The NBA experience is one remembered in ink. According to the exhaustive NBA ink watchdog nbatattoos.tumblr.com, 55 percent of NBA players in 2011-12 had a tat. Knowing the quantity of the NBA’s tattoo love, however, is only half the answer: Who has done it best? There are too many to include on a top 10, be it Brandon Jennings‘ Roscoe’s tribute, Rasheed Wallace‘s Egyptian depiction or Monta Ellis‘ family tree that grows up his torso. They’re all crazy good tats, which gives you an indication of the kind of level these 10 have to raise up to. It’s subjective, of course, meaning downplay how much you’d rock it and give more weight to how well the player does it. Like the game itself, ideas are borrowed and incorporated into everyone’s individual repertoire, meaning you can be sure a list like this will always keep changing.
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10. ANDREI KIRILENKO: Flying Man On A Beast
For the record, in 2011 the Russian said his massive, fairly terrifying, full-back tattoo was not inspired by World of Warcraft. He did say it gave him the idea, the “impetus” for the 30th birthday gift to himself that somehow did not scare his children. Showing an armor-covered knight carrying a shield while holding onto the back of a flying lizard-beast, the work is not my idea of a first tattoo and has no bearing to basketball. Much like Wilson Chandler‘s massive “Unstoppable” ink with Juggernaut covering his entire back, its success is one part scale and another part execution, thrown in with a lot of self-confidence. Now that he’s back in the NBA, I can claim this as one of the best tattoos in the game. Most liked? Not a chance. Easily the boldest, best-rendered (it looks like it came out of a Retina-display Mac) and the most talked-about? Absolutely.
9. KEVIN DURANT: “Maryland”
KD has a whole array of scattered ink on his chest that caught nearly everyone by surprise when they first showed up en masse in 2011. It’s the shoulder-width, back-length tribute to his home state that’s the most eye-catching, though. Done in September 2011, the three-inch high block lettering sits above Mary holding a basketball, with two hands holding up three and five fingers (get it?) bookending Jesus’ mother. It’s not the first state tribute out there (think Marquis Daniels and Udonis Haslem‘s Florida outlines) but it’s the most well done.
8. KENYON MARTIN: Lips On The Neck
An “A” for originality goes to Martin for his now-former exact copy of then-girlfriend Trina‘s lips on his neck. The qualifiers in that sentence should tip you off that the “unsmudgeable” lipstick has been altered because, yes, the Martin-Trina relationship ended. It was short-lived, but well remembered. K-Mart had the ink done in the summer of 2008 but two years later had it covered back up. I’m not saying it’s a tat I would have wanted myself â€” getting a spouse-related tattoo is so inherently risky it doesn’t require any further discussion â€” but credit is due for breaking convention. It’s a hell of a lot better than a dime-a-dozen basketball topped with a crown.
7. LeBRON JAMES: “Beast” With Stars
Now 27, James’ body bears more of a resemblance to a tattoo shop’s idea wall than to the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High stud whose first tat was on his right bicep. He’s covered in ink, and most of it is quality, led by the famous “Chosen 1” across his upper back. But my pick is the “Beast” mark on his left shoulder that was modified late in his Cavs tenure with a band of stars around it. It wasn’t anything remarkable in its original form, but the stars encircling it now bring out a Captain America vibe. It looks Comic Book Hero every time I see it, and as his shoulder muscles and legacy have both grown, it’s a more accurate depiction every time.
6. BEN WALLACE: Big Ben
You’re going to find several tattoos spawned from nicknames around the NBA, but only a handful can make the leap from spoken word to ink. You can’t shed a nickname stenciled in your skin â€“ thus any work had better be done right. Like Damon Stoudamire‘s original “Mighty Mouse” work that personified his own game perfectly in an original way, Wallace’s right bicep shows off his own nickname in a perfect marriage of on-court bravado and art. Both are solid as rocks, have instantly recognizable tops and let you know when it’s their time to sound off.
5. AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE: “Black Jesus”
It’s a simple script tattoo on the neck. Harmless, right? Then you get up close and see it’s comparing STAT to someone a majority of the world worships. It wasn’t made as a joke; Stoudemire has been public with his Jewish faith for a while. Its worthiness comes from the minimalist nature of such a grandiose statement. Even a Robert Swift tattoo calling himself “White Michael Jordan” wouldn’t come as close to Stoudemire’s contrast between braggadocio and sincerity. The fine line is why Stoudemire’s tat is one of the best.
4. CHRIS ANDERSEN: Bird Wings
When you’re called the Birdman, a tattoo of that title alone (albeit it’s misspelled “Birdmann” on his back) won’t suffice â€” it’s practically a prerequisite to get wings done. Andersen’s identical, firebird-red wings on the inside of both biceps have incredible execution. You can spot those rare birds from the other side of the court. What makes them one of the NBA’s best isn’t just because he had these red wings done well before he went full Technicolor on his upper-body and neck, but because they combine form and function. Andersen’s whole game, you’ll remember, is predicated on raising his arms above his head, whether for a block or a slam. When he does, everyone knows the Birdman is coming.
3. PAUL PIERCE: “Chosen One”
A life-or-death experience is expected to leave its share of scars. After being stabbed 11 times in September, 2000 in a club’s pool room, the longest-tenured current Celtic had visible proof he’d been attacked on his face, neck and back, and decided to leave his own mark instead. His angel wings and heart, with “Chosen One” written beneath it, is a sick tattoo for sentimentality alone. It was his way of taking ownership of the experience and not letting someone else’s work define him.
2. JASON TERRY: Larry O’Brien trophy
What eventually became the Mavs’ title year started with the kind of bravado JET was so sure about, he got it permanently etched. Terry reportedly stunned his teammates by getting the NBA championship trophy profile inked on the inside of his left bicep during a team-building exercise DeShawn Stevenson hosted in the fall of 2010. Once the party was on in June 2011 atop the title podium in Miami, Terry flexed it for the first time as a champ. Having the balls to get it before earning a title is one thing; having the stones to back it up has been another thing altogether: career-defining.
1. DeSHAWN STEVENSON: Abe Lincoln
The story goes he wanted a MLK Jr. piece, but Gilbert Arenas stole his idea. Well, then. He came back with Abe Lincoln on his Adam’s apple because of his Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Then, he surrounded it with two 5s in the style of the money Abe’s face also graces. Neck tattoos, even as Nate Robinson, Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith have made them more popular, are still the province of the few, the proud, the not-quite-right. There’s the excruciating pain of a needle on your neck to start, let alone the extra color work to produce something like Andersen’s “Free Bird” ink. It also makes them some of the hardest to choose between because, let’s be honest, the person who wants a neck tat plans to make their most visible ink the most memorable too. Cue Abraham Lincoln.
What’s the most memorable tattoo of the past 12 years?
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