By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
It’s common for people who finish an Ironman™ brand race to get a tattoo with the recognizable “M-Dot” Ironman™ logo.
Tattoos are an interesting cultural hot point. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield quipped, “Marriage? Yes! But get a tattoo? No way, they are way too permanent.”
Not many people who get a tattoo will look you in face after they got it and say, “I regret getting this tattoo. It was a mistake.”
I was curious about people who get tattoos, and more specifically, people who have Ironman™ brand tattoos. So I did some reading, asked some questions and did more than a bit of thinking.
Pay close attention to how I’ve typed the term “Ironman™ brand”, not “ironman triathlon” or “long distance triathlon”. There is a legal distinction between these terms. The term “Ironman™” is a registered trademark, along with another 45 terms related to “Ironman™” that include the phrase “Anything is Possible™” and, somewhat curiously, the single word “Grace™”. The M-Dot™ logo is also trademarked by Ironman™.
In the strictest interpretation of the law a person with an Ironman™ brand M-Dot™ tattoo has committed trademark violation if they did not get permission from the Ironman™ organization and presumably pay a licensing fee. It is stipulated right here on the Ironman™ webpage:
“If you are a Sponsor or Licensee of WTC that is contractually entitled to use an IRONMAN, IRONMAN 70.3, IRON GIRL or IRONKIDS trademark, service mark or logo (the “Marks”), please follow the specific usage guidelines provided as a part of your sponsorship or license agreement. If you have questions regarding your use as is outlined in your specific agreement, please contact your WTC Account Manager.”
“If you are not a Sponsor or Licensee of WTC that is contractually entitled to use the Marks, please be advised that WTC normally does not grant third party use of its Marks. After you have carefully reviewed this entire document and feel that extraordinary special circumstances may apply to your request, please contact the Trademark Permissions Center at email@example.com. Permissions are granted solely at the discretion of WTC as owner of the Marks.”
But those are technicalities, and people get Harley-Davidson and Metallica tattoos all the time, so those facts seem removed from the central question of why people get Ironman™ brand tattoos. But these ideas did cloud my understanding of the behavior.
After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the real question is not, “Why do people get Ironman tattoos?” but more accurately, “Why do I care what other people do?”
I had an epiphany. While I like to think of myself as open minded, I was actually being shortsighted in even trying to render judgment about other people getting tattoos. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I wasn’t sincerely trying to understand the reasons people get Ironman™ tattoos; I was trying to form an opinion about why- before truly understanding why. And why was I trying to form an opinion about getting an Ironman™ tattoo in the first place?
To better understand the motives behind Ironman™ brand tattoos I visited the Facebook group “IronMan Tats” and posted the question, “Why did you get an Ironman™ tattoo?”
The answers I got had a little to do with showing other people that someone accomplished a goal. But more people in the Facebook group told me their tattoos serve as a reminder of what they accomplished to themselves. This reminder does not just memorialize their Ironman™ race, but more significantly the hard work and change that was required to even get to the start line. The tattoo is a conspicuous reminder that lives on their skin and says, “Anything is Possible™”. The tattoo reminds them that they can accomplish anything if they put in enough work.
The bigger question was, why was I so judgmental about peoples’ motives for getting an Ironman™ tattoo? I chalk my initial questioning up to a learned set of cognitive biases that, according to the famous Cognitive Bias chart says that; “We favor simple looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options.”
One thing I’ve learned about triathletes themselves is that there are as many motives for participating as there are athletes, each one slightly nuanced by personal values and experiences. To make matters even more complex I have seen the motives for participation in triathlons actually evolve over time, especially for people who have been in the sport for decades.
I wanted to understand something I did not, and tried to find the answer with already established internal concepts of my own. That didn’t work. I didn’t set out to sincerely learn external motives.
This changed my concept of M-Dot™ tattoos and their owners, but more importantly it illustrated a dangerous slippery slope that I think we are sometimes subject to: judging through our own lens before learning to view an experience through someone else’s. Once I set out to sincerely learn why people get these tattoos then I could actually learn something new rather than comparing something I already believed to something I was seeing and trying to make the two fit together.
This is likely not a very sensational thesis if you’ve read the preceding 900 words, but it is a solid, if not thrilling one. To me it is worth remembering when I experience something I have difficulty understanding: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Tom Demerly has done six Ironmans including Hawaii, but has no tattoos mostly because, while he likes triathlons, he doesn’t like needles.