Jon Feliciano is a guard for the Buffalo Bills. The highs and lows of his journey to the NFL are documented on his body as his tattoos tell the story of someone who has had to fight for everything he has earned. They reflect victory, loss, and everything that's led to this point.
And cartoons. They also reflect cartoons and a healthy appreciation for late 1990s pop culture. Feliciano spoke to The Big Lead about his ink, how tattoos have always been a part of his life, and how he's trying to reshape the look of the Bills' skill position players.
Kyle Koster: How did your tattoo story begin? Which was your first?
Jon Feliciano: My parents both have a lot of tattoos. I knew I was always going to get some. The first one I got on the day I signed my letter of intent to play for Miami.
KK: Were you just riding high in that moment knowing what your next step was going to be? Is that what pushed you to break the seal?
JF: My dad had come down from New York to be there for my signing. I joked to him that it was time for me to get my first tattoo and he said alright, let's go.
KK: Growing up in a house where tattoos are the norm, were there any conversations with your parents about their meanings or weren't you interested in the background there?
JF: My dad had tattoos dedicated to his kids with our names and our birthdays on them. He joked that he needed them to remember. It's funny, now I have tattoos of my kids' birthdays on them so I can remember.
KK: So maybe he wasn't joking. Kids' birthdays can sneak up. Was your first experience what you expected?
JF: I thought it was going to hurt more. Then again it was on my arms. I'm on my legs now and that's not fun at all.
KK: How soon did No. 2 come?
JF: I got my left shoulder done, then my right shoulder. Then one on my bicep that says Ambition and Fortitude. Those came over the course of three years. The pace picked up after that like a waterfall.
KK: Did you have an overall look you were going for? Or was it piecemeal?
JF: Honestly, no. I got this tattoo right here [Sebastian the Ibis]. The guy who did that, we became friends and I never went to another artist. It's crazy because he was a Bills fans even back when I was in college. I started going to him when I was a sophomore. He had a Bills license plate and always wears a Bills hat.
KK: I guess it's a good thing you're not on the Patriots or something or he'd mess your work up on purpose. I understand that, among others, you have Fresh Prince and Pokemon pieces.
JF: Yeah, they're part of the 90s-2000s sleeve I'm starting to work on. I'm about to get Scooby Doo and Shaggy.
KK: Why go all-in on nostalgia?
JF: You know, I've always liked Pokemon and stuff like that even though it wasn't the cool thing growing up. It's about being myself and liking what I really like.
KK: I'm trying to imagine you getting guff for that despite being the biggest kid at school. You couldn't just roll in with your trading cards and your chest out?
JF: Not back then. It wasn't mainstream. Back in high school I was rolling with the football crew and they didn't really get it.
KK: I understand that a football locker room is a really good place to get peer-pressured into more tattoos and to evangelize to others about them.
JF: Oh yeah. I'm working on Cole Beasley and Josh Allen right now, telling them to get some. I'm definitely the guy who is encouraging others to get more.
KK: Do they have any?
JF: No, they don't. But those are the people you have to talk to. The others don't need convincing.
KK: If they were to get them, what should they get and what do you think they would get?
JF: Josh should get at least a half-sleeve on the bottom part of his arm. I'd like for him to do a full sleeve but he's not going for it. If he got something on his throwing arm he'd look like a badass. Bease is more open to it. He'd get something about fish -- he's a big fisherman.
KK: Have you inspired any fans to get the same tattoos?
JF: I don't think so but that would be really cool.
KK: Well, Bills fans are insane so I think you could pull it off.
JF: I do have this Spongebob one where he's saying Imma Head Out so that one has some potential.
KK: It's a Very Online tattoo. I appreciate it. What's your process when you're getting a new one? Do you sketch it out and how do you and your artist arrive at the finished product?
JF: I work with Alex (Campbell). For my cartoon tattoos I just kind of tell him. But for the piece here, which is for a friend who passed, I gave him the general idea. We're at the point where I trust him so much that I don't even need to see it before the finished product.
KK: That has to be really comforting.
JF: It is. I'm just the landscape and he's the artist.
KK: Tattoos can be extremely meaningful but also really fun. They can mean everything and nothing at the same time.
JF: Yeah, the left side of my body is just for fun. My more serious tattoos are for my right side. It wasn't planned, it just happened. I have tattoos for my wife, my daughter, those who have passed.
KK: How much feedback do you get from fans about your tattoos or do they usually just want to talk about football?
JF: I get a lot of compliments and people asking me where I got my work done.
KK: The weather in Buffalo is notoriously cold. I'm wondering if you wear sleeves up there in December or if go sleeveless so people can look at your art.
JF: I actually like to keep my tattoos covered when I play. I hate when I get a suntan and one tattoo looks one way and another looks different. And then you can get cuts in them, too. I spent a lot of money on them and want them to stay nice.
KK: Oh, so it's sleeves every game then?
JF: Ninety percent of the time. Sometime I do like to show them off. Last year the only game I went sleeveless was the Thanksgiving game against the Cowboys and it was on national television.
KK: A big, tough guy like you is impervious to the pain, right?
JF: Not on the legs. The shins. It's a different animal. My sleeve on my leg could have been done by now but I've been putting it off because the pain is outrageous. Also the ribs. I got one on my ribs and I'll never do that again.
At the start of the pandemic I had my guy come over to my house and we were trying to find something to lay me on and we couldn't do it. We were doing my calf and it was the most uncomfortable position I've ever been in. I was laying on my couch with my leg up in the air. It was so unpleasant for like two hours.
KK: What's your mental strategy for not noticing the pain during the process?
JF: I put on some headphones, grab a glass of whisky and try to go to my happy place.
KK: I only have a few but I've never drank when getting one. Just thinking about it, I have made some huge mistakes. It's so obvious.
JF: Well, there's this stigma that you're supposed to be a man about it and not use cream etc. As the years went on I realized I didn't need to prove anything to anyone. I've had a lot where I've been stone sober and took it. Now I'm just trying to get through it.
KK: What do you think your finished work looks like?
JF: Man, I don't know where I'm going to go after I finish my leg. My back isn't completely done. But sleeping for the weeks after that is hard. I do want to get the Joker smile here on my hand, though.
KK: Extremely important question: which Joker?
JF: Heath Ledger.
KK: The Joker just looks so cool. Do you get all your work done in the offseason?
JF: Not all of them. He comes to at least one game every year to touch something up or get a new tattoo.
KK: Is that hard to negotiate while playing?
JF: I try to plan it out so I'll get one on a Thursday and it's fine by the time Sunday rolls around.
KK: Do you guys comment on each other tattoos in the trenches? And which opposing player has great work you've noticed?
JF: Yeah, I get a lot of respect. When you've been in the league awhile you play with a bunch of different people. I've had some bonds start because of tattoos and our appreciation. One thing about football players: we love football but there's a point where we want to talk about something else.