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Skin deep

Tattoo artist Cristián Marín counts Paulo Dybala, Nicolás Otamendi and Vini Jr among his clients. Here he explains football’s ultimate needle match – and why so many players are willing to suffer for their art

WORDS Simon Hart | PORTRAITS Jacobo Medrano

Art
Footballers and their pain threshold: it could be the title of an academic paper by an expert in sports medicine. Instead, it pops up in a conversation I’m having in a tattoo parlour in the southeast of Spain. To be fair, this is not any old tattoo parlour. Based on the outskirts of the city of Murcia, Ganga Tattoo Studio’s client list includes a number of high-profile Champions League players – so I’m here to find out about footballers’ fascination with body art.

I have the perfect guide in Cristián Marín. His moniker is Honart and he’s a man who flies around Europe keeping footballers’ torsos topped up with inky artwork. He will talk later about his travels, but first that question – from this curious parlour first-timer – about pain. 

“Footballers are, on the whole, pretty tough people,” says Marín. “With more than one I’ve had to fix tattoos on their shins as they’ve had scars there from tackles – that’s got to hurt a lot. I think what hurts most is the sheer length of time when you’re mistreating the skin, because at the end of the day you’re opening a wound – scratching the skin with the needle. There’s a moment when the skin gets really irritated and inflamed and bleeds a lot; that’s after two or three hours, when it starts to hurt.”

In short, when we see a shirtless footballer with his body covered in tattoos, we can be sure he will have suffered for his art. Marín offers two examples. First, Lucas Torreira, the Uruguayan midfielder once of Arsenal, who he visited in his north London days. “Torreira, on the front of his calf, where it hurts more, had a small wound where the tattoo was and I had to correct it, but it was very easy – just a bit of shading. It was a portrait of his mother that I’d done a long time ago. I was doing another tattoo and he said, ‘I’ve had a wound here and it’s healed, so if you can fix it then perfect.’”

No ouches there. And none, most definitely, from Nicolás Otamendi – Benfica’s Argentina centre-back and a man, according to Marín, who is entirely flinch-free. “The hardest”, in fact, of all the footballers he has inked.

“He is the one I’ve built the best relationship with because of the number of times I’ve been to see him. I think he was among the first I tattooed. I’ve been four or five years working in the studio and have been to see him once or twice each year. Two weeks ago I was in his house and he’s the hardest without any question. When you’re tattooing him, he doesn’t complain. 

“The rest too, but when it comes to the size of the tattoos, Otamendi’s the one with the highest pain threshold. There are others who don’t complain either but that will be with smaller tattoos. Otamendi has tattoos down both sides, which is a very painful area; he has his thigh, which also hurts a lot, and his back too. He talks and talks and talks during a session but never to complain.”

Before the 2000s, a pitch full of footballers swapping shirts would have revealed barely a tattoo between them. How times have changed. Marín pins the current craze in footballing tats to one fashion icon in particular.

“It’s a culture that I’d say began with David Beckham. He created the fashion for tattoos in football. He did it so, so well, and although there are many footballers who don’t have tattoos, there are many who are so into urban fashion – people like Otamendi, who like fashion and dress really well and invest a lot in their image. They dedicate part of that to getting good tattoos.”

"Otamendi, who like fashion and dress really well and invest a lot in their image. They dedicate part of that to getting good tattoos.”
A few studio accoutrements

But why so many? Is it a case of alpha males trying to outdo one another? “On top of competitiveness, it could be about memories. Footballers have so many dates – moments they want to mark, matches they’ve won. A lot of Otamendi’s tattoos, for example, are for moments to do with his football career: the Copa América, the Finalissima, the World Cup.”

Marín’s own face and body are testament to his passion for his subject. A rose sits beside his left ear. He counts 18 tattoos on his hands and arms and is particularly proud of his right arm, which features artists ranging from Salvador Dalí to Pablo Picasso (there’s even a spot for Walt Disney – and his canine creation Goofy). On the same arm, forming a formidable dream dinner-party guest list, are James Dean and Bob Dylan. 

