Inked Up: How NBA players embraced tattoos and changed the game
In the early 1990s, few players sported visible ink. Today, intricate tattoos are commonplace — on and off the court.
Dennis Rodman remembers his first tattoo in the late 1980s, a tribute to his newborn daughter, Alexis. It was along his left shoulder, strategically hidden under his Detroit Pistons jersey.
He can also recall when his tattoos became a problem in the mid-1990s.
“The NBA called me up and said, ‘We need to talk,’ ” he recalled of the association’s request for a special meeting at its New York office. “David Stern said, ‘We don’t want you to get tattoos. We don’t want you to have any more tattoos.’ I said, ‘All right.’ ”
Instead, after his meeting with Stern, the rebellious star decided to get even more. “I just got back to San Antonio and went to a parlor – just got a tattoo,” he recalled with a smile.
“I was just trying to break out of the monotony and the noise and all the deceitfulness the sports world was bringing to me at that time,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m just going to go out there and do something different.’ ”
What began as something different has now gone mainstream. After Rodman, the lineup of basketball players interested in body art grew, slowly at first, and then exponentially, from Allen Iverson and Cherokee Parks in the mid-1990s to LeBron James, JR Smith and Chris “Birdman” Andersen in the 2000s, and Jordan Clarkson, Kevin Durant, Kelly Oubre Jr. and the heavily tatted Ball brothers in today’s era.
According to a count by Andscape, 341 out of 618 roster players – 55% of the league – sported visible tattoos during the 2021-22 regular season. There’s even an Instagram handle with over 157,000 followers — @InkedNBA — that shares daily images and content about players’ tattoos.
With the increase in visible tattoos over the past three decades, there’s been an ongoing evolution in style, quantity and quality – and even the age at which players get tatted. Players have also been inspired by those who came before them, sometimes copying their artwork or their reasons to get inked.
One player, Malik Monk, even made headlines earlier this year when he explained his right arm was tattoo-free on purpose (despite having a heavily tattooed left arm). His inspiration? Former NBA star Nick Young, who kept his right arm ink-free because it was “strictly for buckets.”
“I was in high school, just started to get tatted when I heard him say that,” Monk explained.
Like so many players before him, seeing others’ artwork sparked Monk’s desire to decorate his own body. But for those like Rodman, who had few tattooed role models to look up to in the league, the road to normalization and acceptance wasn’t always smooth.
1990s: Outcasts and rebels
Rodman’s early aesthetic was inspired by London’s punk scene, where he was enamored with artists’ “colored hair and platform shoes,” along with more “classic” tattoos that featured pin-up girls, hearts with arrows, initials and nautical symbols, which were popular with sailors.
“It’s more like it was an everyday thing to do,” he said of his decision to dive into body art. “Just have tattoos, weird hair, wear makeup, cool clothes.”
Rodman’s tattoo collection grew over time. His first visible tattoo was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on his right bicep, just under it, a rose-thorned cross with a caption that reads “Live To Ride” / “Ride To Live.” He later added “Mi Vida Loca” in script atop the motorcycle, as well as a dolphin leaping along his left shoulder. By the time he arrived in San Antonio in 1993, he had 11 tattoos and an ongoing rotation of hair colors.
But it was during the Chicago Bulls’ championship runs from 1996 to 1998 that the tattoos began to take on a life of their own.
“It really didn’t explode until I went to Chicago,” he said. “I was getting tattoos almost every week. Just little tattoos, here and there.”
In 1996, Rodman’s tattoos became the centerpiece of a $1 million lawsuit after a company named Fanatix produced a run of several thousand unauthorized long-sleeved shirts that featured each and every one of his above-the-waist tattoos.
Stocked in the Bulls’ team store at the United Center, production on the shirts was halted and the two sides eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. Now, 26 years later, the Hall of Famer has trademarked his tattoo artwork, with many of the pieces serving as key graphics for his newly launched Rodman Brand apparel company.
“He didn’t fit the norm,” Steve Wiebe, a tattoo artist who has worked on numerous NBA players, said of Rodman. “And it definitely stood out. At first, people might have thought it didn’t have a place in the game. Now fast-forwarding, I think it’s the best way to express yourself on the court without using words or your game.”
This was also the point when Rodman began to link his sneakers to his body art. During the team’s 1997 playoff run, the collar of his signature Converse All Star shoes featured the sunray lines seen on his left shoulder. The following season, his Converse DRod sneakers incorporated the tribal tattoo on his left hand into the design of the grip pattern on the bottom of the shoe.
