Media Ink: David Kaplan On Going All-In and Never Saying Never

For all the changes and loosening of ties in the world of on-air fashion, it is still quite rare to see a sports media member showcasing their tattoos while doing a studio show, simulcast, or live hit. Even in the year 2020, with so much changing, visible ink stands out, especially on exposed arms. The list is growing but it is still a select club.

I reached out to several personalities whose artwork caught my eye during their shows to ask them about something that can be at times both intensely personal and what they want to speak about the most. They told me behind-the-scenes stories of their decisions to take the plunge -- and in many cases continuing to take it over and over again. They opened up about the meaning behind their pieces, the oft-meandering relationship with tattoos and what, if any, impact they have had on their careers.

These conversations revealed disparate experiences and approaches to having one's body serve as a canvas. Though they are all different -- they share a place in a club that may turn out to be made up of trailblazers as time passes and attitudes change.

First up is David Kaplan, host of SportsTalk Live on NBC Sports Chicago and driving force behind Kap & Company on ESPN 1000 weekdays. While he may have the most open real estate on his body of anyone interviewed, he's setting a torrid place in the months since he broke his nearly 60-year tattoo drought.

Kyle Koster: Your tattoo story seems a bit different than some of the others in this series because you have them up on your bicep and didn't get them until pretty late in life, right?

David Kaplan: Yeah, I have two on my right bicep and one on my left. I was the guy who told my kids when they went off to college they better not dare come home with a tattoo. I have completely changed over the last 17-18 years. I'm a different human being in so many ways. I often wonder why was I that rigid guy. Now I try to stay on top of everything that's going on and the world is certainly changing.

My kids helped me a lot with that. I like this version of me a lot better than what I used to be.

KK: What did you used to think about tattoos in your younger reporting days? How common was it to see them on your colleagues?

DK: I knew athletes all had tattoos, I was just that stuffy guy. I thought hats had to be worn a certain way. Backwards was okay but never a flat brim. I would tell my kids to pull their shorts up tight and tuck in their jersey. I was that guy. Then I started to realize that it was better for people to be true to themselves, to be themselves.

Even before Matt Nagy came to Chicago, I had this play sheet that I keep with me every single day of my life. It's in my car, it goes in my bag. It says Be You on the bottom. I didn't go to a broadcasting school, I didn't get a degree in broadcasting, I got a degree in English. I went on air and presented myself like 'this is me, if you don't like it, I don't care.' I'm never going to be vanilla. I don't dress vanilla, I don't act vanilla.

I had this come-to-Jesus moment with myself where I asked why I'd always thought other people had to fit into a certain box. I talked with my kids and my wife and realized the anti-tattoo stuff was kind of stupid.

KK: Was there a triggering event or was it gradual?

DK: My oldest, who is now 30, got injured in an accident. He was taken to the hospital. As they're cutting his shirt and jeans off -- there's blood -- I see he has a tattoo on his ribcage. He was a freshman in college. The first thing I said is what the eff?

KK: Wait, so you were more worried about the tattoo than his health?

DK: No, no. I knew he was going to be alright because I had spoken to the doctors. I realized it was a bit silly. Now, if he'd gotten one across his forehead, that'd be a different story. But if it's something that expresses a message that's important to you, then God bless you. Ink away.

KK: Tell me about your experience getting your first one.

DK: I live life all-in. If I'm going to be your friend, we're going to be all-in or why are we wasting each other's time? If I'm going to exercise every day, I do it all-in or don't do it. If I commit to something, I commit fully. One day I said to my wife, hey, let's go get tattoos. It was a snowy Saturday, we had nothing to do.

She got something that meant something to her, I got this Live Life All-In with a little red heart.

KK: And No. 2?

DK: I was born in Chicago, I live in the area. My job is in Chicago. I'm going to die in Chicago. So this is my city. I've never aspired to get a job elsewhere. I said to the tattoo artist who I've become friendly with, 'hey, Beth, can you do a Chicago flag with a skyline?' She drew it and it was amazing. We made a few tweaks and she informed me this one was going to be a bit more involved. The first one took maybe 30 minutes and this one was going to take three hours.

I got one more that was important to me because part of living life all-in is to keep grinding. Never stop. Be relentless in how you life your life. So I identify my life with a shark, so I got one of those -- albeit a friendly one. He's got a little wry smile and lives on my bicep.

KK: And you were how old when you got this itch?

DK: Fifty-nine. I've gotten them all in the past eight months. If something makes you happy, you should do it. Life's too short.

KK: If I modified a DeLorean and went back in time to show your younger self a picture of you now, what would your reaction be?

DK: Wouldn't have believed it. No chance. You're out of your freaking mind. But we also evolve and change as people. I almost died on the operating table in 1991. I had a heart problem that I didn't know about. During the procedure my heart stopped. I've always been this happy-go-lucky guy, will always talk to anyone. Guys in the coffee line, guardhouses, anyone. I love talking to people. So I'm the same guy in that respect but when you go through something like I did you realize how mortal we are and how quickly things can change. If something makes something happy, why shouldn't they do it?

KK: Yeah, I came to tattoos a bit earlier in life than you but I'd consider myself fully formed, with a couple of kids. I've found it's been fun to tap into that new side of myself I didn't anticipate ever existing.

DK: You know, we're in a really sad time as a society but it's also an amazing time because I do think we're at a time where people see how important it is to come together and change. So I truly believe this is a flashpoint. If the good Lord lets me live another 30 years, I think I'll look back and say 2020, there was some really tough stuff going on but it led to some great change.

If we would all respect each other's right to be themselves, we'd be in a better place.

KK: I certainly hope that's true. What's been the reaction from your colleagues?

DK: When I got the first one I put it on Instagram and said, well, this happened today. People were surprised. The second one people said oh that's pretty involved. I didn't tell anyone I got the third one. I was wearing a polo or something and people could see it and asked about it. It meant something to me.

Like, I wouldn't get a sports team's logo on my body -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- it just doesn't have the personal meaning to me.

KK: I get the sense that there will be more than three when it's all said and done. Would you ever get them so you couldn't wear a polo out at Wrigley-- or if you did they'd be on full display?

DK: I don't think I'll ever get one on my forearm. It's never appealed to me to get one there. Now, I'd have always told you I wasn't getting any tattoo, but I feel confident I won't get one there specifically. Can I tell you I won't get one on my shoulder? I can't tell you that. Because I've already thought of it.

KK: Do you feel that tattoos in the media industry is reflective of the broader steps to have more representation that looks like the people watching at home?

DK: Yeah, I think you're right but it's changed in so many ways. First of all, sports-talk radio is a relatively new medium. In our town, I think it started in 1990. It's a different animal. It used to be you had to have the classic radio voice, wear a suit-and-tie, never have a big opinion. Now we want people to have opinions. We want people to be different. Different perspectives are a good thing.

If you turn on my radio show and honor me with your time, I owe it to you to be honest. I owe it to you to be me, not someone else.

I agree with you 100 percent. It should be a cross-representation of our society.

KK: Right. Having a homogeneous product certainly served a certain segment of the population but when you think of the diversity in Chicago, you're not serving the public if you don't do that.

DK: Sure. Now, I don't want everyone to agree with what I say, I want them to listen. If you want to look at your radio and want to punch me, I'm cool with that. Respect my opinion and I'll respect yours. Let me be you and you be you. You can say the same thing with tattoos.

It's funny, they did a media survey in The Athletic and Jon Greenberg called me 'the inked-up host.' My wife asked me if I ever believed those words would be reserved me. No way.