‘Raheem Sterling’s gun tattoo doesn’t look so bad next to the Painted Fool himself’

Tabloids were outraged over Raheem Sterling's gun tattoo ' in contrast to their adoration of Becks' ink.  Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty
Tabloids were outraged over Raheem Sterling's gun tattoo ' in contrast to their adoration of Becks' ink. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty
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David Beckham’s tattoos explained,” read the headline. This should be interesting, a guided tour of the body art of the dead-ball national treasure. But rather like Beckham’s game, there was less to the story than met the eye. Straight away, after revealing that his latest example of inkwork, on the side of his head, depicted the solar system, there was the admission: “The meaning of this tattoo is not known.”

Never mind, we were able to gaze once again at this beautiful man and ponder his self-defacement habit. Becks has more than 50 tattoos including a gothic cross which, we’re helpfully told, is “symbolic of David’s religion”. And you thought he worshipped himself? How cynical!

There are swallows and hummingbirds and cherubs and woodland nymphs and Chinese proverbs and sayings in Hebrew and his wife’s name in Sanskrit and of course the names of his kids (with “Pretty lady” next to Harper’s), plus quotations from the Bible and no less a deity than Jay-Z himself.

Who is this angel and what do the words “In the face of adversity” mean? That Becks was once “distressed”, in the midst of a “personal crisis”, which centred round allegations of an affair with his personal assistant, vehemently denied. And this tattoo on his chest, is it Jesus or David? Well, intriguingly, it’s David as Jesus. Truly, he is the Painted Fool.

Beckham, right, has all of this on his torso and more. He looks like the bloke out of Prison Break who was a human map of his jail’s cludgies and drains as the big break-out was being plotted. Those tattoos were functional and you weren’t supposed to admire them. Presumably we’re supposed to admire Beckham’s but there are simply too many, it’s a right mess.

But does he get castigated for being a bad role model or ridiculed for appearing to stick every waking thought on his torso? All right, there was some giggling when Victoria’s name was misspelled in translation but not really. He’s David Beckham, and if you discount his poor performances at World Cups, his acting, his attempts to make football all about the set-piece which threatened to turn it into American football or golf and not forgetting his towering contribution towards making this such a narcissistic age, then he can do no wrong.

But what happens when Raheem Sterling takes a trip to Joe’s Tattoo Parlour? He comes back with a gun on his right calf and all hell breaks loose. The Sun sticks him on its front page two days in a row as anti-gun advocates fire off condemnation. Piers Morgan loads up tweets castigating the player some more. There are accusations of racism against Sterling, recalling how as a rich young black man, he’d been accused of various excesses since bursting on to the scene, although visiting Primark or Greggs, acts which have also prompted tabloid consternation, do not seem the mark of a vulgar show-off. And Clarke Carlisle, the former PFA chairman, was astonished by the timing of the “story” and its potential for disrupting England’s World Cup build-up.

Still, it is a gun. A M16 assault rifle, apparently. What’s that about, Raheem? He says of the tattoo: “I shoot with my right foot, so it has a deeper meaning.” Hmm. That actually sounds like a shallower meaning, but then he says the tattoo isn’t finished and that it’s a tribute to his father, gunned to death when Sterling was two. Who are we to criticise Sterling for this? Who is the blasting and fuming anchor of Good Morning Britain to criticise Sterling when Morgan pilots his studio desk like it’s a white van, reading out all the marmalade-dropper tales from the tabs in a hectoring voice?

Are there such things as advocates who are against lowest common denominator ITV bilge? Could they be phoned up and asked, “Do you think Piers Morgan is disgraceful?”, and then could they reply: “Yes, Piers Morgan is disgraceful”?

The first time in my experience that the worlds of football and tattoos conflated came right after the final whistle in the Rangers-Hibernian CIS Cup semi-final of 2003-4 which Hibs, managed by Bobby Williamson, won after a penalty shootout. This was a surprise result for an extremely young Hibs team and one fan close to where my pals and I were sitting, after he’d hugged each of us in turn, declared he would commemorate the triumph in blue dye.

“I’ve got quite a few tattoos already so this one will have to go on ma boaby,” he said. His colloquialism seemed to confuse Rab so we quickly explained what the fellow meant. “No, I know perfectly well which part of the body he’s talking about,” said Rab. “I was just worried he was calling it after our manager, the Boaby who despite this victory would have us all hurtling towards the nearest cinema in search of blessed entertainment.”

“So,” said Rab, articulating what the rest of us were thinking, “will you go for the full ‘Hibernian FC – Pride of Leith’ or have you just got room down there for ‘Hibs’?”

Football and tattoos, it’s a business fraught with snags and complications. The sport is emotional so players can make snap decisions about the adornments. Football talk is cheap; its practitioners are asked to sum up a game and a result in the sweat-soaked seconds following the final whistle. But no amount of media training can prepare them for those moments when they are sat in the tattooist’s chair and the needle is poised. Which words are they going to choose? Can they pick ones which will last when the words normally sought from them will be wrapped round a fish supper 24 hours later?

See? That’s how errors are made, clangers are dropped and guns turn up on right calves. Sterling, despite his obvious talent, is all kinds of simulator as well, so he doesn’t altogether endear himself to the wider football public. But I have some sympathy with him here, and will always defend a guy against White Van Piers. Who knows, when his tattoo is finished, he may well stick a flower in the barrel of the gun, just like the hippies did back in the day.

And, when it comes to tattoos, there are worse offenders out there…