Tattoo Ewwwww

A week ago last Friday, the day before Jovan Belcher of Kansas City Chief killed both his girlfriend and then himself, this was the big NFL story atop the Drudge Report: “Writer defends tattoo criticism of QB.”  Or to put it another way, sportswriter heavily criticized for stating the obvious:


Colin Kaepernick‘s arms are full of tattoos. This apparently ensures that the San Francisco quarterback can never be a legitimate hero for the NFL — or even the 49ers.

That’s what it may sound like AOL Fanhouse’s David Whitley thinks, at least. The columnist penned a controversial piece on Thursday centered entirely on Kaepernick’s ink.

“NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility,” he writes. “He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.”

Whitley tried to cloak his criticisms underneath a disdain for tattoos.

“For dinosaurs like me,” continues Whitley, “NFL quarterbacks were our little Dutch boys. The original hero stuck his finger in the (dike) to save Holland. Pro QBs were the last line of defense against the raging sea of ink. When our kids said they wanted a tattoo, we could always point to the Manning brothers.

“My guess is Archie would have made Peyton throw an extra 1,000 passes before dinner if he’d come home with a tattoo. The old man knew QBs are different.”

Of course. The starting QB is the face of your franchise; he’s who you build the team — and its marketing efforts — around. Which is why controversies such as Michael Vick’s canine horrorshow or Kaepernick‘s body full of ink reflect badly on a team in a way that a player in a less visible position doesn’t. Though it says much about the decline of our culture’s standards that 45 years ago in the twilight of Mad Men-era of cool, the quarterback style controversy was Joe Namath wearing white shoes on the field and a fur coat on the sidelines.


That tattoos are an effort to invert cultural standards was a topic that retired British prison surgeon Theodore Dalrymple explored over a decade ago:

In fact, more than 95 percent of imprisoned white British criminals are tattooed. The statistical association between tattooing and criminality is very much stronger (with the exception of that between criminality and smoking) than that with any of the more conventionally investigated factors, such as broken homes, drug addiction, low intelligence, and poor educational attainment. Show me a man’s tattoos, and I will tell you his criminal record: British men, for example, who were incarcerated before the age of twenty-one usually bear a blue spot tattooed over one cheekbone, the criminal’s equivalent of the old school tie, and a surprisingly large proportion of petty drug dealers have a tree-frog green cannabis leaf tattooed prominently on their person (sometimes on their face or neck), a clue whose meaning even a Dr. Watson might have little difficulty in deciphering.

The tattoo in modern society is thus a subject of greater interest and deeper significance than might at first be supposed, a subject worthy of reflection and a possible departure point for an assessment of the soul of modern man. Margo DeMello’s Bodies of Inscription provides—often without really meaning to—some material for such an assessment. The author, an anthropologist, is herself a member of “the tattoo community,” that is to say, is heavily tattooed, an avid reader of tattoo magazines, and an occasional attender of tattooing conventions. Her book, therefore, may be said to be in the tradition of participant observation. Despite the ominously deconstructionist title, she writes clearly and without jargon. This alone is quite a lot to be grateful for, even if her insights are largely superficial and the reader cannot rely on her as a guide to the deeper meaning of the things she describes.

In fact, her book is largely concerned with a comparatively recent phenomenon: the spread of tattooing to the American middle classes. This is also a British, and no doubt a European and Australian, phenomenon. The tattoo was once a resolutely proletarian form of body adornment which the middle classes regarded as symbolic of lower-class savagery, bad taste, and irresponsibility (the decision to be tattooed was, indeed, often taken while drunk in the company of other drunks). A middle- class person who had himself tattooed was thereby at once déclassé: a slide down the social scale more precipitous and serious than that brought about by a mésalliance, insofar as tattoos last longer, and are more difficult to obliterate, than marriages contracted in haste.

The tattoo is now seeping through society like ink through blotting paper. I first became aware of this seepage when I noticed an increasing number of young women in my hospital ward who bore tattoos, the tattoo having been until then an almost exclusively male embellishment. At first, women’s tattoos were small and on parts of the anatomy that were usually covered by clothes; gradually these tentative essays in the direction of male proletarian savagery have been replaced by larger, more prominent and brazen declarations of allegiance to it.

Having crossed the gulf between the sexes, the tattoo then began its creep up the social scale. Young celebrities sported their tattoos when they were photographed for the newspapers, and before long I noticed that a number of university students among my patients also bore tattoos.


That’s from the September 2000 edition of the New Criterion, a magazine and accompanying Website published by PJM’s own Roger Kimball, which as you likely know, is devoted to covering the arts and culture from a conservative point of view.

I’m only bringing up the magazine’s agenda because, as with the backlash against sportswriter David Whitley, Dalrymple’s article received several negative comments, presumably from people who are not regular subscribers to the New Criterion. I can only assume they found the article by searching on the T-word, had their collective mellows enharshened by someone so frickin’ judgmental, maaaaan, and responded with a spot of textual vexation. But then, as Kathy Shaidle has written when linking to similarly themed anti-tattoo articles:

By the way: watch the hysteria that accompanies pieces like this. Tattoo freaks are almost as bad as trannies in terms of sheer touchiness and irrationality.

Which comes as no surprise since they can’t help but take these criticisms personally: these narcissists’ entire identities are embodied in their ugly expensive “ink” or their collection of size 12 pumps.

By the way, you can see a screenshot of a portion of last Friday’s Drudge Report, which linked to the above article, in a post by Ann Althouse that pondered its “phantasmagoric” and “Felliniesque” visual semiotics, before she wryly noted:

Kaepernick, who, not having murdered anybody, seems to be doing comparatively well, NFL-wise. His mother is “annoyed.” The body scribblings are Bible verses (we’re told). Across the chest it says “Against All Odds.” Is that in the Bible? I don’t know. Ask the Pope (if he’s through clowning around). I’ve heard of the book of Philipians, so maybe there’s a Philcollinsians.


Heh, indeed, to coin a phrase. But then, one should never let that sort of mangling of culture and history get under your skin.

Related: I mentioned Michael Vick in the above post; afterwards, I just noticed that on their NFL homepage, Yahoo goes there, though with plausible deniability:

You use that abbreviation. I bet you know exactly what it can stand for


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