Inked Athletes


High school expression increasingly become skin deep

Dominic Gunn has so many tattoos on his body, he’s lost count. The former football star at Aurora’s Rangeview High School simply loves to go under the needle, which he’s done frequently from the time he was 16 years old until his senior year at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

20121009-4826K-Dominic Gunn-0178-toned
Lilly Lacino
Kirk Cooper

Athletes and tattoos have become linked at an increasing rate, with motivations running the full gamut. For Gunn, it’s been a vehicle to stand out and he accomplished that, sporting tattoo sleeves on both of his arms and a fully covered chest.

“I just feel like it’s a way to express yourself; they all mean something and it’s just a way to be out of the norm,” said Gunn, a second team All-American kick returner at Northern Colorado. “People ask me questions about them all the time. I just enjoy it.”

Among former or current Aurora athletes, Gunn may be the closest thing to Chris “Birdman” Andersen, a former member of the Denver Nuggets who was the most well-inked athlete around. The 6-foot-10 tapestry of a man with tattoos that stretch from his neck all the way down to each of his fingers was at least something of the norm in the National Basketball Association, where an estimated 73 percent of players have at least one tattoo.

The tattoo phenomenon is becoming more prevalent in all sports, however, in both male and female athletes.

For Gunn, it started with a fascination with tattoos from a young age.

He asked his mother repeatedly if he could get one and she finally took him when he was 16. Gunn got a lion inked on his right shoulder to signify being a king and conquering everything he did.

“I’d always wanted tattoos from when I was young; they always intrigued me,” Gunn said. “Once I started, I just got more and more.”

Uncovered areas of Gunn’s muscular torso disappeared quickly, as he continued to add inked pieces of his story.

Some of Gunn’s tattoos are sports-related — two hands catching a football with the words “Destined for Greatness” adorns his right forearm — while he has a variety of other figures and ornate designs and expressions interwoven together. A samurai warrior on his right shoulder commemorates his birth in Okinawa, Japan, as part of a military family. His stomach piece features his favorite inspirational saying: “By persisting in your path, though you forfeit the little, you gain the great,” with the words adorning the stairs of an ascending staircase flanked by kneeling angels.

Longtime friend Nick Wise has Gunn topped in number of tattoos, but the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Gunn has the distinction as most tatted player on the Northern Colorado football team. He stands out in the locker room and is known all around the school’s athletic department for his ink.

“Guys still get surprised when they see me with my shirt off, but most everybody seems to like it,” Gunn said.

From a competitive standpoint, opponents also seem to take notice, which works into the psychology of having them on the athletic field. Tattoos can be seen as badges of honor or signs of toughness, which can create a bit of an edge for the tattooed.

“There may be a little intimidation with a full sleeve; it’s a factor where you think ‘what’s the story with this guy?’” said Gunn, who graduated in December and could be the target of a number of National Football League teams in the upcoming draft.

That same edge may apply to the work done on one of Aurora’s most high-profile athletes, Brendan Schaub, a graduate of Overland High School who is a rising star in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound Schaub has continued to adorn his body with tattoos as he advances in the Ultimate Fighting Championship ranks, where body art further enhances the image of toughness fighters thrive on.

The motivations of 17-year-old swimming phenom Missy Franklin are much more innocent.

Shortly after her breakout performance at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the senior at Aurora’s Regis Jesuit High School got a small image of the multi-colored Olympic rings tattooed on her right hip.

The tattoo is among the keepsakes Franklin takes away from her first Olympics, which also includes four gold medals and a bronze and a pair of world records. Franklin — who has recently signed with the University of California-Berkeley — and her parents, Dick and D.A., agree it will be her one and only tattoo.

As a whole, Aurora athletes don’t get tattoos at random.

As a pole vaulter, Kirk Cooper has always set the bar high for himself. Cooper was a two-time Class 5A state champion in the event while he attended Smoky Hill High School and continued with the sport at the University of Kansas and Colorado State. In the summer after his freshman year with the Jayhawks in 2007, Cooper competed in the USA Junior Nationals meet and has his 17-plus-foot jump commemorated on his right shoulder, with an image of him clearing the bar.

Tattoos have no place in the conservative Cooper family, but the deep roots of the pole vault helped them warm to the idea. Kirk’s late grandfather, Don, was an All-American pole vaulter in the 1950s and very nearly made the U.S. Olympic team, starting a family legacy that carried down to his son Mark — the longtime Smoky Hill head track coach — his sons Kirk and Chase and daughter Drew.

Kirk’s tattoo quickly grew on his grandfather, who deeply regretted a tattoo he had on his forearm from his time in the Navy.

“My grandpa looked at it once during a meet; I was bending over to get something out of my bag and he pulled my jersey aside and said, ‘What is that?’” Kirk recalled. “It was only 30 seconds later and he said ‘That’s actually really cool, but you probably shouldn’t tell your grandma, she’ll probably disown you.’