There are others. Standing in his booth in this smart, white-walled studio, he zips open his baggy jeans to reveal, on his left thigh, his first self-inked tattoo: a ship accompanied by the legend Perdiendo el norte (All at sea). Marín was 17 when curiosity about tattoos led to a friend’s brother branding his age on his hip. Four years later, it had become his calling. 

“I was studying art and a friend of mine got given a machine from a Chinese corner shop that wasn’t so good, but with that we started messing around and trying things. I’d tattoo him and he’d tattoo me. Little by little you start getting the technique and I got the idea of pursuing this full time.”

He dismissed an early idea of a career in graphic design; instead, he took a course at Ganga Studio then spent a year learning from artists in different parts of Spain, practising on pig skin to perfect his art. “I turned 30 this year so it’s been almost nine years,” he says of his trajectory. “I think a tattooist is considered an apprentice for the first five years. From there, then you can consider you’ve got enough experience to take on any type of tattoo or challenge. Some people ask for animals, buildings, cars, but principally my style is centred on portraits.”

Tattoos of family members can present the biggest challenges. He recalls a job for Hélder Costa, the former Wolves, Leeds United and Valencia winger. “Hélder Costa asked me for a portrait of one of his daughters. Because it is so personal and so easy to compare with, that was quite difficult. If it’s not a perfect likeness, he is going to know!”

Marín’s first footballer was the now Porto forward Toni Martínez, a fellow son of Murcia. Yet he credits the power of social media for taking his work to an audience (and would-be clients) far beyond his home city. He adds: “At the start, when I began doing tattoos, the whole idea was just becoming popular and I was lucky to get published in a lot of tattoo magazines.”

Today he travels far and wide. “I’ve tattooed players in the UK, in Germany, in Portugal, in Italy. I’ve tattooed [basketball player] Lonzo Ball, who plays for the Lakers, and that was perhaps the longest journey as I had to go to Los Angeles. But my clients are largely in Europe.”

As well as footballers ranging from Vini Jr in Madrid to Ederson in Manchester, his other clients include DJ and music producer TroyBoi and Maverick Viñales, the Moto GP racer. Regular visits to Ganga’s satellite studio in Los Angeles are expected to follow soon, yet he stresses that Murcia will remain home. And his work with footballers will go on.

“With the vast majority, I go to their homes,” he says. “Players train virtually every day, so on a day off they’re not going to be able to travel to Murcia and back in time for training; it’s too tiring for them. Normally a session is five or six hours at most. We sit down and look at the design in advance, which could be on WhatsApp or Instagram. Then on the day itself we make the final changes, adjusting the size, whatever’s needed, then we print the stencil, attach it to the skin and get started.” 

Football is seldom too far from the conversation, which is no problem for Marín, a Real Madrid supporter. “Many of the players talk about football,” he says. “In fact, the vast majority will be watching a game – of another team – while I’m tattooing them, or they’ll be looking back at a past game.”

Are there any players who have surprised him with their disposition in person, compared to their public image? “Otamendi and Paulo Dybala. These are people with big media profiles and meeting them can seem a big thing, but you go there and they’re really normal. 

“In the privacy of their homes they are the most normal people. They offer you a coffee, some food; sometimes they even invite you to have dinner with their families. I’ve sat down to dinner with [Lyon’s Corentin] Tolisso and his family, with Dybala’s family, with friends of Otamendi, friends of [ex-England midfielder] Fabian Delph.”

There is a framed Otamendi shirt in Marín’s tattoo booth, just one of a collection that he hopes will one day end up in a games room in his house. His left leg is the site of another couple of less likely souvenirs: small tattoos applied by Otamendi and Dybala. It’s one thing footballers getting tattoos, quite another letting them take hold of the needle. He explains: “There’s an emoji of the military salute because they call Otamendi ‘the general’ and it’s also got his two shirt numbers: 30 with Benfica and 19 with his national team. And there’s also the 21 of Dybala and the D.”

The tattooist tattooed. A funny old game, indeed. 

Art
Otamendi's tattoos explained

“I’ve lost count of his tattoos, but he has his back full,” says Cristián Marín of Benfica defender Nicolás Otamendi. “He’s a big fan of TV series and has his whole back dedicated to shows like Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead.

