Battle of the tats at Staples Center

It's fun having two great basketball teams in town, right? More circus dunks (go Griffin!). More double-doubles (go Gasol!). And we can only hope, more retro-cool name changes (go Metta World Peace!).

But as a fickle armchair fan who learned what little I know about the game from my kids' coaches, I face a dilemma: Who to throw in with, Clippers or Lakers?

For the past two decades, the decision was easy: If you liked fat chances and underdogs, you followed the Clippers. If your taste was for dominance, dynasties or thumbing your nose at L.A. haters, the Lakers were your team.

But now, you can't throw a sock at the TV during a home game without hitting an all-star, a legend or a youthful phenom. So who will get the jump on the other?

While idly pondering this subject during the last matchup (go Lakers!), I found myself wondering about player tattoos. The Clippers' young stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, have no visible ink. Is the NBA tattoo craze tailing off? And does that make the Clippers the team of the future?

Absolutely not, says Laker Matt Barnes, who talked to me after practice in the team's gleaming high-security gym last week. In the hallway, rap artists Cypress Hill; their dubstep producer, Rusko; and a black-clad entourage waited to shoot a video with World Peace (who changed his name from Ron Artest last fall). Admission to the facility was controlled by a fingerprint recognition system.

Barnes is a veritable Illustrated Man, with torso, back and full-sleeve tattoos.

"I kind of just think that's what our generation is about," Barnes said.

On TV, most NBA tattoos resemble Rorschach blotches, so I had assumed they were like war paint, designed to intimidate, like the "Chosen 1" on LeBron James' back. But Barnes explained that players are more likely to use their bodies to celebrate family members or memorialize those who've passed on than to provoke opponents.

"People get stuff that they can appreciate or find meaningful," he said. "The last thing you think is that your tattoo might intimidate somebody."

Barnes has his twin sons' footprints on his neck and a heavenly mural of his mother, who died in 2007, on his torso. A pair of eyes on his back glares at viewers over "La Famiglia,"a tribute to the Italian half of his heritage. He plans to add the rest of his family tree to what empty space remains below.

Barnes said the eyes are a reminder to "watch my back."

"Especially in L.A., there's a lot of shady people out here, people you think are friends or people that want to get to know you because of what you do, not who you are," he said.

There are plenty of tattoo cliches in the NBA: panthers, skulls, hands clasped in prayer. Milwaukee Bucks' forward Stephen Jackson's variation, praying hands clutching a gun, made the list of Worst NBA Tattoos.

Mister Cartoon, a celebrity tattoo artist in downtown Los Angeles, said some players go gonzo with flames and aggressive artwork, or cars, money and dice — "the fantasy life." But he agreed many use their bodies to express family values.

More than half the league's players, by some estimates, are inked. Barnes, who has lost count of his own, says tattoos are addictive, so it's unlikely they will go away soon.

On the ridiculous premise that their tattoos reflect their game, I decided to rank Clipper and Laker ink, position by position, to see who came out on top. Not all the players could be reached, and some of the descriptions are based on Internet photos and videos and "In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them" (The Los Angeles Public Library has 10 copies of this invaluable volume):

Center: Clipper DeAndre Jordan vs. Laker Andrew Bynum.

Jordan has a half-skull/ half-earth tattoo labeled 'Don't gain the world and lose your soul,' which he told an interviewer was a Bob Marley quote warning not to lose yourself in materialistic pursuits. He also wears a portrait of his bespectacled grandmother.

Bynum has no tattoos, but he's not ruling them out. "I just haven't found anything important enough that I want on my body for the rest of my life," he said at the Lakers practice.

Bynum gets points for his common sense, but Jordan gets the tip. ADVANTAGE: CLIPPERS

Guard: Laker Kobe Bryant vs. Clipper Chris Paul

Rule No. 1: Do NOT put your wife's name on your body because you've been caught cheating.

After a notorious encounter with a Colorado woman, Bryant put his wife's name and a queen's crown on his bicep. Now they're divorcing, and each time he signs over property to her, "Vanessa" looks up from his arm.

Kobe also has tattoos of his children's names. Paul has no tattoos. Normally, he would win the contest. But this is no mortal, it's KOBE. He could put a glitter unicorn on his chest and still dominate. ADVANTAGE: LAKERS

Guard: Laker Derek Fisher vs. Clipper Chauncey Billups.

Fisher's tattooed motto, which roughly translates as "To be faithful in heart, mind and spirit," is inspirational, but the Chinese characters are a cliche.

Billups has a picture of a ballplayer with a crown tipped at a jaunty angle labeled King of the Hill, supposedly after the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver, where he grew up. ADVANTAGE: CLIPPERS

Forward: Clipper Caron Butler vs. Laker Matt Barnes.

Butler has a skull on his arm partially covered by an unidentifiable black miasma. In addition to his family, Barnes' tattoos include California landmarks, like the state Capitol and the beach, styled like the illustrations on a vintage road map. ADVANTAGE: LAKERS

Forward: Clipper Blake Griffin vs. Laker Pau Gasol

Neither has tattoos. Gasol is European. ADVANTAGE: CLIPPERS

Laker forward Metta World Peace vs. Clipper guard Mo Williams.

Williams' double-sleeve display includes a pit bull haloed by sun rays and Mr. Peanut, in spats and monocle. World Peace's bicep has the name of his sister, Quanisha, who died in infancy.


It's a tie. But what would be the fun of knowing who has the edge? All you need to remember is this: Go L.A.!

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