Sleeves, Angels, 'Rosemary Beads': The Not-So-Changing Face of Football Tattoos

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 16, 2018

ROME - MARCH 06:  David Beckham of AC Milan leaves the field after the Serie A match between AS Roma and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on March 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

When the Premier League resumed last weekend, the football pitches of the English top flight were awash with works of art.

At Craven Cottage, red flowers on the upper left arm of Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. At Molineux, an inscription on the inside of Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves' left arm in homage to his former club, Porto, that reads: "The heart is blue and white."

Callum Wilson, who scored one goal and made another as Bournemouth beat Cardiff 2-0, has intricate sleeves on each arm, including a tribal design on his left bicep that he got when he was 15. Joselu, Newcastle United's goalscorer in their 2-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, has an owl on the inside of his right forearm and what looks like a football club crest on the back of his neck.

At Vicarage Road, Roberto Pereyra's celebrations after each of his goals in Watford's 2-0 defeat of Brighton and Hove Albion allowed the television cameras to zoom in on the designs that adorn his arms, including an Inca-style pattern on his upper left arm and a curlicue motif on the inside of his left elbow.

Roberto Firmino, who set up Liverpool's third goal in their 4-0 victory over West Ham United, has a cornucopia of tattoos, among them a crown topped with a star on the right side of his neck, below which sits the word Deus (meaning God). Raheem Sterling, scorer of Manchester City's opener in their 2-0 win at Arsenal, famously has a prophetic image of a boy in a No. 10 shirt clutching a football and gazing up at Wembley Stadium inked on his left forearm.

Wherever you look in football, there are tattoos—religious symbols, ornate pieces of text, flowers, stars, the faces of loved ones. And more elaborate sleeves than a BBC costume drama.

Roberto Firmino
Roberto FirminoLINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

So, where do footballers get their tattoo ideas? How have the styles of their tattoos evolved over the last 20 years? And what might their tattoos look like in the future?

A tattoo artist since the mid-1970s, Lal Hardy has seen every ink trend under the sun. Having tattooed a wealth of famous footballers, he is well qualified to talk about the allure that the needle holds for them.

Hardy, a 59-year-old Tottenham fan, has inked stars including Jack Wilshere, Cesc Fabregas, Danny Rose, Aaron Lennon, Tim Howard, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kevin-Prince Boateng at his north London shop, New Wave Tattoo Studio, which incongruously sits halfway down a residential street in leafy Muswell Hill.

A thickset north Londoner with a bald head and tattoos covering his neck, arms and legs, Hardy says that there have been two ages of football tattoos: Before Beckham and After Beckham.

"Once that angel came out on his back [in 2000], there were people doing copies of it everywhere," Hardy told Bleacher Report, a tattoo gun buzzing in his gloved right hand as he etched a figure from the front of the Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion albums onto the shin of a male customer.

"Back then, it was really crazy. There were a lot of influences from him, particularly religious-type tattooing. It was a real whirlwind when Becks came along."

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Along with other British celebrities, such as singer Robbie Williams, David Beckham helped to take tattoos into the mainstream in the United Kingdom, expanding their popularity and destroying the perception that you had to be a biker, a sailor or a criminal to have one.

In addition to the mere fact of being tattooed and being in the public eye, Beckham's personal taste in tattoos had a far-reaching influence within football circles. Interested in American sports and the culture of the American west coast, Beckham was drawn to the tattoos worn by the sporting stars and hip-hop artists of the era.

The style of tattooing most closely associated with the west coast rap scene is known as black-and-gray, which originated in the U.S. prison system in the early 1980s. Using homemade black ink, motors removed from electric razors or portable CD players and needles fashioned from sharpened guitar strings, prison inmates would engrave fine-line tattoos on each other's bodies.

Lal Hardy has inked a number of top footballers
Lal Hardy has inked a number of top footballersTom Williams

The subject matter would often be religious—praying hands, rosary beads, images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Beckham's attachment to the black-and-gray style became even more pronounced in 2011 when he started getting tattooed by the renowned Los Angeles tattoo artist Mark Mahoney.

"It was quite funny to see a lot of people picking up on this religious iconography, even if they weren't religious, doing the praying hands with rosary beads," Hardy says. "I even had people coming in asking for 'rosemary beads.'

"Combined with Beckham, just prior to that, we saw the rise of hip-hop [into the mainstream]. A lot of rappers and hip-hop artists got black-and-gray tattooing, as well as NBA players. Lots of footballers like hip-hop and basketball, so the influences weren't just from Beckham. I'd say [they were] predominantly from west coast America. And that's what led to a lot of black-and-gray work."

One area where footballers have had an impact on wider tattoo trends is in the normalising of extensive body coverage.

Tom Angell, a football fan and author of the book London Tattoo Guide, cited Djibril Cisse as one of the first public figures to have exhibited a torso almost covered in tattoos. He says that tattoos on the face, neck and hands—known within the tattoo industry as "job-stoppers"—have also been given greater prominence by football players.

"[Ricardo] Quaresma has a face tattoo now, for example," he said. "That's tracking alongside what's happening in society, although most reputable tattoo studios would never tattoo someone in those spots unless they were heavily tattooed already."

Ricardo Quaresma
Ricardo QuaresmaSoccrates Images/Getty Images

While many footballers have enthusiastically plastered their bodies in tattoos, there is not a huge amount of diversity in the styles that they tend to go for.

"What I don't see much of is what I would describe as contemporary tattoos—people who are collecting tattoo art from notable and respected tattoo artists within the tattoo community," Angell said. "I can't think of many [footballers] who have tattoos in the old-school Americana style, the Sailor Jerry stuff with roses and ships and pin-up girls. You don't see many blackwork, geometric, dotwork or neo-traditionalist tattoos. There's not as much genre diversity as you'd expect."

Hardy says that when it comes to their tattoos, footballers are bound by a desire to adhere to existing trends within the professional game.

"If you had a room full of footballers, there wouldn't be that many that have got tattoos that step away from a comfort zone," he said. "It's an age thing, as well. Lots of young players will be into what their peers get done, a bit like haircuts. You look back to Kevin Keegan and the shaggy perm, then Becks did the Mohican, now it's the faded, greased-over look. Slightly older players definitely have an influence on the younger ones."

Not all footballers' tattoos follow the same formula, however. Last year, Watford striker Andre Gray revealed a huge back tattoo that pays tribute to figures from the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong has covered his neck, chest, back and arms with an intricate Mandala design created by Indonesian tattoo artist Ade Itameda. Tim Cahill expresses his Samoan upbringing with a tattoo on his left arm.

Andre Gray @AndreGray7

Master Piece!! https://t.co/bBdFLMhbI3

As for the future, Hardy is convinced that tattooing will "revert to being not quite as mainstream as it is at the moment." But in the short term, he identifies Japanese-style tattoos—such as the koi fish and red dragon sported by Zlatan Ibrahimovic—as an untapped area of the market for professional footballers.

And what would he like to see?

"I'd like to see all the Tottenham players with Tottenham tattoos," he said with a grin. "Forget kissing the badge; kiss the tattoo!"