“If you look at the photo, I did the lower part. The Game of Thrones one was first, then The Walking Dead. I also did a car from Peaky Blinders, a zombie from The Walking Dead and a prison watchtower for Prison Break. 

“The Walking Dead one took about five hours; it has one of the main characters, with the rest of them behind in a shadowy background. That hurts more! I’d calculate that each of the tattoos took between three and five hours.”

I have the perfect guide in Cristián Marín. His moniker is Honart and he’s a man who flies around Europe keeping footballers’ torsos topped up with inky artwork. He will talk later about his travels, but first that question – from this curious parlour first-timer – about pain. 

“Footballers are, on the whole, pretty tough people,” says Marín. “With more than one I’ve had to fix tattoos on their shins as they’ve had scars there from tackles – that’s got to hurt a lot. I think what hurts most is the sheer length of time when you’re mistreating the skin, because at the end of the day you’re opening a wound – scratching the skin with the needle. There’s a moment when the skin gets really irritated and inflamed and bleeds a lot; that’s after two or three hours, when it starts to hurt.”

In short, when we see a shirtless footballer with his body covered in tattoos, we can be sure he will have suffered for his art. Marín offers two examples. First, Lucas Torreira, the Uruguayan midfielder once of Arsenal, who he visited in his north London days. “Torreira, on the front of his calf, where it hurts more, had a small wound where the tattoo was and I had to correct it, but it was very easy – just a bit of shading. It was a portrait of his mother that I’d done a long time ago. I was doing another tattoo and he said, ‘I’ve had a wound here and it’s healed, so if you can fix it then perfect.’”

No ouches there. And none, most definitely, from Nicolás Otamendi – Benfica’s Argentina centre-back and a man, according to Marín, who is entirely flinch-free. “The hardest”, in fact, of all the footballers he has inked.

“He is the one I’ve built the best relationship with because of the number of times I’ve been to see him. I think he was among the first I tattooed. I’ve been four or five years working in the studio and have been to see him once or twice each year. Two weeks ago I was in his house and he’s the hardest without any question. When you’re tattooing him, he doesn’t complain. 

“The rest too, but when it comes to the size of the tattoos, Otamendi’s the one with the highest pain threshold. There are others who don’t complain either but that will be with smaller tattoos. Otamendi has tattoos down both sides, which is a very painful area; he has his thigh, which also hurts a lot, and his back too. He talks and talks and talks during a session but never to complain.”

Before the 2000s, a pitch full of footballers swapping shirts would have revealed barely a tattoo between them. How times have changed. Marín pins the current craze in footballing tats to one fashion icon in particular.

“It’s a culture that I’d say began with David Beckham. He created the fashion for tattoos in football. He did it so, so well, and although there are many footballers who don’t have tattoos, there are many who are so into urban fashion – people like Otamendi, who like fashion and dress really well and invest a lot in their image. They dedicate part of that to getting good tattoos.”

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"Otamendi, who like fashion and dress really well and invest a lot in their image. They dedicate part of that to getting good tattoos.”
A few studio accoutrements

But why so many? Is it a case of alpha males trying to outdo one another? “On top of competitiveness, it could be about memories. Footballers have so many dates – moments they want to mark, matches they’ve won. A lot of Otamendi’s tattoos, for example, are for moments to do with his football career: the Copa América, the Finalissima, the World Cup.”

Marín’s own face and body are testament to his passion for his subject. A rose sits beside his left ear. He counts 18 tattoos on his hands and arms and is particularly proud of his right arm, which features artists ranging from Salvador Dalí to Pablo Picasso (there’s even a spot for Walt Disney – and his canine creation Goofy). On the same arm, forming a formidable dream dinner-party guest list, are James Dean and Bob Dylan. 

There are others. Standing in his booth in this smart, white-walled studio, he zips open his baggy jeans to reveal, on his left thigh, his first self-inked tattoo: a ship accompanied by the legend Perdiendo el norte (All at sea). Marín was 17 when curiosity about tattoos led to a friend’s brother branding his age on his hip. Four years later, it had become his calling. 

