hall of Fame and in Ripley’s Believe It or Not Hall of Fame as the most inked champion of all time.

Deontay Wilder is not the only tattooed fighter. The fighters today are millennials and most of them have at least one tattoo. Humans have inked themselves since prehistoric times—sometimes to stand out, sometimes to blend into a group. The 5000-year-old Ice Man named Oetzi, uncovered in The Alps, had tattoos.

I wonder if Oetzi was a heavyweight or flyweight.

In the past, only a handful of fighters had a tattoo. Tom Sharkey was an outlier. The cauliflower-eared heavyweight contender in the 1890s boasted a four-mast schooner etched upon his 44¾ inch chest. Light heavyweight champion Carl “Bobo” Olson, another outlier, showcased tattooed shoulders. Barney Ross, the great lightweight and welterweight of the 1930s, sported a small Star of David on his right forearm.

Today, boxers are festooned with tattoos. It’s a relentless barrage, a hodgepodge of body art. Riddick Bowe and Mariusz Wach have their beloved children’s heads etched upon their torsos. Heavyweight contenders Chris Arreola, Lucas Browne, and Malik Scott have an assortment of edgy tattoos. Miguel Cotto, Luis Collazo, Artur Szpilka, Winky Wright, Eddie “The Animal” Lopez all have their mish-mash of bad-ass tattoos. Champions Kelly Pavlik, Angel Manfredy, Paul Spadafora and Mikkel Kessler, with their power tattoos, have also been bitten by the tribal bug.

Michael Katsidis flaunts a unique full-back tattoo depicting the Virginia sun.

The late WBC lightweight champion Edwin Valero decorated his chest with the tri-colored Venezuelan flag (with Hugo Chavez’s smiling face inked inside the flag.)

Let’s not forget Johnny Tapia’s desperate flurry of grim tattoos, including his Mi Vida Loca stomach etching. Few people know about lightweight Billy Tully’s four regrettable and “utterly disgusting” army tattoos.

But the Special Tattoo Award goes out to, of course, Iron Mike Tyson for his tribal tattoo engraved upon his cheek; also for his assortment of four odd tattooed faces honoring Arthur Ashe, Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and ex-wife Monica Turner.

Today’s American culture is having an obsessive love affair with body art, body bling, and self-graffiti. USA Today reports that fifty-three percent of millennials sport at least one tattoo.

I get it: people—not just boxers—need to feel they are living a life of meaning; they want to be happy, important, or feel tough.

It’s not that I want to occupy some moral high ground; it’s just that a tattoo isn’t enough to make someone happy, important or tough. A tattoo is not the answer.

Tattoos are, simply, trendy. Since the 1990s, more and more fighters have sought their identity, or toughness, in a tattoo, but it’s their vulnerability I see. 

To some people, getting a tattoo is like walking on the wild side without actually going there.

Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Bob Foster, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard—and ninety-nine percent of the greatest fighters of all time—on anyone’s list—never felt the need to be tattooed.

A boxing friend recently said of tattoos: “A tacky sentiment or lazy quotation imbedded into skin is not a sign of profundity or toughness. It’s self-graffiti; it’s being a walking billboard.”

I agree.

For millennials, tattoos are no big deal. What was once the stuff of badass rockers, bikers and naval officers is now self-expression as commonplace as listing favorite quotes on your Facebook profile.

Deontay Wilder has something in common with the Hollywood beauties Heidi Klum, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Alba, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Helen Mirren, Rihanna—even Caroline Kennedy.

They all have been inked.

The body art found on U.S. Presidents James Polk, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, writers George Orwell and Dorothy Parker, and inventor Thomas Edison is unexpected. Outliers all—like Sharkey, Bobo and Barney Ross.

I recently visited “The Third Annual Westchester Tattoo Convention,” a major east-coast ink-fest held in White Plains, New York. It was my chance to glimpse inside the dark edgy world of tattooing. I think I was the only non-tatted human being in attendance. (As head boxing trainer of the Cage Gym in the mid-‘90s, I was almost always the only non-tatted human being inside my own gym, so I guess I’m an outlier, too.)

I am not a Republican, self-righteous, tight-ass. Let people live their lives, and I’ll live mine. But I’ve never liked tattoos. I think the older you are the less chance you’ll be forgiving of them. Neck and face tattoos are usually not as well received as other locations, no matter your age (sorry Iron Mike).

I get it. Deontay Wilder and the others fighters I mentioned perceive their body to be a blank canvas and have gotten tattooed for many reasons: for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, a visual display of a personal narrative, reminders of spiritual/cultural traditions, sexual motivation, addiction, or identification with a group. Even drunken impulsiveness.

At the tattoo convention, I walked around and observed. It was clean, quiet and orderly. People were respectful, and the low buzzing of hundreds of tattoo guns sounded like gentle honeybees. There was almost a sacred hum within the air. The atmosphere was familial and tribal.

Everyone needs to be connected to something—and this tattoo convention was their connection, their tribe.

I looked into the different booths and watched the intimate act of young men and women submitting themselves to the tattooing needle. Their young faces loomed somber and sincere as they were initiated into the tribe. What were they thinking? What were their self-esteem needs?

