Runners’ Ink: Tales of Serpie Tattoos

Sid Wills's tattoos

Are runners as crazy about tattoos as the general public? Kristin Duffy interviews her fellow Serpies to find out.

Google “professional runners with tattoos” and what do you get? Articles and photos about scores of professional and Olympic athletes with all kinds of ink… none of them runners. There are gymnasts and footballers and swimmers and Bradley Wiggins(-es) and even an archer or two, but where are the runners? A more thorough search may lead you to American track and field athletes, Xavier Carter or Inika McPherson (whose 30+ tattoos include lip prints on her left cheek), but still it seems the number of professional runners with tattoos is far smaller than the number found in other sports. However, leave out the “professional” and it seems that every running website, from Runner’s World to Another Mother Runner, has articles with headlines such as “40 Running Tattoos for Men” and “The Running Tattoo: All the Inspiration You Need” and photos of runners of all types sporting their ink.

So, in a country where about one in five people is tattooed (this figure rises to over one in three for young adults), are runners more or less likely to “get ink done”? Surprising to me, there aren’t a lot of statistics correlating runners and tattoos, but observational evidence collected by Robert Wall of Natural Ability, a company devoted to helping people discover their unique natural abilities, states that marathon runners are less likely to have tattoos. He previously observed that the number of visible tattoos in marathon runners is about 3-5%. Wall theorises that runners, especially those who do longer distances, tend to be long-term planners, spending weeks, months and even years training towards running goals, and are therefore less likely to be enticed by the short-term gratification, and possibly long-term regret, of a tattoo.

But enough statistics! What about the Serpentine running population and their tattoos? If the number of people responding when asked for information about their tattoos for this article is to be believed, the percentage of Serpentine runners with tattoos is indeed pretty darn small. And interestingly, only one of the Serpie respondents had a running (or triathlon) tattoo! Where are the “26.2”s and “M-dots” [the Ironman symbol], people?! Though maybe the M-dot no longer holds allure, since according to Lars Menken, “The M-dot tattoo lost a lot of appeal since people [like us] did Ironman. It stopped being the fittest of the fittest and became the new midlife crisis the moment I crossed that finish line”.

Regardless, without further ado, here are some of the Serpie tattoo stories (at least the ones that folks were willing to tell!)

Tattoo profile #1: Darren Over

Darren’s tattoo is on his right arm and is a large “predatory” cat, designed by his tattoo artist. According to Darren, getting a tattoo was quite common in the area where he grew up, and he decided to get one at 17. When asked how he picked his tattoo, Darren said, “I had narrowed it down to either the tattoo that I have or a bulldog with a top hat and a union jack scarf. My Mum said ‘you are not having that one’ (referring to the bulldog), so I went and got the cat.”

Darren is still happy with his tattoo, though doesn’t have plans to get another (he did consider it when he was younger).

Tattoo profile #2: Sid Wills

Sid’s tattoos are also on his arm, however, both are of his own design. One of the things that led to him to getting tattooed was his father having tattoos in a time when they weren’t so commonplace. Sid says that as a child on a beach in the south of France, he was upset when people looked at them, and as a homage to his father, he decided to wear tattoos proudly. And speaking of homage, one of his tattoos (in addition to one of a runner!), is the silhouette of his wife, Alison, doing yoga (love!). Always the hipster without even trying, Sid’s tattoos were done in Topshop and Selfridges.

Sid’s funniest tattoo story took place in Ottolenghi restaurant, where he and the waiter talked about their tattoos. They ended up in the wash area of the communal toilet rolling up their sleeves and in the middle of all the fun, friend Emily was showing one on her thigh… when a women walked in and hurried out (probably wondering what she had just witnessed!)

Sid loves both of his tattoos and plans to get one of a palm tree soon, which he is also sure to love, as he is such a fan of the trees he is “friends” with them on Facebook!

The inspiration for Stephen Kjar's tattoo

Tattoo profile #3: Stephen Kjar

Steve has a sporty tattoo on his right ankle, but it is not (technically) a runner! Steve was a pole vaulter at university in the US. He knew he wanted to get a tattoo and saw winning the outdoor conference meet as a good reason to get one. He loves his pole vaulter tattoo because only a very small group of pole vaulters and former pole vaulters have similar tattoos.

As his tattoo isn’t of a popular subject matter, Steve sometimes gets funny looks for it, but mainly because people are trying to figure out what it is. He’s even been asked if it’s a fisherman! And before someone else asks, Steve will never say never, but it has been over 20 years, so he’s not likely to be signing up for pole vaulting at the next track and field meet.

Pole vaulter or angler?

Tattoo profile #4: Al Bryant-Smith

Perhaps not very impartial for a journalist, but I’m going to declare Al’s tattoo story my favourite.

Al’s tattoo is on her (wedding) ring finger and is a simple black band with a small gap. The reason behind her tattoo in her own words:

“My male partner and I are strong believers in, and supporters of, marriage equality. We got engaged in 2012, prior to Australia introducing legislation in support of marriage equality. We didn’t think it was fair that (as a heterosexual couple) we could get married, but gay couples couldn’t. So we decided not to get married until marriage equality was enacted. Given that this finally happened in Oz last year, I suppose we’d better get planning!”

’But why not just wear a traditional diamond engagement ring? Why get a tattoo?’, I hear you ask.

“I’m a surgeon, and have heard of many colleagues who’ve lost rings when scrubbing their hands before surgery, or when taking gloves off afterwards. And I’m not a particularly girly-girl, diamond-loving kinda lady… I imagine the Venn diagrams of carat-counting ladies and cross-country runners don’t overlap very much, strangely.”

Al’s partner later bought her a diamond engagement ring, and proposed formally in 2013 (in Cinque Terre). She calls it “a lovely gesture”, but she never wears it: it’s currently collecting dust in storage in Australia. According to Al, despite working in a generally conservative field (the medical and surgical world), her bosses at work didn’t even seem to notice her tattoo (or at least failed to comment on it).

Al says she loves her tattoo as it’s a bold statement of a lifelong commitment to her partner, and means more to her than any diamond ring/wedding ceremony could. Awwwwww!!!

Rob Whitmarsh's tattoo

Tattoo profile #5: Rob Whitmarsh

A Serpentimes tattoo article wouldn’t be complete without what is arguably Serpentine’s most famous tattoo. Rob’s tattoo is on his upper left arm and it’s not a shrinking violet. Referred to by Darren Over as a “fetish nurse”, it was sourced off the internet when Rob was looking for pin-up style ideas. After narrowing down his list, Rob picked the nurse based on her illustrated style and colourful red details.

Rob loves his tattoo and thinks it fits quite well on his arm, despite the mixed bag of reactions he says it gets. According to Rob, “People either say it’s really good or give it an mmmm” (Read “mmmm” as “I’m not so sure about that giant nurse tattoo…”)

Rob also says that people ask if it’s his ex, which he insists it’s not, “just a coincidence that there were slight similarities”. He says he’d like another one “when I can afford it, so probably never!” From what he describes, Rob’s next tattoo doesn’t sound like it’s planned to be any smaller or less colourful!

Some Serpie tattoo honourable mentions include Jamie Giles, who “regrettably, yes” has a tattoo, and me, Kristin Duffy, proud wearer of three (evenly spaced, because I fear nothing more than tattoo clash).

Telegraph contributor Alex Proud declared in 2015, “we’re not going to reach ‘peak tattoo’ until 2025”, so there is bound to be more Serpie tattoo stories to come. Unless, of course, we’re too busy long-term planning for our next running event.

Kristin Duffy is a slow runner, but a fast talker. Despite the dichotomy, she loves to do both.