“I was studying art and a friend of mine got given a machine from a Chinese corner shop that wasn’t so good, but with that we started messing around and trying things. I’d tattoo him and he’d tattoo me. Little by little you start getting the technique and I got the idea of pursuing this full time.”

He dismissed an early idea of a career in graphic design; instead, he took a course at Ganga Studio then spent a year learning from artists in different parts of Spain, practising on pig skin to perfect his art. “I turned 30 this year so it’s been almost nine years,” he says of his trajectory. “I think a tattooist is considered an apprentice for the first five years. From there, then you can consider you’ve got enough experience to take on any type of tattoo or challenge. Some people ask for animals, buildings, cars, but principally my style is centred on portraits.”

Tattoos of family members can present the biggest challenges. He recalls a job for Hélder Costa, the former Wolves, Leeds United and Valencia winger. “Hélder Costa asked me for a portrait of one of his daughters. Because it is so personal and so easy to compare with, that was quite difficult. If it’s not a perfect likeness, he is going to know!”

Marín’s first footballer was the now Porto forward Toni Martínez, a fellow son of Murcia. Yet he credits the power of social media for taking his work to an audience (and would-be clients) far beyond his home city. He adds: “At the start, when I began doing tattoos, the whole idea was just becoming popular and I was lucky to get published in a lot of tattoo magazines.”

Today he travels far and wide. “I’ve tattooed players in the UK, in Germany, in Portugal, in Italy. I’ve tattooed [basketball player] Lonzo Ball, who plays for the Lakers, and that was perhaps the longest journey as I had to go to Los Angeles. But my clients are largely in Europe.”

As well as footballers ranging from Vini Jr in Madrid to Ederson in Manchester, his other clients include DJ and music producer TroyBoi and Maverick Viñales, the Moto GP racer. Regular visits to Ganga’s satellite studio in Los Angeles are expected to follow soon, yet he stresses that Murcia will remain home. And his work with footballers will go on.

“With the vast majority, I go to their homes,” he says. “Players train virtually every day, so on a day off they’re not going to be able to travel to Murcia and back in time for training; it’s too tiring for them. Normally a session is five or six hours at most. We sit down and look at the design in advance, which could be on WhatsApp or Instagram. Then on the day itself we make the final changes, adjusting the size, whatever’s needed, then we print the stencil, attach it to the skin and get started.” 

Football is seldom too far from the conversation, which is no problem for Marín, a Real Madrid supporter. “Many of the players talk about football,” he says. “In fact, the vast majority will be watching a game – of another team – while I’m tattooing them, or they’ll be looking back at a past game.”

Are there any players who have surprised him with their disposition in person, compared to their public image? “Otamendi and Paulo Dybala. These are people with big media profiles and meeting them can seem a big thing, but you go there and they’re really normal. 

“In the privacy of their homes they are the most normal people. They offer you a coffee, some food; sometimes they even invite you to have dinner with their families. I’ve sat down to dinner with [Lyon’s Corentin] Tolisso and his family, with Dybala’s family, with friends of Otamendi, friends of [ex-England midfielder] Fabian Delph.”

There is a framed Otamendi shirt in Marín’s tattoo booth, just one of a collection that he hopes will one day end up in a games room in his house. His left leg is the site of another couple of less likely souvenirs: small tattoos applied by Otamendi and Dybala. It’s one thing footballers getting tattoos, quite another letting them take hold of the needle. He explains: “There’s an emoji of the military salute because they call Otamendi ‘the general’ and it’s also got his two shirt numbers: 30 with Benfica and 19 with his national team. And there’s also the 21 of Dybala and the D.”

The tattooist tattooed. A funny old game, indeed. 

Art
Otamendi's tattoos explained

“I’ve lost count of his tattoos, but he has his back full,” says Cristián Marín of Benfica defender Nicolás Otamendi. “He’s a big fan of TV series and has his whole back dedicated to shows like Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead.

“If you look at the photo, I did the lower part. The Game of Thrones one was first, then The Walking Dead. I also did a car from Peaky Blinders, a zombie from The Walking Dead and a prison watchtower for Prison Break. 

