Fred Bousquet, The Thinking Man’s Tattoo Artist

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2017 Spring edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

Frédérick Bousquet, who competed for France in the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016 Olympic Games, is one of the most inked swimmers on the planet, with some 15-plus (depending on how you count them) images adorning his body. And yet not one of his tattoos depicts the Olympic rings, the “starter” tattoo for so many elite athletes.

“For me, a tattoo often signifies either a philosophy, a state of mind, or the end of a story.”

So begins my interview with Fred Bousquet, the decorated sprinter who makes his home in Marseille, France. A four-time Olympian, Bousquet is known internationally as much for the decorations that adorn his body as for the accolades he has received through his two-decade career.

Although he had already competed for France at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Bousquet rose to prominence in the United States when he arrived as a midseason transfer to Auburn University in January 2003. He was quick to adapt to the short-course-yards format, and in his first outing as a Tiger — a dual meet against Texas on January 9 — he won the 50-yard free by half a body length. At the 2003 SEC Championships, Bousquet broke the hours-old conference record in the 100 free with a blistering lead-off on Auburn’s 4×100 free relay, and he finished the meet as the second-highest point winner, just one point behind Florida freshman Ryan Lochte.

During his three seasons at Auburn, Bousquet amassed 21 All-American honors and etched his name in the NCAA Division I record books four times. He earned three straight 50 free titles and was a member of three winning relays.

As the 2004 meet was swum in short-course meters, Bousquet’s 50 free victory set NCAA, U.S. Open, and world records. That year, he was also a member of Auburn quartets that set NCAA and U.S. Open records in the 4×50 free and 4×50 medley relays, and NCAA, U.S. Open, and world records in the 4×100 free relay. At his final NCAA meet in 2005, Bousquet became the first swimmer to break 19 seconds in the 50-yard free, shattering Anthony Ervin’s 2002 record of 19.05 with a prelims swim of 18.74.

Bousquet was already a colorful character when he came to Auburn. He showed up on campus with a pair of tattoos and a pierced tongue. Although he was an Olympian, neither of his two tattoos depicted the Olympic rings.

“For me, a tattoo isn’t something you stamp on your skin. It isn’t something that everyone — or at least everyone in my world — might have,” he said. “That is the first point that influenced my decision not to get the Olympic rings. Next, I didn’t want the rings to represent the end of a story. I wanted to go back [to another Olympic Games]. Finally, there is the commercial aspect. The rings have been appropriated by the International Olympic Committee. They’ve been trademarked. What used to belong to the athletes, the sporting ethic of the Olympic Games, hasn’t belonged to us for, I’d say, about 20 years — ever since sport became a business and we became the merchandise.

“There are too many marketing aspects to the Olympic rings. They have become like a logo. It would be like getting a tattoo of the Nike swoosh. The comparison might be exaggerated, but it’s a bit like that for me. That’s why I don’t see myself getting a tattoo of the Olympic rings anytime soon. And yet it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. If one day I feel like getting a tattoo of the Olympic rings, I will, but I will have waited until the end of my career to do it.”

The tattoos he had when he arrived at Auburn, like those he would have inked on his body over the next 15 years, were personally significant. He laughs, slightly embarrassed, when he recalls his first.

“It wasn’t that original,” he said. “I was 16 or 17, and I’d been in club swimming for about two years. All the great swimmers I saw, or nearly all of them, had tattoos. I wanted one, too — something related to my story. I hadn’t found anything special, so I chose a New Zealand tribal symbol for water, with a wave on top. It’s on my chest.

“Because I was a minor, I couldn’t legally get a tattoo without my parents’ signatures. My sister, who is six years older than me, signed the authorization. My parents had no idea. We went to a biker bar, with Harley-Davidsons and everything. The owner tattooed me in the back of the bar. It was quite an experience. For a first tattoo, it was really something.

“My sister and I went straight home, and I immediately showed my mother the tattoo. I thought she was going to pass out, but the shock quickly passed. Fortunately, my sister was able to reassure her as to the cleanliness of the tattoo, its significance … she really smoothed it over for me and kept me from getting in trouble.

