Ballers’ Ink: What Happened When Tyson Chandler Changed His Mind?

Permanence is tattooing’s gift, and its curse. So what happens when the meaning changes?

As a teenager, Tyson Chandler played for Compton’s Dominquez High School. In 2011, he recalled the dread of those years in an interview with Steve Serby: “Compton was like a war zone,” he told them. “You were on edge at all times.” In his junior year, Chandler decided to memorialize this with a tattoo, which read, “Only The Strong Survive.” The words float atop a cross made from two sharpened stakes, a trail of blood running from its point.

If the design sounds familiar, it’s because Chandler isn’t the first player to wear it. In 1999, Allen Iverson used the forced hiatus of the NBA lockout to add a brace of new tattoos, including his own “Only The Strong Survive” design. Iverson similarly looked to his personal history as the inspiration for this tattoo: “It comes from my upbringing. All the things I had to endure in my life. Where I’m from, it’s hard to make it.” Looking back on his own childhood, Chandler echoed him: “To make it out of these elements, you have to be strong and tough.” Chandler must have looked up to Iverson, with their similar backgrounds, their perseverance. The year that Iverson got the tattoo was also the first season he was named to the All-NBA First Team, and the first he was the scoring champion. In hopes of following in Iverson’s footsteps, it’s not surprising Chandler would replicate Iverson’s design the following year.

Over the next 14 years, Chandler was selected second overall in the 2001 NBA draft, won defensive player of the year in 2012, and became an NBA champion with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Throughout this stellar career, his Only The Strong Survive tattoo stood visible on his bare arm. But in 2014, Chandler made an edit: the text was crossed out with a single line. The words are still legible, but clearly negated. Chandler explained the reason for this change on the Mike Woodson Show: “I’ve evolved as a person, so I want people to see that I’ve been scarred, I’ve been scraped up, I’ve made mistakes. My thought process was one way earlier in my life, and it’s a different way now. I want people to see the growth. So instead of completely crossing it out, I want people to see those words but know I’m in a different space now.”

This isn’t the first time that Chandler has edited his tattoos: in 2011, he began laser removal of the flaming basketball tattooed on his left arm when he was 14. The decision to keep “Only The Strong Survive” visible, yet canceled, is a creative, thoughtful solution, one that shows that as people evolve, their tattoos can, too.

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