Media Ink: Jason Fitz Has Rolled Up His Sleeves and Collected Memories

Kyle Koster
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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.

Our final guest this week is Jason Fitz, current host of First Take, Your Take and the former Grammy-winning violinist for The Band Perry. He is the owner of the biggest, boldest tattoos in sports media and each arms tells a different story close to his heart.

Kyle Koster: You were the first person who came to mind when I started thinking of this project. I'm not sure anyone would argue that your tattoos are the most striking of anyone hosting either a sports or news show right now. How often do you get asked about them?

Jason Fitz: Thanks. You know, not as often as you might think. I waited a long time to get tattoos because I wanted to make sure I got exactly what I wanted. I was a musician at the time and I thought about jobs down the road. That's why I stopped at my wrist, so I could always wear a long-sleeved shirt.

When I started at ESPN that was one of the big questions when I did a new show that I asked everyone I talked to: can I show these tattoos? In the beginning, people weren't comfortable with it. Viewers weren't comfortable with it. A lot of times viewers would tweet me and say that it was disrespectful that I was on TV showing my tattoos.

My response to that was that my left arm is my wedding invite and my right arm is everywhere I've ever lived and the moments I'm proudest of. You tell me what's disrespectful about that and I'll cover them up. It's funny how strongly viewers resisted the notion of me out there with tattoos even a few short years ago.

Jason Davis/Getty Images

KK: What were some of those conversations like, show to show?

JF: It's funny. When I hosted Outside the Lines last year the OTL people told me I could roll up my sleeves because I always roll up my sleeves. I resisted at first because I didn't want to cross that line. But they convinced me and it's reflective of an amazing shift toward acceptance.

I was on First Take a few years ago. It was my third or fourth day of doing the show around the Fourth of July and we were about to do some eating contest and the producer got in our ears telling us to take our jackets off. I asked if I should roll my sleeves up and they acted like it was a silly question. Of course I should, they said.

I rolled my sleeves up and I heard someone exclaim Oh, God! Now people know that about me but as I was breaking through I was doing radio without a simulcast so they didn't know. It was interesting in that one episode to hear the reaction from our own people.

KK: What were viewers' complaints outside of it being outside of their norm?

JF: That was the main complaint. To be real, you could see a generational gap. You could see a group of viewers who were engaged with ESPN for decades who were used to a shirt and tie. Already it felt like a huge departure on some shows to not have people in ties. Or having people with their sleeves rolled up. I always rolled my sleeves up because I grew up playing the violin and having sleeves rolled up was the most comfortable tattoos or no tattoos.

KK: Was there any resistance internally? Did you initiate conversations about what you should do as far as showing them when you did a new gig?

JF: Every single time. I don't remember any resistance but it was at least wired into my mind to ask.

KK: When did your relationship with tattoos begin?

JF: The first one I got is a half-sleeve on my left arm. I lived in Nashville for 20 years. My wife and I got married there. We used a place called Hatch Snow Prints for our invitations. They make a lot of concert posters. They have a very specific look and they've become very famous. I took that wedding invite to a tattoo artist almost 10 years ago and asked her to wrap the entire lower half of my left arm. It said The I Thee Wed Tour, which is what we called our wedding, her name, my name, and our anniversary. I wanted I Thee Wed to show up when I played piano on TV and my anniversary to show when I played fiddle. That was sort of my homage to her. I was capable of living that lifestyle because she supported me so much.

I knew exactly what I was going to do with both arms. In my mind I thought it would be easier but my schedule was so hectic. I was in the chair for four hours to do the initial outlines. Everyone says it doesn't hurt but it does. Then because of my schedule I had to go back the next day to continue. I remember walking into the place and the owner, a big tatted-up guy with some on his head, asked if there was some issue. I said no, I just need to finish it and he was like that's going to be incredible pain.

I took a bottle of Crown with me, sat in the chair and did my best to make it through but I was sick for a couple of days afterward because the pain was so bad. But I knew if I didn't finish it on Day Two, I wasn't going to be home for three or four months and didn't want half a tattoo while I did all this stuff. It would have looked stupid.

KK: Liquid courage.

JF: Right. But that was my first tattoo and it was brutally painful. My tattoo artist in Nashville jokes that I don't know how to do anything in moderation because my second one was my right arm. Did the same thing: lower half sleeve wrapped all the way around. It's buildings from all the places I've ever lived in my life and neon signs from all the stuff I'm proudest of, the stuff I dreamed of doing as a kid that I've been able to do. I was in the chair for that one for 6.5 hours. I've never been in the chair for less than three hours and don't know what a small tattoo looks like.