“My father didn’t find out for another four or five months. They were separated, and I only saw him on weekends. It was during the summer; we had gone on vacation in the countryside. One morning he woke me up by pulling the bed cover off me. Of course, he saw it right away. He didn’t get mad or anything. He just said I was dumb. He couldn’t say much because, in fact, he has one, too. He got it when he was in the Army. He was just worried that I would start getting tattoos, but he must have gotten over it since then.”

Bousquet waited five years before getting his second tattoo, and it was much more meaningful than the first.

“Just before I left France to go to Auburn, I had my brother’s name tattooed in Chinese characters on my calf,” he said.

Bousquet quickly learned things were different in an American university setting than they were at home in France.

“Before coming to Auburn, I had no idea how things worked in colleges” in the U.S., he said. “I didn’t know what kind of rules there were for sports teams. David Marsh was the head coach of Auburn when I arrived, and right away, I learned he wasn’t a big fan of tattoos and piercings. I immediately got rid of my tongue ring, but as far as the tattoos were concerned, it was a little more complicated to get rid of them.

“[Coach Marsh] never said anything to me. He never commented on my tattoos or my piercing. It was my teammates who, in welcoming me to the team, told me about the team rules — and one of them was not to have visible tattoos. But piercings were strictly not allowed. I remember that any guys who wore earrings had to take them out before each practice.”

Marsh said: “When Fred arrived to Auburn as a promising but still developing young swimmer from France with limited English skills, I was still trying to hang on to a culture of no tattoos and no piercings … so my first impression upon his arrival was Hmmm. We would have never known that Freddy would go on to redefine speed in our sport. Moreover, Fred’s legacy is one of an amazingly committed, incredibly competitive, fully loyal student-athlete. Fred, to this day, is one of the greatest examples of a young man with average aquatic talent spending the extra hours in the endless pool, learning a relationship with the water. Hours with PK, our strength coach, developing incredible physical power. First one on, last one off the deck after activating and stretching. A true professional approach — no stone left unturned.

“As for tattoos and piercing, Fred’s graceful demeanor away from his race-ready furiousness helped this old-school coach to even see beauty in those tats.”

Life at Auburn was very different from what Bousquet had known in France. “There,” he said, “everyone expresses himself in his own way. At Auburn, it was a little bit like fitting into a mold. But actually, I liked it. Everyone is in it together, and what’s more, everyone respects the rules.”

Bousquet respected the rules. He waited until the end of his final season at Auburn before getting more ink.

“When I had finished my eligibility with the team, after the NCAAs in 2005, I went back home to compete in the French national championships,” he said. “I took an extra week afterward to see my family, and that’s when I got the tattoo that covers my chest and shoulder.”

The 2005 tattoo was a big undertaking. It used the original tribal water symbol as a base and expanded upward to cover his chest and left shoulder. Bousquet says that working with his tattoo artist, “we took the water sign and enlarged it, in fact. We came up with this design, and it has several meanings.”

Growing out of the original tattoo is a large black figure 8 that somewhat obscures the blue splashes of water from the wave.

“There are two things going on,” he said. “You get the impression that it’s a shell, but in fact, it’s an elongated eight. The figure 8 is the symbol of infinity, but eight is also my lucky number — it’s my birthday. And the infinity symbol has a lot of meaning for me. Next to the eight are three lines that represent my family equilibrium: my mother, my father, and my sister.”

From then on, Bousquet added about a tattoo a year. Some are intimate, and he prefers to keep their details to himself. Others are symbolic in a personal way. Still others have existential meaning. Bousquet is a deep thinker, and while he eschews the idea of being labeled a philosopher, he says his tattoos “reflect my personal interpretations and my manner of viewing life. Everyone has his own interpretation, his own philosophy, his own poetry. This is mine.”

In 2008, just a few weeks after coming home from the Olympic Games in Beijing, Bousquet had an olive branch inked on his left hand.

