The NBA’s burgeoning tattoo culture has created a new type of influencer
On any given night, NBA games are a showdown between some of the best basketball professionals in the world. But increasingly, the courts are not just stages for athletes showing their physical prowess — they’ve also become an exhibition of some of the best, and most interesting, tattoos.
From sprawling sleeves to intricate face tattoos, the NBA has become not just a hub for world class basketball, but also for body art, showcasing some of the latest trends in the world of tattooing.
“When I see someone like (Utah Jazz guard) Jordan Clarkson getting a face tattoo, I know I’m going to be doing a lot of face tattoos,” said Herchell Carrasco of Pachuco Tattoo in California.
Carrasco has been tattooing for over a decade, but he began tattooing NBA players in 2017. Now, he’s the artist behind some of the league’s most recognizable ink, including works on Kyle Kuzma, LaMelo Ball and Brandon Ingram.
LiAngelo Ball, who currently plays in the G League with the Greensboro Swarm, was going back and forth on getting a neck tattoo, Carrasco told CNN. Now that Clarkson has done his face, Carrasco said it may be a push for other players to get more ink on the face or neck area.
“Athletes are … business people,” Carrasco said, explaining that he doesn’t think most will get giant face tattoos à la Aaron Carter. “But I do see subtle face tattoos becoming a trend in the near future.”
And sure enough, weeks after Clarkson debuted his fresh facial ink, Kuzma, of the Washington Wizards, revealed a delicate script behind his ear, appearing to read, “be like water my friend.”
It wasn’t always this way. A glance at a photo of the 1992 USA Basketball “Dream Team,” which won gold at the Olympics and featured the talents of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen, will reveal few, if any, visible tattoos — let alone giant pieces.
But the team that played at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was a different story. Between Damian Lillard, whose arms are covered in ink, and Jayson Tatum, whose back tattoo peeks out over the shoulder of his jersey, tattoos on players were the norm.
Part of the culture shift in the NBA has been a product of the larger changes in the United States, as tattoos become increasingly mainstream. Though it’s hard to know exactly how many people have tattoos, a 2019 poll from market research firm Ipsos found that three in 10 people in the US have at least one.
And, as their popularity grows, more people pay attention to the quality of ink they get — researching artists ahead of time to find the best one. Carrasco has noticed some players get lower quality tattoos before they enter the league, eventually replacing them with higher quality pieces when they make money.
Derrick Rose, of the New York Knicks, is an example of this, said tattoo artist Jose Guijosa, who has tattooed the NBA veteran multiple times.
“He has a few tattoos he got when he was younger … in his friend’s garage,” Guijosa told CNN. “And the tattoos are not too good. … I feel like he doesn’t mind spending now, he just wants to make sure it’s a really nice piece.”
As more players in the league get nicer tattoos, younger players on the come up, who may be in college now, are taking notice. Guijosa, for example, did G League guard DJ Steward’s very first tattoo while he was still in college at Duke University.
“(The younger players) are looking to get nice tattoos,” Guijosa said. “I think they see the new tattoos the older players get, so they’re probably thinking about getting better work now instead of just going anywhere.”
It’s not just the amount of ink that’s changing. Where players are getting tattoos has changed too. Leg and knee tattoos have become more popular, Carrasco said, especially as the volume of tattoos people get rises.
“It’s like once you do your arms, where do you go after that?” he said.
Still, Carrasco noted he tends to do more visible areas, whereas back, rib or stomach tattoos remain less frequent.
“(With Kuzma), I was surprised he wanted to do his back, but we were just running out of space,” he said.
The way NBA players get tattooed is also slightly different from the way the general public does it. With more money, players often request artists travel to them, rather than the other way around. Rose, for example, once flew Guijosa first class to Arizona so he could get tattooed.
Years ago, Carrasco was invited to a penthouse with multiple young players on the Los Angeles Lakers at the time — Ingram, Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Vander Blue. Though Carrasco had initially been in contact with Bryant, he ended up tattooing multiple players at the penthouse that day.
Intending to tattoo one player but actually tattooing several is common, Carrasco said. Sometimes friends of players or their managers will want new ink too, and “it turns into a little tattoo party.”
“I’ve learned wherever I go, I always take a backup artist for that reason,” he said, noting it can be a good opportunity for another younger artist.
But players and tattoo artists aren’t the only ones paying attention to NBA ink. The fans are, too.
The subject of many social media accounts, the sheer visibility of tattoos in the NBA (in part due to the nature of the uniforms) means it’s easy to see when a star gets a new piece.
InkedNBA, an Instagram account dedicated to NBA tattoos with a follower count of 154,000 fans, has become a de facto tattoo database for any new ink that pops up.
Matt Mangano created the account in 2019, when he was pondering his first tattoo. He turned to the NBA for inspiration, because he “always saw cool tattoos on the court.”
The popularity of the account shows he’s not the only one in awe of tattoos in the league. Mangano attributes it to fashion — NBA players especially are known for showing off their style (leaguefits, an Instagram dedicated to players’ outfits, has more than 700,000 followers). The fascination with players’ overall look extends to tattoos. People are attracted to that “swaginess,” Mangano said.
“Certain styles of clothes, (it’s) the same thing, certain styles of tattoos,” he said.
Some people go so far as to copy their favorite tattoos, and followers of InkedNBA have sent Mangano photos of their new ink. D’Angelo Russell, of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has a standout tattoo on his shoulder that reads N:OW. At least 100 people have sent Mangano their own copycat versions of that tattoo, he told CNN.
In some ways, the obsession with NBA tattoos is similar to how people follow fashion influencers, Mangano said.
Just… a little more intense.