Tattoo Activism

By | March 10, 2015

Tattoos are a prominent part in todays game of football. Whether they be works of art, religious allegiances, meaningful messages or propaganda, each star has the opportunity to showcase them to millions of viewers. In this piece I’m going to shed light on some of the more iconic pieces in today’s game, and how they have been used to the benefit of others.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

TOPSHOTS Paris Saint-Germain's Swedish f

Zlatan is perhaps the most inked icon in the footballing world. His latest undergoing was the addition of 50 names to his frontal region. On the surface this seems very odd and unorthodox, but that’s who Zlatan is. The names were to signify the UN World food Program and the 805 million people whom suffer from hunger. The 50 names were only scratching the surface for the most problematic “disease” in the world, hunger. Zlatan revealed the new creation after his second minute goal against Caen. Such an act was deemed irresponsible, as removing one’s shirt so early in a game and garnering a yellow card puts the player and the team at risk for the remaining minutes. However, for Zlatan, disclosing the message was far more paramount than the cautionary punishment. In a WFP interview he exclaimed; “whenever you hear my name, you will think of their names. Whenever you see me, you will see them”. Zlatan’s tattoo was also complimented by a promo-awareness clip that attained 1.2 million hits by the end of the unveiling weekend. Today, that number is relishing in the upper 4 millions.


Tim Howard


Tim is another decorated activist, to an extent. On the surface, you would never know as his collection is hidden from plain sight. Meanwhile under his shirt he has a mosaic of images and names. For Tim, family seems to be the most integral part of his work and he bears his child’s name Jacob on his right pectoral and a juvenile image of his mother on his right. However unlike Zlatan, Tim doesn’t parade any activist pieces, as taking a shirt off is an infrequent part of a goalies‘ game. Rather, Tim models for groups to highlight his backing. Recently he unveiled his torso for PETA and their “Ink, NOT MINK” campaign. PETA is a meaningful charity, to Tim, as he despises the inhumanity toward the animals whom are embroiled in the fur trade. It was this sentiment that inspired him to raise awareness of the cruelty, and hopefully make a difference.

Both of these players are national football hero’s in their respective countries. By portraying their allegiances to these worthy causes, it really inspires the younger generations too also“make a difference”. The youth look up to these players and want to become just like them. A humbling act will be viewed upon by some as a necessary act to not only please their hero but to also make it to the top level. A simple stand can go a million miles. The other aspect is the fact that these two garner so much media attention that by becoming activists the will spread their charities‘ manifesto all over the world. This would be faster than they or the charity could’ve managed alone, with the medias outreach. Zlatan and Tim are two humble players who are looking to make a difference on and off the pitch.

7 thoughts on “Tattoo Activism


    I really enjoyed this post because it brought to my attention to a phenomenon that I was previously unaware of (that is, use of tattooing in professional athletics for activism/brand promotion purposes). With that said, I think that, regardless of activist/advertisement intent, the tattoo phenomenon is problematic. I respect Zlatan’s attempt to promote awareness for an often neglected cause. However, my impulse is to think that he could be more effective by taking legitimate action off the pitch to raise money, instead of simply “developing awareness” by tattooing his body and displaying it on the field. At the same time, I understand that widespread and seemingly unconquerable problems such as world hunger are difficult causes for which to garner sufficient support, so perhaps Zlatan’s strategy is the best way to call attention to the problem. However, it should only be a starting point, and players should continue their activism in a more tangible way off the field.

  2. Frannie Sensenbrenner

    I really liked your take on the subject of tattoos, James! Using body ink as a form of activism isn’t something that I would have thought about, and it is fascinating that it has become somewhat of a trend in soccer. Tattoos in general are a very interesting and controversial subject. According to a BBC article discussing the rise of tattoos in Brazilian football players, David Beckham paved the way for tattooed soccer players to become the norm. In Brazil, tattoos were considered to only be for people in prison. When players like Neymar started getting tattoos related to religion and family, the practice became more accepted. The Brazilian team at the World Cup in 2014 was considered the most heavily tattooed in the country’s history, with 17 out of 23 players having tattoos on display. The majority of the tattoos described in the article depicted something that would be considered wholesome, having subjects that ranged from family to religion to perseverance. As tattoos continue to become more widely accepted, we can only hope that players continue to send good messages with their body ink.

    BBC Article:

    1. Justin Fu

      Hey Frannie! I really enjoyed reading the separate article you linked to. The trend towards acceptance of tattoos in sport culture is most definitely interesting. Interestingly enough , tattoos are gaining acceptance in the workplace of not only professional athletes, but also those of us commoners. According to an article in USA Today by Lynn Monty, written in 2014, workplace acceptance of tattoos is growing, albeit through anecdotal evidence. I would venture to guess that there are some statistics that will back up this trend too! The essence of the growing tattoo trend is that some places are becoming more accepting, which could include the soccer pitch, but other workplaces will forever be entrenched in traditional values. Imagine a doctor or a kindergarten school teacher bearing full sleeves and neck tattoos! It may just be that athletes such as soccer players are allowed a greater degree of freedom in their style of body art compared to the restrictive norms and social settings we operate within. Lastly, I believe that we cannot wish that athletes send good messages with their body ink as their body is the rare canvas that is not controlled by the team, the corporation, or the club. If we put expectations on their skin as well as their dress, then we rob them of what little expressive freedoms they maintain on the pitch. Great post, once again, Frannie!

      USA Today – Workplace Tattoos Taboos Fading – Lynn Monty:

  3. Helena Wang

    Interesting post James! This is definitely a trend I have been noticing, especially when Zlatan decided to do it in partnership with the UN World Food Program. Something I find really fascinating about this is the fact that FIFA actually has a rule that if a jersey is removed in a post-goal celebration, the player will receive an automatic yellow card. I am wondering if FIFA took into account the fact that many players would be utilizing their bodies for activist reasons, or if it was strictly for sponsorship reasons. Additionally, would FIFA be willing to reevaluate this rule and allow players to take their jersey off if they do it for activist reasons? Either way, it is interesting to see the creative ways players express their opinions on and off the field.

  4. Haley Amster

    Really interesting post, James! You brought attention to another type of advertisement within the sport- a type of personal advertising. I think that it’s pretty interesting how the athletes described here used their tattoos to gain attention. However, while it seems like they are both using their tattoos for activism, I’m not sure that it’s all pure activist motives under the surface. For example, in the case of Tim Howard, it isn’t clear if he’s using his body to gain awareness or if it’s for advertisement. It doesn’t seem like he’s portraying any tattoos with activist messages- he’s just displaying the fact that he has tattoos in an ad against the use of fur in clothing. It might have been an endorsement or sponsorship from Peta that incentivized him to participate in this, but it’s not easy to tell. Zlatan, on the other hand, seems more purely activist in his intentions, as he is likely not gaining any revenue or profit from displaying these tattoos.

    1. Dominic

      I tend to agree! Pure activism cannot be profitable. Or at least not openlly profitable since, in my mind, it is an action of fighting for others….

    2. Deemer Class IV

      Great post! Definitely two fascinating images of their tattoos. In response to Haley’s question of Tim Howard, I feel like with such a permanent display such as a tattoo, one would have a more deeply rooted motive than simply being paid to promote. That’s just my personal opinion, especially since it is such a big commitment with how heavily tattoo’d both players are.


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