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Clarence football player Brendan Crumlish was crushed when his grandfather died.

But Crumlish has found a unique way to keep the memory of his grandfather, Homer Francis Patterson, close at heart. Crumlish has a tattoo of a leprechaun on his chest. Within the artwork are his grandfather's initials. It's a daily reminder he cherishes.

"He played a crucial role in my life, he was always there," said Crumlish. "He was a great guy, we'd go fishing a lot. He died in his chair with a fishing pole (in his hand). We were going to go fishing the next day. So he was getting all of his stuff ready."

Crumlish's 4-inch, multi-color tattoo took about an hour to complete at American Skin Art in North Tonawanda and cost $120.

Once the domain of NBA players and other professionals, the tattoo trend has filtered onto the bodies of collegiate and now high school athletes. Stitching a letter onto a varsity jacket is being replaced by tattooing a football or basketball onto a bicep or calf muscle. The trend crosses genders as well as sports teams.

Although no known statistics describe how many high school athletes have tattoos, coaches and tattoo artists have observed an increase. The numbers are equally sketchy for athletes whose tattoos bring them unwanted attention and are a daily regret.

Hutch-Tech football and girls basketball coach Bill Boyle said tattoos are as popular now as "wearing a tie when I was in school." He said it's a fashion statement just like body piercing, dyed hair and baggy jeans.

Professional athletes have also had an influence in amateur athletes wanting to decorate their skin. Tattooed athletes are everywhere, from NBA MVP Allen Iverson to gold-medal swimmer Amy Van Dyken's Olympic rings on her ankle.

Clarence running back Brad Brunetto has a cross on his right arm, which is visable when he's in uniform. "It represents good luck to me wherever I go. So far so good. Maybe 20 years down the road I may regret it when I get into business and in the real world, but as of now, it's all right."

Current estimates have one in seven people -- that's more than 40 million Americans -- who have at least one tattoo. Thirty years ago it was one in 100.

The legal age in New York and most states to get a tattoo is 18. For some shops the needlework can begin legally if an underage athlete has parental consent. But many athletes say they shun the law by going to Canada, borrowing a older sibling's ID or showing up accompanied by an adult who is not a parent.

With artists specializing in custom designs, tattoos have changed to express individuality. One tattooist and body piercer, Heidi Serth, tries to put things at a more personal level. Serth, a 1989 Newfane graduate, has worked at American Skin Art the past five years.

"We like people to come in with a lot of ideas," said Serth, who has 30 piercings (20 in her ears) and 25 tattoos. "Sometimes people will come in with a drawing. They get things that mean something, such as their sports logo -- things that are sentimental to them. As long as they're happy with it, I'm happy."

Butterflies, ladybugs, hearts and dolphins are popular among girls on their feet, ankles and pelvic area. Guys usually get dragons or eagles on their feet and shoulders.

Having a tattoo won't keep you off the playing field as most schools and the NYSPHSAA have no rules against them.

"There is no regulation against tattoos but as an official, you have certain parameters concerning anything not specifically covered in the rules," Mark Clifford, rules interpreter for Board 53 of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, said. "Common sense would dictate that you should make a player cover any tattoo that you deemed offensive."

Katie Yearly, a 16-year-old junior on Lancaster's volleyball team, got her tattoo outside of Niagara Falls, Ont., in June. She said the blue, green and pink butterfly on her lower back "represents me getting older and growing up and spreading my wings, that type of thing.

"Getting it was pretty rough. I would describe it as someone dragging a needle around your back for 45 minutes. You do get used to it, but doesn't make it any better," she said.

The tattooist's needle runs on magnetic current and is operated by a foot pedal. The feeling has been described as a cross between a sewing machine and an air brush.

More people than ever consider tattoos as a rite of passage and works of art, but besides being painful and expensive, is it safe?

In an age when AIDS grabs most of the headlines, the most serious complication is still hepatitis B. The hepatitis B virus is extremely contagious and can be transmitted from the customer to the tattoo artist if the tattoo artist accidentally sticks himself with a contaminated needle, or from one customer to another if needles and tubes are not properly sterilized.

Other complications include allergic reactions, aggravation of existing skin disease and scarring.

Timon/St. Jude football coach Paul Fitzpatrick wasn't worried about complications in 1968 when he joined a bunch a friends in getting a tattoo while at the University of Maryland. His tattoo of a Shamrock is on his, ahem, lower back and cost him $7.

"My mother saw it when I came home and said, 'Geez, are you in some type of motorcycle gang? Don't let your father see that!' " he said. "There were guys getting tattoos that were taking up their whole arm. Mine's as big as a quarter."

While the cost of Fitzpatrick's tattoo wouldn't buy a double order of wings today, tattooing can be expensive. The minimum cost at American Skin Art is $50. That's a pricey investment for many athletes who give up jobs to play sports and don't have parents willing to foot the bill.

"I would never get a tattoo," said Hamburg soccer player Vickie Zemla. "First the risk of getting diseases from dirty needles, then you've got the bleeding and it getting infected or it fading as you get older. My cousin got a tattoo when she was 18 and she hates it now. It's ugly and it just looks like a big bruise."

Whether high school athletes continue to wear their passions on their skin, it's becoming obvious that ink isn't something reserved for Bic pens any longer.


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