As I walked up and down aisles, I sensed that everyone secretly knew the truth: It takes much more than a tattoo to make themselves happy.

Like cosmetics, tattoos are like artificial limbs that make up for something felt to be missing or inadequate. People are always devising ways to enhance parts of their bodies—from makeup to diets to wigs to tattoos. Anything to make us more perfect—anything to develop a better friendship with yourself.

I thought of poor, haunted Johnny Tapia.

A tattoo promises to make you attractive and pump up your self-esteem. I spotted an obese woman in a low-cut t-shirt. She was showing off her beautiful new butterfly tattoo. All I could think was that in twenty years, that butterfly would resemble a bat or a pterodactyl.

The guy with a teardrop tattoo, sitting alone, eating a slice of pizza, was a real winner—I think he was advertising himself as a killer who had gone to prison.

I thought of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He never needed a tattoo to be tough.

And lightweight Billy Tully.

Down every aisle I walked, I saw tattooed faces, tattooed arms, tattooed thighs, body suits, and tattooed palms. It was all fascinating.

A tattoo is skin-level theater.

My boxing friend says, “There are two ways to be happy: work hard and improve your reality, or lower your expectations and get a tattoo.”

I am not a judgmental church-lady, but I tend to agree.

                                                              * * *

Insanity does not run in my family. But within the last twenty five years, since ink art has exploded into our culture, many of the young members in my family—male and female—are now walking around with tattoos. They have joined the Deontay Wilder Tattoo Tribe. One cousin was proudly initiated into the tribe with a full-back tattoo, (larger than Michael Katsidis’); another is planning a festive full-sleeve tattoo. Others have adorned themselves with charming arm and wrist tats.

Ah, youth!

I love them all, but what was once considered self-mutilatory behavior and a psychiatric problem has now become normative behavior.

But still…a tattoo is a permanent reminder of a temporary mood.

Recent research, states that “…38 is the average age when most Americans (57 %) think tattoos no longer look cool on you.” (PicoSure/Wakefield)

I’ve been dealing with this personal tattoo issue of mine since 1963 when my fifteen-year-old brother got one—a “Mom & Dad” in a red heart scrawled onto his skinny shoulder. My brother, in 1963, was an outlier (at least in our neighborhood), just like Tom Sharkey, with his four-mast schooner chest tattoo, was at the turn of the century.

I remember one summer evening, after my brother showered. I walked into the bathroom, and when his towel dropped to the floor, exposing his new tattoo, I almost fainted. I was nine.

Today, if my nineteen-year-old daughter comes home with a tattoo, I will faint. Why would she ever want to make her body into a refrigerator for magnets with trite quotations and embarrassing clichés which, one day, she will regret?

I need to introduce her to lightweight Billy Tully, the old tattooed prizefighter in Leonard Gardner’s classic boxing novel,Fat City. Gardner writes of Tully: “Down in a subterranean locker room…Tully removed his clothes. He had four tattoos, obtained while in the army and now utterly disgusting to him: a blue swallow in flight over each nipple, a green snake wound up his left wrist, and on the inside of his right forearm a dagger piercing a rose.”

The human body is already a work of art, not a blank canvas. Or refrigerator.

Billy Tully would agree.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books.

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  1. Alan W. 08:10pm, 11/24/2015

    Peter, judging by the comments, it seems your article has hit close to home for a lot of people.  Getting a tattoo takes guts, as does playing Russian Roulette, or base jumping, or playing football without a helmet—and sometimes with a helmet. However, unlike those activities, getting a tattoo is rarely fatal.  It’ll make a permanent change, but it won’t kill you.  You’ll wake up sober some morning and maybe ask yourself, why the hell did I ever do that?  But even then you’ll always know you had the guts to do it.  Hey, your parents might toss you out of the house, but chances are they’ll change their minds and have you back—if you wanna come back.  Who knows?  It might even be a test of their love, just as it was a test of your own willingness to see some kind of change through to the permanent, and fairly harmless, end.

  2. Eric 06:47am, 11/16/2015

    Irish…Angela Merkel has called for “tolerance” towards the “migrants” after the Paris massacre. Let’s not upset Angie or her children. Sweden has been the rape capital of Europe for the last couple of years because of Angie’s children.

  3. Mike Silver 10:09pm, 11/15/2015

    Thank you for this very insightful and entertaining article Peter. It convinced me not to get a tattoo.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:47pm, 11/15/2015

    I’m reminded of the guy that had “Shorty” tatooed on his putz. When activated it read “Shorty’s Bar and Grill Chattanooga, Tennessee United States of America”. “Tight assed Republicans”....that’s what’s wrong with the world is it?! How about mentally defective progressive/fascists on NPR the day after that abomination against God and man that took place in Paris that are worried shitless about anti-immigrant sentiment?!

  5. peter 11:41am, 11/15/2015

    The barrage of comments here are outstanding—witty, educated and thought-provoking. Thank you all.

