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The Fans With the Free Chargers Tattoos

Who would possibly want a permanent symbol of fandom for an NFL team that just relocated from San Diego to Los Angeles? Glad you asked.

John Gonzalez

The Chargers gave out free tattoos on Tuesday at Shamrock Social Club on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. You are forgiven if your first thought was something on the order of Oh, right, the Chargers play in L.A. now. Except they don’t. Not really. Not if we’re being honest about the geography. The Chargers play in Carson, which can be charitably described as L.A. adjacent. Carson is 17.5 miles south of Los Angeles. So, with traffic, the Chargers might as well play on the moon.

As the Rams learned last season, it’s tough to get Angelenos to care about stuff. If there was any buzz a year ago about the first team to return to Los Angeles, it died out before anyone around here seemed to notice. Going 4-12 has a dampening effect on enthusiasm. In fairness, the Rams were fourth in total attendance a year ago, but they also relocated to the second-biggest city in the country and played home games in a stadium big enough to accommodate all of Santa Monica. Everything is relative.

Being the second team to colonize the market can’t be easy—as evidenced by the meager turnout for the Chargers’ first preseason game at StubHub Center. Even considering the sunny reaction by The Ringer’s most optimistic staffer, the scene probably wasn’t what the team or the fans hoped for when the Chargers hosted the Seahawks.

On some level, the lack of local enthusiasm had to be expected. Los Angeles went from no NFL teams to two teams in a blink, which is a lot to ask of a city with countless distractions and wonderful weather. Not to mention that the (RIP) San Diego Chargers had a nice, if not exactly storied, history and a nice, if not exactly frenzied, fan base. (The Chargers were last in total attendance last year.) When Dean Spanos uprooted them from laid-back sunny Southern California and moved them to slightly less laid-back, slightly farther north sunny Southern California, some fans were rightly upset. Even so, the overall reaction was somewhere between muted and indifferent.

After the Chargers relocated, a San Diego native penned the sportswriting equivalent of a shoulder shrug for Vice. USA Today ran a piece titled “Congrats, San Diego, you win by losing Chargers.” But it was the Los Angeles Times editorial board that offered perhaps the most damning and telling commentary of all: “Um, welcome back?”

Given that environment, it was fair to wonder who might volunteer to get branded with Chargers ink on a random weekday—or if anyone would show at all.

Anthony Casadas was the first one in the door at Shamrock Social Club. That’s because he was the first one outside the door. He got there about 10:30 a.m. and waited for it to open around 1 o’clock.

Casadas is 25 and works construction. Lifelong Chargers fan. Lives in San Diego with his wife, Gina, and their two small boys. Casadas learned about the Chargers moving to L.A. when NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport tweeted the news. Then he went out and sat in his truck for a few hours and cried. Casadas, not Rapoport.

“I had to go out and get him,” Gina recalled.

It seemed like a strange decision, then, for Casadas to rise at 5 a.m. on Tuesday with his two-week-old son, Valentino, and resolve to drive to Los Angeles and get a Chargers tattoo paid for by the men who made him weep. Casadas was pretty angry when the team left San Diego. “Hurt” is the way he put it, like it was a personal betrayal and he was still suffering. He said he felt like they didn’t just take his team away, they “took my childhood away.” Casadas considered picking another NFL team to root for out of revenge and spite, but he couldn’t do it.

“The way I think about it,” he explained, “if you’re married and your wife cheats on you, you don’t take it out on your kids. You still love your kids. That’s how I feel about the players. It’s not like Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates and those guys took a vote and decided to leave. I love the players still.”

And so Casadas put on his LaDainian Tomlinson jersey and his favorite Chargers hat and his comfy Chargers slides and took a ride to Los Angeles. Gina, Valentino, and their other son, Mathias, went with him for support. While Casadas was getting his left forearm tattooed—a kind of coat of arms featuring the words L.A. Chargers, a lightning bolt, and what a PR person informed me was a stallion, all stamped on a shield—he did a radio interview via phone with his right hand. (When I asked later which radio station, he replied “Dude, I have no idea.”)

Anthony Casadas gets his free Chargers tattoo
Anthony Casadas gets his free Chargers tattoo
John Gonzalez

Local affiliates from ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox were also on hand, as was Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. It was less a media event, though, than a civic curiosity. Lots of questions that could be summed up thusly: Uh ... why?

Casadas didn’t have to think too hard about it when I asked. “I bleed blue and yellow, bro,” he said. It was fitting. They were still working on his tattoo, and he was bleeding as the shield took shape.

It’s obviously not the first time a professional sports franchise has dreamed up a gimmick giveaway to create positive publicity. During the NBA playoffs, the Jazz offered free Rudy Gobert– or Gordon Hayward–variety haircuts to fans. And after Cleveland ended its excruciating championship drought in 2016, the Cavaliers held a similar tattoo event. As you might expect, that one had a pretty good turnout. According to The Plain Dealer, about 150 fans showed up and the line went around the building.

When Shamrock Social Club opened on Tuesday, the line did not go around the building. Or even most of the way down the block. But! There were people! Actual human beings who wanted Chargers tattoos!

Cheerleaders stand outside the Shamrock Social Club as fans line up for free Chargers tattoos
The Shamrock Social Club
John Gonzalez

That’s a win—finding Chargers fans in L.A. By my count, there were about 12 people in line behind Casadas. More arrived later, growing to maybe 20 by midafternoon. It was a pretty good turnout as expectations go.

Toward the back of the line, a 19-year-old named Joshua Gardea waited patiently. He was excited to get his tattoo, but he wasn’t sure which one he would chose. (There were three options: the classic bolt, “Chargers,” and the aforementioned shield.) Gardea said he was glad to have the Chargers in L.A. but admitted he might be in the minority on that front. He went to the preseason opener against the Seahawks and called the attendance “disappointing.”

“Don’t say that to the media,” a man behind him implored. His name is Manny Muñoz. Like pretty much everyone else, he was wearing LT gear. Muñoz had just turned 40. He’s rooted for the Chargers since he was a kid and used to go to games at Qualcomm Stadium. He never thought they’d play in this area—which might be why he got a touch touchy about the attendance figures. “There were only 6,000 empty seats!” he exclaimed.

That means that between one-quarter and one-fifth of the stadium was empty, depending on which way you want to round. Muñoz considered this: “Not bad!”

At the front of the line, two roommates—Joe Cubas and Kevin Craig—waited their turn for tattoos. Actually, Craig waited. He said he’d been a Chargers fan for about 10 or 11 years. Cubas was only there for the show. Cubas is a Rams fan. The way Cubas saw it, the Rams were higher on the NFL food chain, or at least the L.A. food chain, simply by getting here first—as though the city is a tree and the Rams were the first dog to pee on it. Poor Chargers fans. Even Rams punter Johnny Hekker heckles them these days.

It was a weird thing to witness—people lining up to get a team tattoo. Fandom lends itself to that kind of overeager display of affection, but these things sometimes look regrettable in retrospect. Consider the overconfident Cowboys fan who got a 2015 World Champs” tattoo before the season started. Or the unlucky soul decorated with a “Tebow Time” Broncos minotaur. Or pretty much everyone with Patriots ink.

Of course, those fan bases are known for being intense. Chargers fans don’t have quite the same reputation. It made me wonder why someone would stand in line on Sunset to rep a team that just came to town—especially someone like Craig, a 26-year-old who had never gotten a tattoo before. Why? I asked him. Why now? Why the Chargers?

His reply was swift and perfect: “It’s free,” he said.