“The Walking Dead one took about five hours; it has one of the main characters, with the rest of them behind in a shadowy background. That hurts more! I’d calculate that each of the tattoos took between three and five hours.”

I have the perfect guide in Cristián Marín. His moniker is Honart and he’s a man who flies around Europe keeping footballers’ torsos topped up with inky artwork. He will talk later about his travels, but first that question – from this curious parlour first-timer – about pain. 

“Footballers are, on the whole, pretty tough people,” says Marín. “With more than one I’ve had to fix tattoos on their shins as they’ve had scars there from tackles – that’s got to hurt a lot. I think what hurts most is the sheer length of time when you’re mistreating the skin, because at the end of the day you’re opening a wound – scratching the skin with the needle. There’s a moment when the skin gets really irritated and inflamed and bleeds a lot; that’s after two or three hours, when it starts to hurt.”

In short, when we see a shirtless footballer with his body covered in tattoos, we can be sure he will have suffered for his art. Marín offers two examples. First, Lucas Torreira, the Uruguayan midfielder once of Arsenal, who he visited in his north London days. “Torreira, on the front of his calf, where it hurts more, had a small wound where the tattoo was and I had to correct it, but it was very easy – just a bit of shading. It was a portrait of his mother that I’d done a long time ago. I was doing another tattoo and he said, ‘I’ve had a wound here and it’s healed, so if you can fix it then perfect.’”

No ouches there. And none, most definitely, from Nicolás Otamendi – Benfica’s Argentina centre-back and a man, according to Marín, who is entirely flinch-free. “The hardest”, in fact, of all the footballers he has inked.

“He is the one I’ve built the best relationship with because of the number of times I’ve been to see him. I think he was among the first I tattooed. I’ve been four or five years working in the studio and have been to see him once or twice each year. Two weeks ago I was in his house and he’s the hardest without any question. When you’re tattooing him, he doesn’t complain. 

“The rest too, but when it comes to the size of the tattoos, Otamendi’s the one with the highest pain threshold. There are others who don’t complain either but that will be with smaller tattoos. Otamendi has tattoos down both sides, which is a very painful area; he has his thigh, which also hurts a lot, and his back too. He talks and talks and talks during a session but never to complain.”

Before the 2000s, a pitch full of footballers swapping shirts would have revealed barely a tattoo between them. How times have changed. Marín pins the current craze in footballing tats to one fashion icon in particular.

“It’s a culture that I’d say began with David Beckham. He created the fashion for tattoos in football. He did it so, so well, and although there are many footballers who don’t have tattoos, there are many who are so into urban fashion – people like Otamendi, who like fashion and dress really well and invest a lot in their image. They dedicate part of that to getting good tattoos.”

"Otamendi, who like fashion and dress really well and invest a lot in their image. They dedicate part of that to getting good tattoos.”
A few studio accoutrements

But why so many? Is it a case of alpha males trying to outdo one another? “On top of competitiveness, it could be about memories. Footballers have so many dates – moments they want to mark, matches they’ve won. A lot of Otamendi’s tattoos, for example, are for moments to do with his football career: the Copa América, the Finalissima, the World Cup.”

Marín’s own face and body are testament to his passion for his subject. A rose sits beside his left ear. He counts 18 tattoos on his hands and arms and is particularly proud of his right arm, which features artists ranging from Salvador Dalí to Pablo Picasso (there’s even a spot for Walt Disney – and his canine creation Goofy). On the same arm, forming a formidable dream dinner-party guest list, are James Dean and Bob Dylan. 

There are others. Standing in his booth in this smart, white-walled studio, he zips open his baggy jeans to reveal, on his left thigh, his first self-inked tattoo: a ship accompanied by the legend Perdiendo el norte (All at sea). Marín was 17 when curiosity about tattoos led to a friend’s brother branding his age on his hip. Four years later, it had become his calling. 

“I was studying art and a friend of mine got given a machine from a Chinese corner shop that wasn’t so good, but with that we started messing around and trying things. I’d tattoo him and he’d tattoo me. Little by little you start getting the technique and I got the idea of pursuing this full time.”