  6. Clarence George 10:47am, 11/15/2015

    Marlon Brando once described Montgomery Clift as walking “around like he has a Mixmaster up his ass.”  An apt description of the politically correct, who are about as loosey-goosey as Sergeant Friday.  But Republicans have no right to be smug—amoebae, at least at the elite level.  Ah, but who’s more tattooed?  My guess is that it has less to do with politics, at least explicitly, and more to do with age, socioeconomic class, and education.  That’s just rule of thumb, of course.  Plenty of 60-year-olds in expensive suits going around with pony tails and earrings in a desperate and futile attempt to look 25.  Wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a tattoo or two beneath that Turnbull & Asser shirt.

  7. Eric 09:06am, 11/15/2015

    “Republican-self righteous-tight ass?” I’m registered as an Independent and despise a war mongering Ex-Trotskyite neo-Con aka neo-Commie as much as I do a demshevik. The so-called Republican party has been hijacked by a bunch of ex-Trotskyites and is Demshevik lite. That being said, far leftist freaks are the biggest self righteous, condescending, “tight ass” fascists out there without a doubt.

    TRUMP 2016 THERE IS HELL TOUPEE TOUR. teehee.

  8. Eric 08:55am, 11/15/2015

    Used to be only sailors, convicts and bikers sported tattoos. I sported my shark tattoo before I became a sailor and have no idea why I chose a shark tattoo other than it was affordable at the time. My other tattoo is a panther, which was as common in back in the day as that stupid barbed wire tattoo was in the early 90’s. Thankfully I stopped at just 2 tattoos. I was tattooed back in the late ‘70’s when I was young and stupid, and long before the tattoo craze. I thought this fad would have faded like the cigar phase from the same early 90’s era. This article makes me think of the original, “In Cold Blood” flick where the investigating police officer asks one of the killers if those tattoos make him feel tough. hehe. If tattoos made you tough than that drummer of Motley Crue would have kayoed Mike Tyson back in the day.

  9. FrankinDallas 08:50am, 11/15/2015

    A late cousin of mine had a tattoo on his butt cheeks.
    On the right cheek was inked “You”. I’ll leave to your imagination
    what one word was on his left cheek.

  10. Pete 07:32am, 11/15/2015

    Excellent, Peter.

  11. Clarence George 06:52am, 11/15/2015

    The ugliest and most bizarre look is the stretched earlobe, which always brings to mind those Bugs Bunny cartoons featuring cannibals.  A bit of a coincidence, but I recently read in an article that most people who undergo this exceptionally hideous form of self-mutilation (and that’s exactly what it is) regret it.  Fortunately, the repair is usually a simple surgery.

    Genuine tough guy Gennady Golovkin has no tattoos and hasn’t been shy in expressing his disdain for them.  Guess he doesn’t want to be taken for some child killer who somehow escaped from death row.

  12. Mike Casey 05:57am, 11/15/2015

    Gents, I agree wholeheartedly with all of you. Don’t we already suffer enough with silly haircuts, ridiculous trunks and macho posing? (All of which make me wonder if a guy is gay.) I just want to see a good fight, not a fashion show. That’s my grumpy old man rant for the day. Going for a walk up the street now, where every man, woman and dog seems to be ‘decorated’ in some way. Bah humbug!

  13. Bob 05:33am, 11/15/2015

    As open-minded as I like to think I am, I cannot fathom the ink phenomenon. To me it is a sign of complete conformity. With tattoos being so commonplace today, I actually have a bit more respect for the people that got them generations ago. At least they were not following the herd. How these people could think that expressing themselves through ink is going to enhance their self-belief is incomprehensible. If one is to get sleeved, it’s as if you are wearing the same shirt for the rest of your life. Regarding Mr. George’s comments, I would take the body piercings any day. At least they are not permanent. Nor are the earrings that so many men wear these days. It all seems silly to me, but maybe I’m just a square. I just can’t imagine anyone looking down at their tattoos 20 years from now and liking what they see. But that’s just me. Excellent article, Mr. Wood, you covered a lot of ground. I was shocked at some of the president’s that were inked. You did some excellent research and psychological study with this terrific piece.  As an aside, let’s think of a few boxers who are considered a bit more intelligent than the “:tribe” and might actually have a life after boxing. Names like Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Glen Johnson, even Floyd Mayweather who is a lot smarter than he gets credit for, Carl Froch, the Klitschko brothers.  Not a stain of ink on any of them.  Just saying.

  14. Clarence George 05:06am, 11/15/2015

    Excellent piece, Peter.  I’ve toyed with the idea of getting Sam Andre’s portrait of Tony Galento tattooed on my shoulder, but almost certainly never will.  My reluctance is partly because I would never hear the end of it from my mother, but mainly because I just hate tattoos, which are so often an expression of self-hatred, a need for self-uglification.  I can understand a military man having one or two, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.  And tattoos on the neck, face, or head are incomprehensible to me, as are girls who have any at all.  What “desirable” message is being sent there, porn actress, biker chick?  And why would Deontay Wilder, or anyone with dark skin, get tattooed?  Absolutely pointless.  And don’t get me started on body piercings.  The good news is that I think both trends are beginning to wane somewhat.  All that said, I perversely enjoy “Ink Master.”  Go figure.

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