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By Lisa Guerrero and David J. Leonard |With thanks to NewBlackMan


Monday, November 14, 2011.



We are sports fans.  We enjoy most sports, but basketball is really our true love.  And typically during this time of year love is in the air.  However, with the owners continuing to deny us our NBA (I want my, I want my NBA), we are forced to fill the void with something besides more football.  Lucky for us, we’re also what’s known in the postmodern lexicon as “foodies,” so we have been distracting our lovelorn, NBA-deprived hearts with cooking shows.  From the more competitive shows like Top Chef to the voyeuristic and instructional options on Food Network, we have found ourselves watching a lot more cooking shows than normal.   


Besides becoming formidable cooks in our own right, our increased viewing of food television programming has brought to light interesting connections between the masters of the hard wood and the masters of the hard boil.  Both are bound together by the shared creativity found in the kitchen and on the court, the competitive spirits, and the emphasis on spontaneity, but it is the prevalence of tattoos in both worlds that offers a particularly rich perspective on the popular discursive signs placed on racialized bodies, the continued absence of class in the framing of our understanding of pop culture, and the curiously linked, yet distinct place of the baller and the chef in the American consciousness of the 21st century.   


In her 2010 story in LA Weekly:  “Chefs with Tattoos:  A colorful rebellion against kitchen rules,” Amy Scattergood says “Cooks turn to tattoos as a preferred expression of individualism, a form of rebellion against kitchen environments that demand conformity.  For chefs, as for prisoners, soldiers, and NBA point guards, a tattoo is a mark that can be worn with the uniform.”  And interesting list of tattoo aficionados, indeed; all in various ways are linked, albeit differentially, to notions of containment and discipline.  Setting this differential aside for a moment, it is interesting to consider the sociocultural code of transgression mapped onto the very literal “markers” of tattoos.  Focusing specifically on the popular trending of tattoo art in the late-20th century into the 21st century, the intersecting meanings of rebellion, creativity, and individualism are framed through selective lenses depending on who is “rebelling” or asserting their “individuality,” and against or for whom.


Chefs don’t typically invoke fear in the imagination of the public at large.  Though the contemporary cliché surrounding the “chef narrative” is that they are the “new rock stars,” it is largely a romanticized version of professional chefs stoked by the ever-increasing fascination with commodified foodie culture, and is reified by a performative rebellion that isn’t linked to any substantive notions of danger (unless you count being afraid of a chef spitting in your food).  Some trace this “bad boy” chef image to the emergence and popularity of Anthony Bourdain, whose own performative rebel persona, replete with foul mouth, cranky disposition, heavy drinking, and daredevil attitude toward food cultures, is actually elaborate window dressing for an articulate, thoughtful, passionate and skilled professional.   


But the “bad boy” chef who is rude, rule-breaking, and crass, of which Bourdain is the originator, is a much hotter commodity than the staid notion of chefs as proper, regimented, and classy.  And tattoos serve as a shorthand for this image.  When you see a sleeve of tats peeking out from the crisp chef’s jacket the popular translation is that the food is somehow more adventurous, more desirable, more creative because there’s a dash of transgression in it.  As Brendan Collins, chef-owner of Waterloo & City is quoted by Scattergood as saying:  “We’re all degenerates at heart.  If I hadn’t found cooking, I’d probably be in prison.”  But of course, he’s not.  He’s actually a classically-trained chef who, at 34, owns his own restaurant in Southern California.  A real gangster.


This brings us back to the idea of the differential relationship to containment and discipline of various tattooed populations, and the two main reasons why the commodified image of the tattooed rebel chef is problematic.  First, though it is true that many of today’s most popular and celebrated chefs have working class, hard-scrabble backgrounds, the elite training most (though not all) have, and the elite echelons they have reached professionally setting the palates of mainly monied classes, puts their tattooed markings in a very different light than those of prisoners, soldiers, and NBA point guards, just for example.  For the chefs, it becomes a little like dress-up.  Meanwhile, their rebel personas render invisible the class and labor realities of the line cooks, apprentices, and other kitchen staff who provide the central foundation for the success of the head chefs.  These behind-the-scences people, many of whom are also “marked” with tattoos, are actually positioned on the social peripheries that the head chefs play at occupying.  Paraphrasing a commenter on an online story about a reader of Food & Wine magazine being disgruntled by having to see the tattooed arms of chefs on an October 2009 cover:  if the tattoos of the head chefs are disturbing, then you definitely don’t want to see the tattoos they keep in the kitchen.  In other words, even in their imagined transgression embodied in their tattoos, the head chefs remain positioned in a privileged and respected role, unlike their support staff.


Second, not only does the larger social conception of cooking remain gendered in feminized terms (despite most of the world’s most famous and renowned chefs being male), it is also dominated by whiteness, neither of which are attached to sociocultural assumptions of threat.  That is to say that a white chef could be covered from head to toe in tattoos and never reach the discursive heights of threat and transgression that a black NBA player can reach with just one tattoo. The differential meaning emanating from ink on racially different bodies was evident from the moment players started branding themselves in ways that the corporate gatekeepers never could.


A 1997 Associated Press article explained the proliferation of tattoos in the NBA began with the following: “Tattoos always have been popular among inmates, sailors, bikers and gang members.  Now they're showing up in increasing numbers in the NBA.”  While noting that 35% of the league had tattoos (more recent reports put this number at around 75%), the article spends ample time dissecting the tattoos of Cherokee Parks and Greg Ostertag, two white players in the NBA who have “goofy” tattoos. 