When I was touring I would stop in at schools and give kids the whole spiel about music. I remember at one stop the principal didn't want to let me in because of my tattoos. They had to talk him into it. When I talked to the kids I tried to give them a life lesson. I said this is everything I've done and am proudest of and I did that when I was about 40. If I had done that when I was 20 it would look totally different and I wouldn't love it. But I love this tattoo because I waited so long. By waiting so long I got a better vision and it's a better representation of what I value. So wait as long as you can, don't be in a rush.

The principal came up later and said he owed me an apology. That was a defining tattoo moment for me.

KK: Tattoos to me, growing up, were always presented as this impulsive thing and something people would regret later. But people who are patient and take time to let themselves form tend to emerge with some powerful storytelling. It's interesting to see that perspective morph.

JF: And to that end, anyone who has ever heard me on-air knows that I'm a goofy, easy-going guy. There's nothing mean or menacing about me. I remember being in a grocery story in Nashville a few years ago and this little girl was crying. I smiled and waved at her and she did the same back. Her mom said don't look at the mean man with the tattoos. I always laugh about that. I didn't know I was the mean man with the tattoos.

KK: You were touring and playing violin when you got them so I imagine the sports media component never entered your mind.

JF: Because I was so focused on music I was not thinking about a second career. That came later. Now, when I started at ESPN I didn't want to be defined by my tattoos because moving up was a big deal to me. I still don't. Personally, I am defined by them but professionally I don't have to show them as some sort of statement of who I am.

It's not lost on me that you don't see a lot of people on SportsCenter showing tattoos up and down their arm. While it's a joke, 99.9 percent of the time when Mike Golic Jr. and I have worked together and are both wearing short sleeves someone will make a comment about it. It's a reminder it's still on people's minds. I never want people to define my work, it just happens to be my way of telling my life story.

KK: Do you think about it at all when you're on air now after these years?

JF: I'm human. So when people tweet about it, it still gets under my skin because they do have so much meaning. For the most part I don't think about it. It's become something people have learned to accept, just like anything else.

I remember working with Golic Jr. on Mike & Mike and for some reason on that day the Twitter world had decided we were the reason ESPN was going to go under and were the worst thing to happen to the network. Years later, we're doing the same thing on Golic & Wingo and people online are saying we're the future and need to be built around.

It's a reminder that people need to get used to new. Tattoos are new to a lot of people, especially old-school sports fans. I'm going to backtrack here and it's going to sound like a humblebrag. I'll never forget the first time in my life I played David Letterman. His studio was very cold and I was freezing. I went to some people there and asked if I could get a hoodie. I ended up going around the corner and buying a Letterman hoodie. The next day on tour I wore it on a big show and people were giving me grief for it, it was this moment that we mocked it.

So I looked around and thought I'd worked my tail off but I can't even appreciate it when we play Letterman because I have to be a cool kid. That was really tough for me and that was the moment I decided that with my right arm I was going to do something that let me look back on the life I've lived and appreciate the damn thing because what's the point if you can't? When I'm 80 and my arms are ugly anyway I'm going to be able to look at the tattoo and say hey, that's a Grammy, that's playing at the Super Bowl. Those things will live forever.

KK: This is probably a good problem to have but what if you realize the pinnacle of your career and there is no more room on your right arm? Are you budgeting space?

JF: What I would eventually do, because I'm not a guy who walks around shirtless very often, doing anything on my back feels pointless because no one would see it, what I would probably do is go straight superhero and go down my right leg. The one thing I've learned about tattoos is to shave your arms. So I shave my arms all the time. I use a minty lotion to keep them shiny. The one thing I'd do if I get them on my leg is be the guy who gets laser removal so I don't have to shave my legs every day. If you get it after the tattoo, it can alter the color.

KK: Do you use a beard trimmer now or a Bic?

JF: I have a straight razor. I shave my arms more than my face. You lotion it up and they stay bright and shiny.

KK: Whose tattoos are you envious of?

JF: I don't really have an answer because mine are so unique to me. It's a little like when you buy a house. When you buy something really different you don't get the same level of house envy. At least that's what I'm told. The thing I've always said, though, is I respond most to tattoos with meaning. Obviously different strokes for everyone but if someone can tell me a story with theirs, that's what I respond to.

KK: Do you think we'll see more people at ESPN who look like you in the future?

JF: Yes, and I think that's because of how we consume news and we consume sports. I genuinely believe that there's a large group of people right now who flock to sports content that feels like an elevated barroom conversation. I think that's why the work we've done on digital has done well. There's a young crowd that responds well to something that feels a little looser. It's amazing to see the reaction you get to doing SportsCenter on SnapChat or some of the digital college football shows we've done. When you look at that audience, they want someone they can relate to.

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