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.”