“He understood how much the pole vault meant to all of us, three generations worth, and he knew it wasn’t just something to decorate my body.”

Kirk Cooper — who has returned to his roots as the pole vault coach at Smoky Hill — also likes the fact that he can cover his tattoo easily in any business or formal situation and says he will only consider one other possible tattoo in his lifetime: a depiction of his grandfather clearing a bar on his other shoulder. He has the picture he would use at the ready.

As for the rest of the family, Cooper’s younger sister Drew has talked about getting a tattoo of her own, but he quickly shoots down the idea.

“She comes to me with ideas like putting a heart on a bracelet chain or something like that and I always ask her for what purpose? She can’t give me a valid answer,” Kirk said. “If she gives me something that means something, I’d support it.”

Both tattoos former Grandview High School soccer star Maddie Yoswa bears commemorate a familial relationship.

The University of Northern Colorado sophomore striker carries a delicate dandelion blowing away on her left shoulder blade, with a few stray pieces floating in the wind followed by the words “avere fede” or “have faith” in Italian, owing to Yoswa’s heritage. The dandelion is a tribute to her bond with her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and passed away when Yoswa was just 11.

“The last thing my grandma remembered how to do was how to blow out a dandelion,” said Yoswa, who got the tattoo on her 18th birthday. “It’s one of the most impactful memories I have of her and I will never forget it.”

Yoswa’s freshest tattoo came this year, just after she turned 19. It features a heart mixed with an infinity symbol on her neck and matches an identical one her mother, Jennifer, has.

“To me and my mother, it means forever love,” Yoswa said. “We’re just simply showing that we will never stop loving each other.”

A varsity tennis player at the Girls Division of Aurora’s private Regis Jesuit High School, Lilly Iacino — Franklin’s former classmate — might not fit what many might expect a tattooed athlete to look like.

The former doubles player’s tattoos aren’t visible and aren’t meant for any type of intimidation. Rather they are a symbolic glimpse into the path of life the University of Colorado student and sorority girl has been on and the one she hopes is ahead of her.

The double infinity sign Iacino got tattooed on her hip on her 18th birthday represents her spiritual life, which she terms “unique,” given that she was among the minority of non-Catholics who attended parochial Regis Jesuit. A passion for music and a dream of managing a record label in the future prompted Iacino to get a small treble clef behind her ear.

A rough year in her personal life sparked the idea to have “faith” tattooed in a more visible place on her wrist. Iacino had the word inked in lowercased cursive on her right wrist on a painful trip to Boulder’s Tribal Rites Body Piercing.

“Between obstacles with family and struggle to find myself, I learned a lot about the importance of life,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my faith and belief that everything happens for a reason, I don’t know if I would be here today.”

Iacino plans to go under the needle again in the future. When she has a family, she plans to have her children’s initials inked under her wedding band and she’ll think about others as time goes along.

“I think tattoos tell incredible stories and you can learn a lot about a person’s journey through them,”

Iacino said.

In some estimates, religious tattoos make up at least 25 percent of those created annually across the country.

Grandview High School football star Tanner Gentry has been blessed with uncommon athletic talent, which will help him achieve his goal of playing Division I football when he signs with the University of Wyoming.

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound wide receiver-defensive back had 10 interceptions in the 2011 season and helped the Wolves advance to the semifinals of the Class 5A state playoffs. He was even more dazzling in the 2012 season, helping Grandview make it to the quarterfinals.

Over the summer before his senior year, Gentry got his lone tattoo, a large cross on his right shoulder with the words “Strength In the Lord” below.

“It shows a lot about my faith and who I am,” Gentry said. “It shows how much I rely on God in my life and how I am strong in him and how much faith I have in him.”

Khalil Sellers’ Hawaiian roots are very important to him and he proudly bears the outline of a tribal manta ray across his left chest, shoulder and arm.

The former Rangeview High School track star — who ran on two Class 5A 4×400-meter relay state championship-winning teams — tapped into the ancient customs of the Polynesian Islands, where tattoos — known as kakau — were used to symbolize status or achievement.

Sellers, now an engineering student at Auburn University, spent $200 to get a tattoo based in Hawaiian tradition. He believes it was worth every penny.

“My kakau is basically to just show my heritage,” Sellers said. “Each shape or design used to represent how many battles you’ve been in, your rank, number of children and so forth. My specific design doesn’t symbolize that as I haven’t been to war nor do I have any kids, but the devil fish (manta) symbolizes power, strength, and protection in Hawaiian custom.”

Sellers plans to add a great white shark on his chest, in addition to a tiki, sea turtle — representing long life — and shells to denote wealth and prosperity.

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