It’s now almost compulsory for any self-styled “edgy” character to sport body tapestries
23 November ~ When I was a kid tattoos were for dockers, miners and those involved in seriously hard industry. Joey Jones of Wales and Liverpool stood out in the 1970s and 1980s as the only famous player I’d seen with more than just hair and freckles on his forearms. With half the population regarding footballers as effete escapees from working class life, his seedy tattoo parlour staples – a dagger into a heart enfolded in a script – visually compensated his wiry frame.
Jones was a fearsome competitor. However, in Bob Paisley’s ultra-modern Liverpool team his body art was incongruous, as it would be now – but only because it’s rendered so sparingly. After Brylcreem, nose clips and socks over the knees, the latest trend among top-flight footballers seems to be long sleeves; either the Under Armour lycraish versions worn beneath short-sleeved club shirts, or the decorative melange of tattoos from artisan boutique studios, covering all skin from neck to wrist.
It’s now almost compulsory for any self-styled “edgy” character, such as Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher, Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths or Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo, to sport these veritable body tapestries. Birds of prey, doves of peace, fish, stars and clocks set at the time of family births and deaths – sometimes even the faces of family, political leaders or religious icons; the set piece tattoos merely begin the look. Like a half-grown ponytail or burgeoning moustache, the first clue a player is spending hours under the needle is a meandering ink outline on the arm you see appealing for offside. This will eventually be infilled with exotically stylised plant life, waves, clouds, flames and teardrops.
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan recently quipped he knew the Under-21 squad by their tattoos rather than their names. Perhaps, as football becomes more athletic and players skinnier, it provides atavistic reassurance they’re still warriors. The sleeve tattoo certainly mimics the comprehensive markings of US prison gangs. But the real explanation is that it’s just trendy. What was once a barely acceptable form of self-harm is now a confused attempt at both art collecting and self-expression.
Kevin Keegan sanctioned the perm for late 1970s dressing rooms. Similarly, David Beckham brought extreme tattooing through the various cultural filters from bona fide fashion to footballing vogue. However, current Partick Thistle midfielder Ryan Stevenson was the first player I noticed with winged crucifixes and suchlike across his throat and up the side of his neck. When at Hearts even long-sleeved jerseys couldn’t conceal the inked symbols on his hands and fingers.
When Marko Arnautovic scored Stoke’s recent winner against Chelsea, his flapping forearms bore something resembling waves. His hair’s in a nascent topknot so I assume he’s on some sort of Samurai or Japonaiserie trip. I’ll be wrong but not very. Despite them decorating players from all over the world, in polyglot leagues, the unifying themes of these tattoos are “kind of foreign”, faux archaic and pseudo spirituality. For the most part, actual football tattoos are for fans – and one per epidermis is plenty.
Rangers and Scotland are real loves to which I’ve committed infinitely more than £50 and a few hours being injected. Back in 1999 I wanted my own particular pseudo spirituality commemorated – my personal equivalent of the Mauri-patterned, gothic-fonted Latin epigrams which were then all the rage: I got the German national team crest on my upper right arm. It’s tiny but the blissfully relaxing nature of the process – acupuncture in extremis – explains why tattoo studios have replaced the pub for today’s professional footballers. And why they’re still enjoying marathon sessions on their days off. Alex Anderson