Similar focus and attention has been directed at Chris Anderson’s fully covered body with a narrative that depicts him as a free-spirit, a loose cannon, or simply eccentric.  This points to the larger racial scripts operating through the spectacle of player tattoos.  In a brief 2001 article (from the Chicago Sun Times) entitled “Now NBA action is just tattoos and tantrums,” Richard Roeper elucidates the ways in which racial scripts and the signifying meaning attached to tattoos operate within both the demonization of today’s players and the celebration of players of yesteryear.


In Philadelphia, coach Larry Brown was so frustrated by his players' attitude that he took two days off. That did little to alleviate Brown's ongoing feud with scoring prodigy Allen Iverson, who has more tattoos than the average convict and is perpetually surly to fans and the media. (Iverson did nothing to help his image last year with the release of his homophobic rap album.)


The NBA is back where it was 20 years ago, before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson revitalized the game and left it to Jordan, who took it to unprecedented heights. The league has more thugs than stars, more selfish whiners than team players. 


More recently (2009), Kyle McNary lamented the ubiquity of NBA ink in “Tattoos have made NBA almost unwatchable.”  Arguing that people who get tattoos likely “lack self-esteem” and burdened by “poor decision-making skills,” McNary see the NBA’s tattoo epidemic as indicative of a larger cultural problem within the league: “Basketball, when played right, can be a thing of beauty.  But, the two-bit punk attitudes, tattoos and chest-beating has made a great sport look like a thug convention.”  The deployment of “thug” is particularly revealing given the racial connotations here, one that points to the ways in which blackness and tattoos are a troubling combination in that each confirms hegemonic stereotypes about black masculinity. 


In 2000, Allen Iverson appeared on the cover of Hoop Magazine where his tattoos and his diamond necklace were airbrushed out of sight and out of mind.   More recently, controversy erupted when Kevin Durant revealed that his back and stomach were covered in tats.  The sight of Durant, often celebrated as “one of the good ones” (in this article he is noted to be “likable” and “humble”) covered in tats brought into question his acceptance into the “good black athlete” club.  It further brought into question the continued meaning of tats within the primarily black NBA evident not only in the reaction but in the fact that all of his tattoos are concealed by his jersey. Eric Freemen reflects on the meaning of his tattoos, their placement, and the changing level of acceptance of NBA tats.  Yet, he concludes by arguing that Durant’s tats should cause little to his marketing potential and fan popularity in part because he is different.


It's tempting to say that Durant is trying to hide his tattoos to appeal to a larger market of fans, but it's possible that he just prefers to put tattoos on his torso and not his extremities. Plus, we've reached a point as basketball fans where tattoos are not an automatic sign of a thug. They're perfectly normal and a common feature of the league's most popular players. LeBron James is covered in tattoos, but any marketing issues he has are tied to his lack of a championship, not the belief that he's a gang member. That point of view is thankfully a thing of the past.


Whatever the case, Durant's tattoos prove that he's not the squeaky clean figure many people make him out to be. As I've said before, he has an edgy streak. He has a lot more in common with the rest of the NBA than many people are willing to admit.


It is important to understand that the NBA, as with other institutions within the United States, generates competing images of blackness.  At one end of the spectrum, we have “‘bad boy Black athletes” (Collins 2005, p. 153) who are consistently depicted as “overly physical, out of control, prone to violence, driven by instinct, and hypersexual” – they are commonly depicted as “unruly and disrespectful,” “inherently dangerous” and “in need of civilizing” (Ferber 2007, p. 20).  In other words, they are consistently imagined as thugs. At the other end of the spectrum are those players, who “are perceived as controlled by White males” (Ferber 2007, p. 20) and are thus “defined as the ‘good Blacks’” (Ferber 2007, p. 20).  Tattoos have long functioned as a mechanism of designation, a way of demarcating good versus bad, desired versus suspect, marketable versus unmarketable.  


Jemele Hill writes about the ways in which blackness overdetermines the larger meaning and implications of a tatted body:


The same goes for appearance. The Denver Nuggets' Chris "Birdman" Anderson, who is white, has so many tattoos that you can barely see his actual skin. And despite a troubled past that includes serious drug abuse, he's a fan favorite who is characterized as a free spirit. But that wasn't the way a lot of people felt about Allen Iverson, whose tattoos and diamond necklace were airbrushed out when he appeared in the NBA's publication, HOOP magazine, in 2000.


The sight of tatted black bodies, and the association to thuggery, criminality, and danger is evident here.  Here, Hill illustrates the intersection of varied meanings within tattoos depending on the attached body, with race being one element of importance.  For many, tatted black bodies signify criminality, danger, bad role models, thugs, and undesirability.  In many ways the demonization and fetishization of tattoos within the NBA points to a larger place of black bodies within American culture: as demon, as spectacle, as commodity, and as fetish.  Yet, it also points to the ways in which blackness is imagined as a polluted with the markings of a tatted black body conceived seen as a visual corrupting body to a pure NBA game.


In both the kitchen and the arena, the view of tattoos as infiltrating spaces imagined as at one time pristine and somehow honorable, is a shared myth with very different effects and different racial implications.  Today the tatted “rebels” in the culinary world typically receive buzz, accolades, and followings, while the tatted “thugs” on the court typically receive disdain, chastising, and surveillance.  It is difficult to deny that the primary difference between the two popular geographies of the chef and the baller is race, which leads us to conclude that while tattoos and race are both permanent markers, tattoos are only ever skin deep.




Lisa Guerrero is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University Pullman, editor of Teaching Race in the 21st Century: College Professors Talk About Their Fears, Risks, and Rewards (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and co-author of  African Americans in Television, co-authored with David J. Leonard. (Praeger Publishing, 2009).


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris.


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