The man tattooed his face.
He… tattooed… His face.
How does a world-class athlete, household name, and one-time multi-millionaire get to the point in his life where he decides to get a tattoo on his face?
On the subject of Mike Tyson, the comedian Artie Lange once remarked that when you tattoo your face you’re basically declaring that your life is over. He was exaggerating for the sake of comedy, but there’s a point in there. You can’t ever go back from the face tattoo; once that happens, straight-world suit-and-tie jobs are out of the question forever. You’re giving up on at least half the world.
If you’ve ever wondered about why he opted for this facial alteration, or if you are curious about what Tyson almost imprinted on his left profile before he ultimately settled on Maori warrior markings [that trivia answer would be “hearts”!!!], then you need to see the new Tyson documentary – entitled “TYSON,” for obvious reasons. If you are a boxing aficionado like me, or if you are just a student of human nature, it’s a necessity.
The filmmaker James Toback is apparently a controversial figure himself, but he dials that infamous persona down for this movie. While Toback’s sympathies are clearly aligned with his subject (Tyson appeared in Toback’s improv film BLACK & WHITE), here he simply sets the camera on Tyson’s face and only occasionally cuts away to archival footage and photographs. He lets Mike Tyson tell Mike Tyson’s story, in effect. Obviously the perspective is slanted, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth attention.
Some of the bad deeds attributed to Tyson were well-documented; some were completely fabricated; some true but exaggerated; some true but explainable; some forgivable; some not. Is Mike Tyson a monster? Absolutely not. That’s a hellish title to lay on an obviously troubled, conflicted human being. He’s a rageful man, yes, but one might argue that this is a requirement and a function of his profession. The only steady job he ever held demanded that he hit grown men in the face. He’s also sensitive and sentimental and has a weird poetry in him, which has made him endlessly quotable. The reality is almost always more complicated than we expect or want it to be. This is absolutely a realization that Tyson, the documentary, will lead you towards, even if you retain your negative perception, which you are free to do.
Mike Tyson’s voice isn’t really the most soothing voice to listen to for more than an hour, and his face is not the most reassuring face to gaze upon for that long either. But his words are worth considering – both for what he says out loud, and for what he as a continuing presence in popular culture says about the rest of us.
I wrote the above piece all the way back in September 2009. I’m not even positive I still agree with myself, but I’m reprinting it today because Mike Tyson finds himself in the public eye again. Last night he appeared on the Tony Awards, singing and dancing alongside Neil Patrick Harris. (He did a tour on Broadway this past spring in a Spike-Lee-directed one-man-show, so it’s not totally without context.) This new musical duo is garnering rhapsodic reviews with the theater crowd, which just shows how much public perception can change in twenty years. Then again, Chris Brown sings and dances all the time, and half of America thinks it’s totally swell. It’s funny what and who we’re willing to forgive, and when.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of Mike Tyson myself — take away the disturbing allegations and he’s basically Forest Whitaker in GHOST DOG, a large violent man who has a soft spot for pigeons. Vocally and visually, he’s an outsized character, just south of a cartoon, and that’s always going to be compelling. But we’re absolutely living in stranger days when Mike Tyson is the toast of Broadway. Among the cooing audiences in Radio City Music Hall last night, I bet Tracy Letts got the irony, but I wonder if anyone else in that room did.
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