Five Rings, The Yakuza, And A Nipple-Sized Maple Leaf: The Olympic Tattoo Tradition

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If you've been paying attention to the competition in Rio, you've probably seen the Olympic rings tattoo. This is the story of how the tradition began -- and how it might change Japan in 2020. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
If you've been paying attention to the competition in Rio, you've probably seen the Olympic rings tattoo. This is the story of how the tradition began -- and how it might change Japan in 2020. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

OK, so maybe this has happened to you. An Olympic swimmer gets out of a pool or maybe an archer pulls back a bow. You catch a glimpse of five interlocking rings on a back or an inner arm or a thigh and you think, "Nice tat!"

No? Well it's happened to me. Olympic rings tattoos aren't for everyone. In fact, if you ask most Olympians, they're only for people who have actually competed in the actual Olympics. That's what makes them special.

But as we get ready to say goodbye to Rio 2016, people are starting to think about the very complicated future of Olympic tattoos — four years from now, in Tokyo 2020.

But, let's start with the present.

Carrying On The Tradition

Long Gutierrez was born in Mexico, but his parents moved him to the U.S. when he was 2, so he could pursue a career in swimming. He's been dreaming about the Olympics for a long time. He remembers the moment — he was watching the Olympics on TV (maybe it was Beijing in 2008) and saw a swimmer (maybe it was Ryan Lochte) with an Olympic ring tattoo on his arm. Even though Long can't quite remember the details, that moment left an impression.

"I just thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I remember going to my mom and my dad saying, when — if — when I make it, that's what I'm gonna get," Long says.

"I was more excited about coming back and getting the tattoo than the experience.”

To everyone's surprise, Long's parents agreed. His mom told him it was the only tattoo she'd ever be OK with.

"It was super funny because before then they would never have even thought of me getting a tattoo or just even letting me," Long says. "And so, I don’t know, like ever since then, I've always been kinda striving towards that."

Long, who's a senior at Cal Berkeley, qualified for Mexico at the Rio Olympics way back in August of 2015. So he had a long time to imagine his Olympic experience. And he didn't picture the Opening Ceremonies or standing on the blocks before his first race.

"I was, it's kind of weird," Long says with a laugh, "but I was more excited about coming back and getting the tattoo than the experience."

Long's dad died a few years ago — he'll never get to see his son get that tattoo. And his mom couldn't go to Rio to see him compete because of some last minute health worries. But now that Long is back in the States, she knows what's coming next.

"Now that it's really here, has your mom changed her mind at all?" I ask.

"So before I left for Rio, I was talking to her, and I was like, 'Mom, I hope you know no matter what you say, I'm still going to get this tattoo,'" Long says. "And she was just like, 'Yeah, that's fine.'"

Where It All Started

OK, so how did we get here, to this place where Olympians are looking forward more to the tattoos than the Games and otherwise tattoo-hating mothers are saying, "Yeah, that's fine" when their sons and daughters decide to get inked?

"The first time I ever saw a tattoo that made me think of the rings were on a swimmer who's now deceased, Victor Davis of Canada," says Chris Jacobs, a former American swimmer. "And he had the maple leaf on his chest."

Chris won two golds and a silver at the 1988 Seoul Games. But he's best remembered as the first known U.S. swimmer to get an Olympic rings tattoo. And it all started with that maple leaf tattoo on the chest of Canadian Victor Davis.

"Although I did think that something that size sort of ended up looking like a third nipple," Chris says. "So it was always an odd place for a tattoo, in my opinion."

"I was picturing a really big maple leaf," I say. "But apparently if it was nipple sized, it wasn't."

"Just about that size," Chris says.

That nipple-sized maple leaf understandably made an impression. But Chris wasn't a stranger to ink. He already had a Texas Longhorn tattoo on his hip. And that one has a story, too.

(Lars Baron/Getty Images)
(Lars Baron/Getty Images)

"I was with a couple teammates, and they had all backed out at the last second after I had had mine done," Chris recalls.

So Chris found himself alone in the chair looking up at the guy who'd just finished his tattoo.

"And I said, 'Do I need to keep this dry?' He was like, 'Yes you can't get it wet for at least 10 days,'" Chris says.