By the time Rodman’s tenure with the Bulls ended in 1998, the Deseret News in Utah estimated that 130 NBA players had a combined total of 250 visible tattoos. Rodman accounted for 5% of the total. Half of the Utah Jazz roster, which the Bulls faced in back-to-back NBA Finals, sported visible ink.
Coincidentally, Jazz forward Greg Foster may have been one of the first NBA players to get a tattoo, however dubious his artwork.
As a Skyline High School star growing up in Oakland, California, and playing alongside Gary Payton, Foster’s teammates often called him “Bowie” — for his resemblance to Sam Bowie, the infamous No. 2 draft pick taken one slot ahead of Michael Jordan in 1984. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Foster got “Bowie” etched across his left bicep during his freshman year of high school, years before he entered the NBA in 1990.
Though he’s joked he wishes he had tattooed the names of his two daughters instead of a one-time high school nickname, “Bowie” remained Foster’s lone tattoo throughout his 13-year career.
While just under 30% of the league’s players had a tattoo by Rodman’s final season with the Bulls in 1998, the overall quality of the work was uneven and the meaning behind the art could be little more than skin-deep.
“It was very cartoony,” said Wiebe. “The ’90s was just a different style of tattooing. You had tribal, which Dennis had a lot of, pin-up girls, and [Tracy] McGrady had the barbed wire around his arm. It was more symbolic and just fun stuff. It wasn’t as personal as it is now.”
The very next season, a notable shift began when players started moving beyond just adding random tattoos they thought looked cool to using their bodies to tell their life stories. Mirroring the rise of hip-hop, stars such as Iverson used their downtime during the 1998 NBA lockout to adorn themselves with ink.
“All my tattoos are tattoos that I wanted to get, but I couldn’t afford,” Iverson said with a laugh, just before entering the Hall of Fame in 2016. “Coming into the league, if I would’ve had money, then obviously I would’ve had more tattoos.”
As a newly-signed Georgetown Hoya who would spend two years on campus before being selected first overall in the 1996 NBA draft, Iverson’s first foray into tattooing was a bulldog on his left bicep with his nickname, “The Answer,” over it.
“That was a time where my mom or my dad or somebody gave me $100, and I said, ‘Well, this is what I want to do,’ ” he recalled. “They couldn’t believe I spent it on that, but that was something that I wanted real bad.”
With a $70 million contract extension in place before the start of his third season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Iverson returned from the lockout with a new series of tattoos across both arms to join the once-lonely bulldog.
The most immediately iconic tattoo was a cross with “Only The Strong Survive” lettered around it on his left shoulder.
“Self-explanatory,” he told Nice Kicks in 2015. “Being where I’m from, what I went through in my life, and the things I go through in everyday life, it’s a hard world to live in. I think that was suitable for me.”
The nickname for his crew of friends — “CRU THIK” — could be seen in four places, along his left arm and down his right leg. On his right arm, he etched “Hold My Own” above a soldier’s head and the Chinese symbol for “Respect,” with a black panther taking up the bulk of his right forearm. His family was also represented, with the names of his kids Tiaura and Deuce, his wife Tawanna and the initials of both his mother and grandmother placed throughout.
Though Rodman was viewed as an outlier alongside his more image-conscious teammates on the Bulls, Iverson’s accomplishments as a Rookie of the Year, league MVP and multiple scoring champ brought a different level of scrutiny from critics of his tattoos that even he wasn’t expecting — often being labeled a “thug” by media, and blamed for the league’s isolation-heavy shift of shot-happy scorers.
“Tell them not to believe what they read or hear,” he told Playboy in 2002. “Tell them to read my body. I wear my story every day, man.”
2000s: Young guns and millennium trends
While the ’90s may have been defined by just a few players who had sizable pieces, ample ink and recognizable artwork, the 2000s took things to an entirely different stratosphere with even more players getting tattoos.
By 2007, over 20 players had the AND1 logo tattooed on their arms. Dozens had their own name — like “Damon” or “Marcus” — sketched in Old English or simpler fonts along their shoulders. Others leaned into Chinese characters for layered meaning, even if Shawn Marion’s “The Matrix” nickname in foreign script may have actually translated to “demon bird mothballs.”
