Permanent Records

Tattoos provide a way for athletes to mark an accomplishment or transformation

October 4, 2011

The skin off his back is just the beginning for Ray Upshaw, one of the most dedicated Tough Mudder participants. Because of this tattoo of the pledge, he can enter every event for free. And he does.

John Bonacci Jr. had never put a tattoo on his body. But then, he’d also never run through a field of live wires or across burning straw, which are two of the obstacles required to complete a Tough Mudder. So, last May, after getting to the finish line of the extreme event with his gang of buddies from Georgetown University, they all spontaneously decided to get inked.

They — along with more than 100 other participants in the debut challenge — took organizers up on their offer of free tattoos depicting a man running from flames. It was the brand’s cheeky way of promoting how hard-core Tough Mudders really are, but they never imagined so many people would go for it at every single event. To keep numbers manageable, organizers recently had to start charging $70 a pop.

“People are really into feeling like they’re part of this tribe,” says chief marketing officer Alex Patterson, who estimates there are already 750 folks walking around with the mark, including two guys who’ve gotten the entire Tough Mudder pledge inked across their backs.

Bonacci hasn’t gone quite that far, but the 24-year-old’s on his way to turning his midsection into a list of athletic achievements. His first tattoo was the Tough Mudder logo on his ribs. When he did a second Tough Mudder, he decided to add the outline of each state in which he completes an event. So far there’s Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont. After the weekend of Oct. 22-23, when Tough Mudder heads to Wintergreen, Va., he’ll get the commonwealth on there, too. “Maybe it’ll get down to my hip,” says Bonacci, who plans to expand his race repertoire. “I want to do an Ironman, and I’m definitely getting a tattoo for that.”

When it’s time, he may want to visit Matt “Fatty” Jessup, owner of Fatty’s Custom Tattooz in Dupont Circle. In his 20 years in the inking biz, Jessup has done his share of Ironman logos. He’s also seen plenty of marathoners who’ve wanted a lasting memento.

“I see the correlation between intense sports activities and tattoos,” Jessup says. “Your mind doesn’t say ‘Let’s run a marathon.’ Getting a tattoo is a similar urge. It’s not logical — it’s primal.”

And because tattoos date back thousands of years, just like yoga, it’s not too surprising to find ink at most studios these days. “But it’s not born out of an accomplishment. It’s expression,” says Michael Hall, founder of Mid City Yoga, whose back boasts a giant image of Ganesh. “I wouldn’t have donated so much space on my body if it wasn’t so meaningful to me.”

Considering that the elephant-headed deity is known for clearing obstacles, the tattoo might be a useful one for Bonacci to consider, too.


True Branding

Convention-goers always wear badges. But usually they’re not quite as permanent as the ones sported by the crowd at Anytime Fitness’ annual conference. To prove their passion for the gym chain, which includes a dozen locations in the area, attendees queued up at the Omni Shoreham last Friday to get the company logo — a purple running man — tattooed onto their skin.

In a corporate culture that celebrates “bleeding purple,” actually bleeding has resonated. So franchise owners, employees and members have all decided to go under the needle in recent years. If Anytime Fitness fans can’t make the annual conference, they can get the tattoo on their own and send in a photo and the bill. The company has paid to ink more than 400 people, according to co-founder Chuck Runyon, who has a logo tattoo on his right shoulder.

Everyone in line had a different reason for taking the permanent plunge. To them, the purple man is more than a tattoo. It’s a reminder to be healthy, a symbol of a rebirth and a way to remember a happy time — anytime.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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