Originally featured in Skin Deep 2017
It’s a bitterly cold December day in Newham Leisure Centre but that’s not going to dampen the spirits of the hollering crowd. Five women clad in leopard print circle the track at full speed, stopping only to knock their opponents to the ground with a loud thump. The Neanderdolls, one of London Rockin Rollers’ three intraleague teams, are putting their arch rivals, the Voodoo Skull Crushers, through their paces. It’s whirlwind of bruises, ink and attitude.
Since its rebirth in Austin, Texas, over a decade ago, roller derby has transformed from camp, alternative entertainment to the fastest growing women’s sport in the world. No longer do fist fights break out on track and the fishnets and trash talking appear to be a thing of the past. Make no mistake; roller derby is a real sport with real athletes. The dedication to fitness and training these women commit to would put a professional soccer player to shame. I should know, I spent many years circling the track as my alter ego, Marilyn Monroadkill. A slipped disc and a broken ankle ended the love affair and these days my position is confined to that of spectator. Luckily for me, watching is almost as fun as playing.
For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, it consists of five girls on each team skating around an oval track in two minute jams. One skater on each team, known as the jammer and displaying a star on her helmet, tries to lap the other team’s skaters. Starting with the jammer’s second pass through the opposition, her team gets a point for each opponent she passed. The other skaters, the blockers, use their hips, shoulders and rear ends to stop the opposing jammer, while trying to assist their own jammer through the pack. It was created in the 1930s in the US but its popularity had faded by the 1970s. It re-emerged in Texas in 2001 and its popularity has skyrocketed. It’s tough and yes, the girls do get hurt. But they also have a lot of fun. Bruises are worn as trophies and are part and parcel of life as a roller girl.
Although Roller Derby is now a serious sport, that’s not to say the skaters take themselves too seriously. Most still skate under a derby name, or moniker, like the humorous Pauline Foul’er and the fearsome Fonda Kaos. War paint is worn by many skaters and I’m happy to report that ink is still very much synonymous with the sport. Of the forty odd roller girls skating at Newham, at least half of them sport tats, many of them related to their team or the sport itself.
But what’s the link between derby and ink? “I think there is a strong correlation between tattoos and derby because they both kind of stand for being a bit fearless or just having big balls. Derby attracts people who aren’t interested in fitting into a cookie cutter image and tattoos are the ultimate way to express yourself. It’s like peanut butter and jelly. They are just beautiful together,” says 41 year old Heather Elby, also known as Mizza Murzia, a skater with the Lincolnshire Bomber Roller Girls. Mizza’s one of several roller girls skating for the Bombers at this year’s Tattoo Freeze. The convention, taking place in January each year, has been showcasing the sport as part of its entertainment since its launch in 2010. It’s a highlight of the UK convention calendar, not only for its stellar roster of artists, but for the unadulterated adrenalin filled action provided by these deadly dames on wheels. Mizza’s got several tattoos including insects, music, binary, flowers and Barbie. She also sports a cartoon image of herself riding a bomb backwards in her derby kit. “The tattoo of me riding the bomb is my “Bomber” tattoo. I got that to celebrate my derby career….The reason I am riding the bomb backwards is because everything I do in my life is ass backwards and I have a blast doing it. She’s based on a photo of me that I gave my tattoo artist. I wanted her to have a mental smile because I get called mental quite a bit…” she tells me.
She’s not the only one with a team tattoo. “My first one was ‘Derby or Die’ written along my forearm. My second and favourite one is also on my forearm and it’s the Haribo boy riding a bomb. This tattoo represents my skate name and my team,” Mizza’s teammate Arry’Bo tells me. Derby or die is a common refrain from skaters and one I’ve seen branded onto the skin of several roller girls over the years (Roller Derby Till I Diewas also the name of the Extreme Sport’s channel documentary on the sport). It’s truly representative of the blood, sweat, tears and devotion that the sport commands. Unlike other sports and hobbies, derby has the habit of taking over skaters’ lives completely and a permanent reminder of their complete commitment in the form of a tattoo has become de rigeuer.
Toughness on the track isn’t limited to taking hits and extreme fitness, it seeps into everyday life. For most mere mortals, getting inked is a little sore and leaves us a little tender. We’re usually in need of some TLC afterwards, or, at the very least, a few pints down the nearest pub. But for A-Cute Injury, a jammer with the Big Bucks High Rollers from High Wycombe, no such luxury is allowed. Cutie, as she’s known to her team, will get inked on the morning of Tattoo Freeze and then hit the track that afternoon, taking on Mizza, Arry’bo and the rest of the Lincolnshire Bombers. “A few people probably think I’m a bit bonkers having a tattoo before I skate… It’s pretty standard for me really… I had both my knees tattooed by Simon at Paradise Tattoo where I live in High Wycombe, then trained that evening …I’ve skated after a number of the tattoos. I guess I’ve just built up a tolerance I have a high pain threshold and the adrenaline is good….by the time I skate today I’ll have had time to eat well, and rest so I’ll be raring to go…”
For me, tattoos and derby are intrinsically linked – I discovered the sport through a Skin Deep article back in 2009. Having newly moved to London from Dublin, I was looking for a UK based tattoo artist. Through that one issue, I discovered the Islington based artist Mo Coppoletta, who would become my go-to artist, and, rather unexpectedly, roller derby. A reader interview with Jackie ‘Jack Attack’ Mason, a founding member of the London Rockin’ Rollers, caught my interest and determined how I would spent much of my first four years in London. Jackie is today not only a derby icon (she has represented her country at the roller derby world cup), she’s also one of the most in-demand tattoo artists on the derby scene. Based in Hertfordshire, Jackie has noticed a big increase in skaters getting tattoos over the last few years and she has quickly gained recognition for her skate inspired work. “The most popular derby related tattoos are either a variation of a skate or a pin up style roller girl. I’ve mostly done these. But I’ve also done logos and team names/skate names in script or scrolls or in hearts,” she tells me. “Some skaters just get so passionate about derby that they feel the need to get a derby/skate related tattoo to mark their journey through this amazing sport. I tattooed a lady that previously had no tattoos that then got a derby themed tattoo every time she reached another milestone in her team! Anyone that plays derby or is a fan of derby will tell you that it takes over everything!”
She’s right – it’s not just the players; even the fans have derby related ink. “Tattooing my team’s super fan Bob is pretty fun. He’s got a few derby tattoos now. The pin up style ones. He pretty much let’s me do my own thing too which is kinda fun,” says Jackie. Bob Hodges, the undisputed number one fan of the London Rockin Rollers, has been following the team since its infancy. He’s travelled from Finland to France and even to Canada and Texas, where the Roller Derby World cup took place. What inspires such devotion? Bob was a blank canvas when he discovered roller derby in 2009. “I had wanted to get some ink but had never been able to fix my mind on something that I wanted as a permanent feature. After discovering derby, my tattoo desire/ envy started to reach a critical state,” he says. His first, the handy work of Jackie, was a ‘Neanderdoll’ tattoo on his left arm, a pinup style leopard clad lady in roller skates. He has since added several and plans are afoot for more. “Jackie and I had talked a bit and I produced a sort of storyboard with a number of themes. On my right arm she designed a jammer’s head in profile with a leopard skin panty (helmet cover) that’s inside an ace of spades.” Bob’s permanent and ever-lasting tributes to his favourite team are testament to his roller derby devotion.
Back in Newham, the whistle blows and the skaters hug. The Neanderdolls are victorious.