Throughout the early aughts of the decade, some players followed the trends Iverson and others set, with dozens even copying identical tattoos.
“It wasn’t as creative as it is now,” Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard told Andscape. “Dudes are not messing around [now] with them cheap tattoos.”
“There was a limit on what you could do,” said Wiebe. “It wasn’t like now where you can get your kid’s face on you, and it looks just like them. It was more like, ‘OK, what’s been done before and how can I translate that into my style?’ Even with LeBron, you saw him piggybacking off A.I.’s style, where he has the ‘Hold My Own’ tattoo that A.I. had back in the day.”
Iverson inked it along his right shoulder, while James placed the phrase on his left bicep while still in high school in Ohio. Before he even reached the NBA, however, James added one of his most iconic tattoos — a piece that reads “Chosen 1,” a nod to his 2002 Sports Illustrated cover, which spans the length of his back.
Growing up in Compton, California, Brandon Jennings remembers the 2000s and Iverson’s generational impact fondly. Jennings wore No. 3 as a tribute to his undersized scoring idol throughout his prep rise to becoming the No. 1 player in the country in 2008.
“A.I. was the only person that I was wondering what he was doing more off the court, with his style,” said Jennings, who had a nine-year career in the NBA. “Coming in with the do-rags, the chains and the tattoos was just totally different.”
Specifically, Iverson’s “Only The Strong Survive” piece on his left shoulder stood out. “I remember in high school, Tyson Chandler had it also,” Jennings recalled. “And that’s when I was like, ‘I got to get a tattoo.’ ”
At the time, Jennings was 12.
As a ball boy handing out towels and water for Chandler’s top-ranked Dominguez High School squad back then, Jennings marveled at the eventual No. 2 pick of the 2001 draft adding Iverson’s exact tattoo in the year leading up to joining the NBA.
“Yeah, and he probably got teased for it too, ’cause he used to cover it up,” Iverson said years later. Chandler eventually added a surrounding shield and bars crossing out the lettering, to modify the copycat look.
“When I started [getting tattoos], I was criticized so much,” Iverson said. “I was beat up for it, and I was so young. Back then, my skin wasn’t as thick as it is now. So, it used to bother me a lot.”
While Iverson may have taken the brunt of the criticism early on, it was only right that the team he found himself closing out the decade with represented a visual confirmation of his impact.
“The Denver Nuggets were tatted,” said Wiebe. “Iverson, Carmelo, JR [Smith], Birdman, Kenyon Martin, Al Harrington and Wilson Chandler all had tattoos. … I remember Wilson Chandler had a portrait right on his throat.”
“Birdman, we’ve never seen anyone that tattooed in the league before,” Wiebe continued. “Just every color in the rainbow, and he was just covered. He didn’t leave no gaps. And he started with the AND1 guy – I mean, if that doesn’t tell you where it’s come since then.”
Though the 2000s may have started with players adding simple one-off pieces, the Nuggets and other players around the league were showcasing the shift toward more elaborate artwork, setting the stage for what we see today.
2010s: The blasted era
In the current NBA, seeing bare arms on a team’s bench is now almost always an outlier. There are still a few stars, such as league MVP Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and James Harden, without visible tattoos, but they are increasingly rarities. The league’s incoming talent often have full sleeves by draft night, or commit to a summer under the tattoo gun and a media day debut of their latest work.
“Even Steph Curry has tattoos,” said Wiebe, referring to the star’s growing collection, which includes a Hebrew Bible verse on his right wrist, “WOE” (working on excellence) on his bicep, an “A” in honor of his wife Ayesha on his left ring finger and other art representing his family, his approach to life and his three children. “He looks clean-cut, but he’s got a few.”
What once stood out as unique has evolved into the norm.
One reason tattoos spread throughout the NBA was that players would compare artwork during their downtime, or over the offseason. It usually started with a simple question: Yo, who did that for you?
Jennings recalled seeing former NBA player Dorell Wright’s back tattoo, which prompted him to ask who did his ink. Wright referred him to Wiebe, who was just beginning to amass his NBA client list, and counted Josh Smith, Jennings’ former teammate in Detroit, as the first NBA player to fly him out to get tatted.
“I would actually kidnap Steve for two weeks,” Jennings said. “We would just sit in my condo up in Santa Monica, and we would just run through ideas as far as movies, favorite wines, favorite restaurants. Just things that we grew up on.”
