The Art on the Artist image
Hana Asano

The Art on the Artist: Stefan Frei discusses the significance of his tattoos

NOTE: This is the lead feature in the August edition of Sounders Monthly. Click here to see the full edition. It is available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App. Photo credit to Hana Asano.


Colors always popped.

As the train carved through the Swiss landscape, windows on the roaring locomotive provided all the entertainment needed for the quiet, introverted boy. He often traveled the country from his home in Altstätten. On those journeys, each fleeting moment beyond the window was unique — different shapes, different colors would come to view. They popped before his eyes.

“I was always fascinated by that. To me, colors are exciting. I don’t see pain and suffering in those bright colors. It is innocent.”

From where he sits now, in Chicago for the 2017 MLS All-Star Game, the high-rises paint a different landscape than the one of his childhood, but he remains drawn to the other side of the window. He sees a concrete jungle and pinpoints a modern skyscraper. Squares and rectangles. Pillars and windows. Shapes and angles.

He feels unsatisfied.

“When I look out the window I get inspiration, but I feel more stress because now I want to go put that inspiration into a piece of art. The inspiration itself isn’t the calmness that I get [when viewing art] — the calm feeling is getting lost in my art. Putting this line there and that line there and seeing where it goes.” 

From innocently watching shapes whiz by through a train window to now feeling compelled to build from it. It’s one many juxtapositions that make up the Seattle Sounders’ 31-year-old star goalkeeper. For one who creates his own art, his job on the soccer field is rooted in preventing people from creating their own. For one who creates his own art, his body is a canvas for others to create their own. To understand Stefan Frei, you must start with the ink immortalized on him.

***

He was called “Swiss.”

After moving from Switzerland to the Bay Area as a young teenager, his teammates at Concord’s football powerhouse De La Salle gave him the nickname. The moniker stuck in college, too, when he starred at the University of California, Berkeley. Swiss intended to earn an art degree at Cal, but the soccer schedule wouldn’t allow it. Though he was told it would be too time-consuming to accommodate his team travels with the demands of the art program, the sketchbook stayed with him. He began to doodle tattoos, even though ink had yet to adorn his own skin.

It was fitting for Swiss to pay homage to his native country for his first tattoo. He drew inspiration from an old stamp he came across in his childhood, but his tattoo artist told him that such detail would require a full back canvas. Instead, he started his tattoo journey with a simplified version: the Swiss crest with his birth year and the Latin word for Switzerland.

“In the end, you don’t want to have a heavy heart.” - Frei

The red color on his left bicep popped.

“It’s an addiction. It opened the door and I slowly started to move on to more of that.”

While in college, Frei took a Classical Civilizations class where he became passionate about Egyptian etymology. Creatures and gods. Day and night. Life and death.

“The class pushed me to the idea of my fascination of mythology. Ultimately, they are talking about the same concepts we have in today’s religions, but in a very colorful way. It’s fascinating, it’s cool.”

This captivation manifested itself into art. First in his mind, then on his body.

“My first Egyptian tattoo was on my right ribs. The exact translation is ‘Live and Let Live,’ which is a motto I live by. I do my thing and I will let you do your thing. If most people lived their lives that way, we would be pretty well off.”

He had a professor at Cal assist with the proper translation. Soon, he would set off for a new adventure in a distant place to explore, learn and grow: Toronto.

As his promising professional career began to prosper on the shores of Lake Ontario, his tattoos did, too. A scene from Book of the Dead appeared on the left side of his torso. Anubis, the Egyptian god who ushered souls into the afterlife, is seen using a scale to weigh a heart against a feather.

“It’s where the saying, ‘Why a heavy heart?’ comes from. The belief is that when you sin in your life, your heart becomes heavy. If you sin too much, your heart will get devoured and you won’t go to the proper afterlife.”

Beneath the scale, there is an archaic quote. The rough translation: Even if people don’t see your actions, your actions are accounted for.

“In the end, you don’t want to have a heavy heart.”

After inking both ribs, he returned to his left arm. The Swiss crest on his bicep paid respect to his past, while his ensuing sleeve would tell a story of humanity. All in Egyptian etymology.