He dismissed an early idea of a career in graphic design; instead, he took a course at Ganga Studio then spent a year learning from artists in different parts of Spain, practising on pig skin to perfect his art. “I turned 30 this year so it’s been almost nine years,” he says of his trajectory. “I think a tattooist is considered an apprentice for the first five years. From there, then you can consider you’ve got enough experience to take on any type of tattoo or challenge. Some people ask for animals, buildings, cars, but principally my style is centred on portraits.”

Tattoos of family members can present the biggest challenges. He recalls a job for Hélder Costa, the former Wolves, Leeds United and Valencia winger. “Hélder Costa asked me for a portrait of one of his daughters. Because it is so personal and so easy to compare with, that was quite difficult. If it’s not a perfect likeness, he is going to know!”

Marín’s first footballer was the now Porto forward Toni Martínez, a fellow son of Murcia. Yet he credits the power of social media for taking his work to an audience (and would-be clients) far beyond his home city. He adds: “At the start, when I began doing tattoos, the whole idea was just becoming popular and I was lucky to get published in a lot of tattoo magazines.”

Today he travels far and wide. “I’ve tattooed players in the UK, in Germany, in Portugal, in Italy. I’ve tattooed [basketball player] Lonzo Ball, who plays for the Lakers, and that was perhaps the longest journey as I had to go to Los Angeles. But my clients are largely in Europe.”

As well as footballers ranging from Vini Jr in Madrid to Ederson in Manchester, his other clients include DJ and music producer TroyBoi and Maverick Viñales, the Moto GP racer. Regular visits to Ganga’s satellite studio in Los Angeles are expected to follow soon, yet he stresses that Murcia will remain home. And his work with footballers will go on.

“With the vast majority, I go to their homes,” he says. “Players train virtually every day, so on a day off they’re not going to be able to travel to Murcia and back in time for training; it’s too tiring for them. Normally a session is five or six hours at most. We sit down and look at the design in advance, which could be on WhatsApp or Instagram. Then on the day itself we make the final changes, adjusting the size, whatever’s needed, then we print the stencil, attach it to the skin and get started.” 

Football is seldom too far from the conversation, which is no problem for Marín, a Real Madrid supporter. “Many of the players talk about football,” he says. “In fact, the vast majority will be watching a game – of another team – while I’m tattooing them, or they’ll be looking back at a past game.”

Are there any players who have surprised him with their disposition in person, compared to their public image? “Otamendi and Paulo Dybala. These are people with big media profiles and meeting them can seem a big thing, but you go there and they’re really normal. 

“In the privacy of their homes they are the most normal people. They offer you a coffee, some food; sometimes they even invite you to have dinner with their families. I’ve sat down to dinner with [Lyon’s Corentin] Tolisso and his family, with Dybala’s family, with friends of Otamendi, friends of [ex-England midfielder] Fabian Delph.”

There is a framed Otamendi shirt in Marín’s tattoo booth, just one of a collection that he hopes will one day end up in a games room in his house. His left leg is the site of another couple of less likely souvenirs: small tattoos applied by Otamendi and Dybala. It’s one thing footballers getting tattoos, quite another letting them take hold of the needle. He explains: “There’s an emoji of the military salute because they call Otamendi ‘the general’ and it’s also got his two shirt numbers: 30 with Benfica and 19 with his national team. And there’s also the 21 of Dybala and the D.”

The tattooist tattooed. A funny old game, indeed. 

Art
Otamendi's tattoos explained

“I’ve lost count of his tattoos, but he has his back full,” says Cristián Marín of Benfica defender Nicolás Otamendi. “He’s a big fan of TV series and has his whole back dedicated to shows like Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead.

“If you look at the photo, I did the lower part. The Game of Thrones one was first, then The Walking Dead. I also did a car from Peaky Blinders, a zombie from The Walking Dead and a prison watchtower for Prison Break. 

“The Walking Dead one took about five hours; it has one of the main characters, with the rest of them behind in a shadowy background. That hurts more! I’d calculate that each of the tattoos took between three and five hours.”

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