By Jennings’ third season, he had filled in most of his arms with artwork, leading him to look for a new canvas — his legs. Wiebe and Jennings started with a portrait of the singer Lauryn Hill, then a portrait of Sade and his preferred bottle of red wine, Paraduxx, before incorporating even more portraits and phrases into Jennings’ ever-increasing collection of tattoos.
“I think [the Lauryn Hill] one really made a splash,” said Wiebe. “I think people saw that and were like, ‘Well, I like that. So let me get my legs tattooed.’ ”
Today, several players such as Jayson Tatum, Cameron Payne and Durant have bare space along their arms, but extensive leg tattoos. Tatum has his birth year, 1998, on his left kneecap, along with each of the jerseys he’s worn during his basketball journey, a Kobe Bryant tribute, and a portrait of his mom and son. Payne has a series of characters from Space Jam adorning his leg.
After first meeting at All-Star Weekend in Toronto in 2016, a phone call from Durant at the start of the offseason sparked his relationship with Wiebe.
“I got training camp in Vegas for Team USA,” Durant told Wiebe over the phone. “I’ve been looking to get a Tupac tattoo. Can you make it out?”
Shortly after, Wiebe was in Durant’s hotel suite, tattooing a portrait of the slain rapper on the star’s left leg. DeAndre Jordan, who was hanging out during the session at the Wynn Hotel, suddenly spoke up.
“Let me get tomorrow,” he said.
Wiebe ended up tattooing the then-LA Clipper over the next two days, and has executed portraits of Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Tommy Chong, Willie Nelson and Johnny Depp’s mug shot from the film Blow along DeAndre Jordan’s limbs.
Durant now boasts a collection of musically inspired tattoos, including his “first crush” Aaliyah and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes from TLC, along with the logos of influential rap groups Wu-Tang Clan and The Diplomats. He also added Rick James along his thigh, which reminds him of his earliest music memories at his grandmother’s house. After starting with Durant and DeAndre Jordan that summer in Las Vegas, Wiebe went on to join the pair on their post-Olympic vacation to Greece and Amsterdam, eventually executing more than 10 tattoos for the pair by the end of the 2016 offseason.
“They’re all getting leg sleeves, even over the arm tattoos,” said Wiebe of the current trend. “I don’t know if it’s just a basketball thing or what, but it’s good real estate. You can get a lot of big pictures on there.”
While Jennings may have represented an era where word of mouth in the locker room was the best way for artists like Wiebe to gain new clients, the rise of Instagram is now driving business for the Canadian artist.
“Social media really helped me,” Wiebe said of his Instagram page, which has over 172,000 followers. “I’m from Vancouver and I’m tattooing people all over the United States. Well, why aren’t they going to their artists in their local town? I think with social media, and people being able to see different artists and see what they’re capable of, it’s just raising the bar.”
That social media presence works even with NBA players. Lillard, a frequent Wiebe client, remembered his starting point with tattoos vividly.
“The first one I got was the day before school started, with my mom at the mall in Utah,” he said of his trip at 18 to the Newgate Mall, just west of Weber State University’s Ogden campus.
“I remember, after I got it, I felt like I was so tatted.”
In reality, he had gotten two tattoos, a repurposed Warner Bros. logo that read “Lillard Bros.” atop a stylized “LB” crest that he and his older brother Houston share. He also etched a “CF” typeface surrounded by wings, a nod to his “Certified Fly Guy” crew of close friends. He’d later add an extensive scripture scroll along his left arm.
After sporting a half-sleeve for several seasons, “I didn’t really want any more tattoos,” Lillard admitted. “I had some ideas that I had never done, but if they were going to be done, I wanted them to be fire.”
Trail Blazers then-assistant coach David Vanterpool later showed Wiebe’s Instagram page to Lillard.
After debating adding portraits of civil rights pioneers like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others around his left forearm, Lillard instead opted for more personal tributes.
“I have a Mount Rushmore of my mom, my dad, my grandparents and my uncle Richard. There’s people beyond those people that played a major role in who I am, but everyone couldn’t fit,” he said. “That’s an important one to me, because those people will live with me forever.”
As Wiebe has learned, the connection he shares with his clients goes beyond just a one-time session.
“I feel like a lot of guys get tattooed in points of their life where they might have just had a big accomplishment, or they might have just gone through a death or something tragic,” he said.