The design is conceptual, void of quotes and color. Anubis and Horus, another deity of the afterlife, are on the bottom, near his hand. King Tut and the Great Pyramids fill the center of his arm. Ra, the sun God, and the ankh, a looping ideograph meaning “life,” stand out above the rest.

The Underworld. The Kingdom. The Afterlife. The cycle of life is sprawled from wrist to shoulder.

There is also ink of a scarab, which plays a significant role to the arm’s narrative. Ancient Egyptians saw the beetles as a representation of reincarnation. All aspects of life and death, and the cycle it encompasses, are found on the goalkeeper’s left arm.

“I wanted it all to be connected, not a patchy sleeve. I didn’t want it to be a catastrophe.”

Nary a single inch on his left arm was vacant, but Frei was determined to add to his etymological collection. He researched different pieces of jewelry pharaohs wore and came across big, elaborate necklaces. After piecing a few sketches together, he designed a half-necklace that was etched onto his left pec.

By then, his time had come to an end in Toronto. In December 2013, he was traded to Seattle.

***

A new city, a new team. In this period of transition, Frei was ready to fill the largest canvas his body had to offer. He began sketching ideas for a fully covered back tattoo.

“I have been fascinated with skulls, but I didn’t want it to be a normal skull. I wanted it to be an Egyptian skull.”

Finding windows of opportunity with his tattoo artist has proven to be difficult. The piece has taken well over a year and it isn’t finished. But as any artist knows, patience is a virtue.

His most recent tattoo is the smallest in size, but perhaps the most significant. In the scope of his entire left arm, it may seem like an extension of the story written above, but there’s no underlying metaphor or fundamental moral.

It’s simply a small, dark star, signifying an MLS Cup championship. It rests on his left hand — the same hand that made seven saves, plus another during the ensuing penalty-kick shootout, en route to winning MLS Cup MVP last December.

While he says he would have gotten the star on his chest — the same place it is found on this year’s Sounders FC kits — had it not been for previous artwork occupying that real estate, for Sounders faithful who witnessed his play that night, the star on his hand seems more than appropriate.

“You never forget the people, you never forget the moment. It was natural. It was a must for me to get that immortalized and put on my body.”

More tattoos will continue to appear on Frei’s body, but they will come with time. Each move of his body art is tactical. The ink he gathers is purposeful and driven from considerable inspiration.

Frei became an American citizen in July, and he already has ideas of how he wants to commemorate this achievement in tattoo form. He’s confident that his “ever-growing obsession” with the No. 24 will find its way onto his skin, as well.

“I am trying to do more and more with art, but I can’t forget that I am still a soccer player. I need to make sure everything I do in that is to the best of my ability.”

Frei is a paradox, but everything is connected.

His sketchbooks and paintings are full of geometric shapes and colors. His tattoos vary from black and white Egyptian etymology to a red Swiss crest to a massive Egyptian skull to a simple MLS Cup star.

Yet each one is defined by his past or his future, a picture of who he is and aims to be.

“I am trying to do more and more with art, but I can’t forget that I am still a soccer player. I need to make sure everything I do in that is to the best of my ability.” - Frei

Frei is a creator of art and prevents opposing teams from creating their own, though he looks at it in a slightly different way. While a big save denies someone from creating their own art, it produces an opportunity for him to then, in turn, become a creator.

“More and more the game has changed where goalkeepers are asked to be the first attackers, the first creators. If I’m able to ping a ball 30 yards onto a guy’s foot, you can take a step back and say, ‘Ah that felt good.’”

Frei creates one kind of art when playing, but finds real peace in the art he creates away from the pitch. Whereas goalkeeping requires him to do be “four, five steps ahead,” and every decision comes in a high-pressure situation, his art off the field is taken one step at a time, one line at a time, one stroke at a time.

“With art, there is no pressure. Mistakes lead to beautiful things. I try to be as perfect as I can. I still know that if one isn’t going to pan out perfectly, it will be totally fine. Meanwhile, if you make one mistake in a soccer game it could cost you.”

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