For quite some time, bodybuilders with tattoos have been writing to me and asking whether or not they will be scored down because of them, and whether or not they should try to cover them up. The more tattoos I have gotten myself in recent years, the more it seems I get these questions. Let me start off with a brief history in my own eyes of tattoos in general.
I was born in 1969, and grew up in the 1970's and 1980's. Tattoos were still a pretty rare thing back then. When I was a kid, if you had ink; it usually meant you fell into one of three categories: a former armed forces veteran, a former convict, or a biker. Regular men and especially women rarely had tattoos. In fact, in many states it was even illegal to get them. I recall many people in my native Massachusetts had to head either north to New Hampshire or south to Rhode Island to get a tattoo. For reasons unclear to me, tattoos started to go 'mainstream' in the 90's. All of sudden, it became hip for both men and women to have barbed wire or tribal bands around their upper arms. Women started getting the ubiquitous lower back tats known as 'tramp stamps.' Eventually, tattoo art became more and more popular. More artists starting working, and more and more tattoo shops opened up all over the USA.
I was someone who never thought I would ever get a tattoo. I considered my body a work of art, and didn't feel marring it with graffiti was a good idea. At time went by, I began to think maybe it would be okay to get one. My first tattoo was on my upper back in between my shoulder blades, done by an artist in his home in 2002 as tattooing was still not yet legal in Massachusetts. From there, I continued, but I was determined that the tats would not interfere with the overall 'flow' and lines of my physique. I got one on the underside of each forearm, then another on the back of my neck, and another down my spine. A couple years ago, I stopped worrying about whether or not my physique was going to be impacted, and started getting a sleeve on my right arm that is still only 85% finished.
The fact is, tattoos are so common now that it's almost harder to find someone who doesn't have one or more. This is particularly true when we are talking about competitive bodybuilders and competitors in physique, bikini, and Figure. These are all people who are very conscious of their appearance and work hard to look their best. Many see tattoos as body art, a decorative adornment like jewelry. As such, they don't see any issues with getting as much ink as they want to. When you think about it, building muscles is an even more extreme form of 'body modification' than tattoos and piercings are, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they often go hand in hand. So the question now is, does it negatively impact how well you place at a contest?
Unless you literally have every square inch of skin covered like a Yakuza gangster, I doubt it matter much anymore. I am sure years ago it was much more of an issue. But since tattoos are so common now, you can't penalize everybody. That being said, if you plan on trying to make a living as a professional bodybuilder (and let's just let that term encompass all the divisions for the sake of simplicity), it's probably not a great idea to cover too much of your physique in ink. That will make it tougher for judges to assess your muscle separation and definition, and having a lot of tattoos will distract from the overall shape and lines of your physique. I don't know much about using makeup of whatever to cover tattoos, and nobody seems to even bother doing that anymore anyway. As I said, plenty of athletes now have plenty of ink. Just look in the ads for supplements, and you will see many of the models pictured are inked up. The stigma of tattoos making you seem low-class or criminal also seems to have mostly dissipated. There are still plenty of people who don't like tattoos for whatever reason, and who do think bodybuilders shouldn't get them. We are all entitled to our own opinions and we each have our own personal taste.
In the end, it's your body and you are free to do whatever you like. Unless your goal is to be Mr. Olympia, I wouldn't worry about having tattoos or going to any trouble to cover them up. If your physique is good enough, you will win; period.
Special thanks to Eric Hayes in Houston for being the most recent person to ask about this, and thus the one who made me realize I had to talk about it.