This was a problem. Chris had another pool session scheduled for later that day.

"And so I panicked and had to come up with some illness that my coach would find believable," Chris says. "I think he just looked at me and groaned and just let me know that he wasn't particularly happy. And that I really needed to have a speedy recovery and get right back in and start training again. And I think after about three days I put lots of ointment on it and band-aids and swam with it after that."

That tattoo was completely hidden. Before he had it done, Chris put his swimsuit and marked the skin it covered — just to be sure.

And after having a great time at the '88 Olympics, and seeing that nipple-sized Maple Leaf tattoo, Chris had another idea.

"I decided it would be fun to commemorate it by putting the little rings somewhere on my body," he says.

So he did. At first, he added a small set of rings to the Longhorn tattoo hidden under his swimsuit, but since he was out of excuses to miss practice, that one faded pretty quickly. So it's the much larger Olympic rings tattoo under his right upper arm that he added years later that Chris is well-known for — famous for, really. But while people like me call him up every four years to talk about it, when Chris was working on Wall Street he took care to wear sleeves long enough to cover it.

 "On hot summer days, although our trading desk was always super air conditioned, when I sort of started feeling tired, I'd always lean back in my chair and stick my arms up," Chris says. "And, you know, I'd catch myself. Most of the people I worked with knew I had been in the Olympics, but most of them didn't know anything about the tattoo."

Taking Tattoos To Tokyo?

Long Gutierrez isn't worried about keeping his rings covered. He says, these days, having an Olympic tattoo makes you part of a club that people want to be in. But he might find that attitudes are different when he gets to Japan for the 2020 games.

"So if you're getting a tattoo in Japan it's not like in the West where you're like, 'Oh, I'm going to get a tattoo.' This is — it's a lifestyle change," says Brian Ashcraft, an American living in Japan.

Brian has written a book about the history of tattoos in Japan. There, he says, most people keep their tattoos hidden for fear of discrimination.

"Doing stuff like getting a bank loan or at a job application become almost impossible in many cases," Brian says. "So tattoos traditionally in Japan are designed to be covered whereas tattoos in the West, you kind of show them off."

Tattooing in Japan might date all back all the way to the 3rd century. At times, tattoos were used to brand criminals or courtesans — but tattoos were also used as talismans by fisherman and laborers to protect them from danger. Then, in the late 19th century, Japan started interacting more with the Western world.

"And as more and more foreigners came into Japan, I think that the country's elite, the leaders, felt like, 'We don't want to portray ourselves as primitive or backward, because we're not. We need to put our best foot forward,'" Brian explains.

 And some people thought an inkless foot — or arm, or stomach — was the way to go.

"From the late 19th century until the end of World War II, tattooing was outlawed, it was banned," Brian says. "And police would go after tattooers and they would take away their pattern books."

And you know that old saying: outlaw tattooing and only outlaws get tattoos.

"And so during this period of time, the people who were employing tattooers were gangsters," Brian says. "They kept this folk art or artistic tradition alive. "

Tattoos became legal again in 1948, but by then they were mostly associated with one group: the yakuza — Japanese organized crime. If you watch movies, you've probably heard of them.

But what will happen in four years, when more than 10,000 athletes, many of them inked, arrive in Tokyo for the Games?

"For the upcoming Olympics, I think this will be another opportunity for people in Japan to slowly separate the stereotype they have for tattoos — that tattoos are bad or tattoos are connected to crime," Brian says.

He hopes Olympic athletes will understand that any bad behavior will reflect not only on them, their countries and the Olympics, but also on every other tattooed person in Japan.

"So often the news here — like  if someone gets arrested, they'll be like, 'Oh this guy has tattoos,' or they'll find a picture of him showing off his tattoos, and they'll be like, 'See, tattoos are bad, Japan,'" Brian says.

Which means, if you happen to tell the media a story about being robbed at gunpoint by police, and that story turns out to be less-than-truthful, it's not your blue-green hair that's going to be splashed across the front pages of newspapers. It'll be your Olympic tattoo.

Yes, Ryan Lochte, I'm talking to you.

This segment aired on August 20, 2016.


Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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