After making it through several seasons in the league sans any ink, DeMar DeRozan embarked on a detailed series of family and hometown tributes in 2019 with Wiebe. Hunkered down in the man cave of DeRozan’s LA home, Wiebe got to work on one of the most important portraits he’s completed – DeRozan’s late father, Frank.
“For me to be there during those times for these people, and then also have that tattoo represent that time into eternity, is pretty special to me,” said Wiebe. “I feel very invested.”
He also counts a portrait of John Wall’s late mother across Wall’s throat as one of his favorite pieces, noting the placement was an evolution of the throat portrait sported by Wilson Chandler a decade ago.
Detailed portraits have become the signature expression of not only Wiebe’s work, but also the preferred style of players around the league. And with Black players making up more than 70% of NBA rosters, executing portraits on darker skin has become an element of Wiebe’s craft that he has looked to elevate.
“Ninety-five percent of my clients have darker skin,” he said. “Five to 10 years ago, guys would come to me and be like, ‘I want to get a portrait, but I can’t get that because my skin might be too dark.’ I took pride in eliminating that stigma, where it doesn’t matter what your skin tone is. We can still give you a tattoo that works. And I think a lot of artists are intimidated by that. They don’t know how to work with darker skin and make it still pop. That’s something I’ve really been working hard at.”
From a technical standpoint, Wiebe has looked to master the mix of inks and shades that can provide the layering and necessary depth to give a portrait the right blend of dimension and feel.
“The darker the skin, the deeper the blacks have to be in your ink so that it stands out, and then you have to leave areas of lighter skin tone to give you that contrast,” Wiebe said. “There’s just less of a spectrum to work with, but everything can still be done, no matter what skin tone you have.”
In recent years, as the volume of tattoos players get has kicked into overdrive once again, harkening back to Rodman and Iverson’s body art explosion, Utah’s Clarkson underwent perhaps the most drastic transformation of any active player.
Clarkson went from having zero tattoos during his first three years in the league to adding a series of deeply shaded portraits and pieces on his arms while playing in Cleveland, and following that up with a full neck and throat piece that veers just over his jawline. Clarkson, who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 2021, even added a face tattoo to his collection. Wiebe later added a carnival-style font arcing across Clarkson’s back touting his last name, as well as filling in space across his abs and chest.
Oubre Jr., who got his start early, is another one of the most tattooed players in the game today. For some prep stars at the start of the 2010s, parents would give their approval for a tattoo even before their son’s 18th birthday. Oubre was even younger.
“I was a freshman in high school,” he recalled. For Oubre, getting a tattoo represented his achievements both on and off the court.
“I was really proud of myself,” he said. “My dad told me that if I’m doing my job in school — getting good grades and I’m locked in — and I’m doing well on the court, everything seems to be OK. He didn’t see any red flags with me getting a tattoo at a young age.”
As for the execution, like most players, his first tattoo wasn’t the strongest work in his collection.
“I got a tattoo on my left shoulder, and it says, ‘I do it for God / He is my savior,’ ” Oubre said. “With like the basic prayer hands holding a ball, and I put thorns around the ball.”
From there, Oubre would go on to fill in his arms, hands and torso during his early seasons in the league with the Washington Wizards. Then-teammate Wall would host “tattoo parties” from time to time, paying an artist to provide tattoos to anyone that wanted one.
“Then John linked up with Steve,” said Oubre. Wiebe soon placed a portrait of Oubre’s grandmother along his left shoulder, added in pieces on his chest and did all of the work featured across his legs — which seem to be of particular interest to courtside photographers who regularly capture his portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Prince. Oubre said he’s planning to add in more work this summer.
“All of them are collectively a story,” he said. “When all of my tattoos are done, they’ll all connect and you’ll be able to look through them and see my life.”
As he looks back, Rodman said he hopes players approach their tattoos with the storytelling or stylistic inspirations that he looked to bring, with an emphasis on uniqueness for each individual.
“Hopefully they think it’s an art,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to do.”
Now 61, Rodman said it’s been years since his last time under the gun. “I’m done [getting] tattoos, but I might get another one before I decide to live upstairs,” he hinted. “I might get one more.”
Lillard, 31, is part of the NBA generation that helped make tattoos “become an acceptable thing” across pro sports and in society, he said. “It’s part of the league,” he said. “Even if it’s a bulls— tattoo, people got some tattoos. It’s a culture.”
Andscape senior writer Aaron Dodson contributed to this report.