“The olive branch is, for me and for many others, the symbol of hope,” he said. “In Beijing, I had participated in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay” along with Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot, and Alain Bernard.

“We finished second, behind the Americans,” he continued. “It was a difficult race for us because we were ahead and Jason Lezak beat us at the touch. We were all affected by it. It is something that, for better or for worse, is part of our history. I prefer to think of it as a happy memory, but it’s true that at that moment, coming home from the games, it weighed heavy on my soul. It was hard to accept, morally, because at the time I felt it was my only chance, or at least my best chance, to become an Olympic swimming champion. There was this feeling that I would never again have the opportunity to be an Olympic champion.

“After a good deal of self-reflection, I told myself, ‘No, you always have to have hope. You have to look ahead, and hope is what moves you forward.’ And that’s why I had this olive branch tattooed onto my hand after the Beijing Olympics. It was to remind myself [to remain hopeful] whether it be in the sport of swimming or in other parts of my life.”

The theme of hope made its appearance a second time, several years later, when Bousquet added a large tattoo of a dove to his right side.

“This dove — once again, to me, a symbol of hope and of love — holds a parchment with two poems on it: one by Socrates, and one by Victor Hugo,” he said. “Both are about love — not the love for a particular person, but the love for life and for humanity. I purposefully wanted to have [the poems] tattooed in Hebrew because although I have no Jewish or Israeli roots, for me, the Israeli people, through their history and their mentality, are those who embrace life the most, who celebrate the love of others the most. My sister lived for several years in Tel Aviv, and during my trips to visit her, I learned to appreciate that aspect of the Israeli culture.”

As esoteric a reference as the dove with its two love poems in Hebrew might be, Bousquet’s arms carry a message that is easier to decipher.

“A couple of years ago, I had my two arms tattooed,” he said. “The left arm and the right arm are actually opposite sides of the same representation. On the left, you see roses, but in fact, there is a skull hidden beneath the roses. Also on the left, on my forearm near the wrist, I had tattooed the word ‘HATE’ in English. In opposition to that, I had my daughter’s face, together with angel’s wings, tattooed on my right arm, and on that forearm is the word ‘LOVE.’”

In some respects, Bousquet is a study in contradictions. He uses Chinese characters to obscure the name of someone to whom he wants to remain close as he embarks on a journey to Auburn. He chooses Hebrew to represent poetry originally scribed in Greek and French. He favors allegory and religious symbolism.

And then he lays his soul bare with the face of his daughter engraved on his arm. Before that, he had her name, Manon, tattooed on top of his right shoulder, near his neck, but he seems to have taken care not to show her face on his social media posts throughout the years. Yet here was this realistic depiction of her, inked onto his body for all the world to see.

“For me, it was a way to constantly remind myself that it’s dangerous to live in extremes and that you have to know how to find balance,” he said. “The tattoo of my daughter is done with tenderness, with love. In the end, it symbolizes naivety. On the other side, then, are death, hate, and anger, which can, unfortunately, lead to actions that are too hard, too extreme. So it is always important to find the right balance.”

Bousquet’s most recent tattoo, which covers most of his thigh, portrays the Hindu god Ganesh, who “embodies wisdom, with all its significance and history,” he said.

As an ensemble, he said, his tattoos “represent my life — they are what I live day to day and the manner in which I live as well. They come from all the experiences that I’ve had, from my sporting life, my professional life, and my personal life. They are also inspired by the travels I’ve been fortunate enough to do.”

In October, Bousquet participated in the Tahiti Swimming Experience, a 10-day extravaganza comprising various water-sports events on the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. There, Bousquet met with Tahitian tattoo artists — meetings he thoroughly enjoyed.

“For me, it was only to exchange ideas. I wasn’t interested in getting a Polynesian tattoo,” he said. “But it was extremely interesting and enriching to talk with these tattoo artists and to learn something about their tattoo culture. For them, it’s a way of writing and explaining the Polynesian culture, beyond what you can read in history books. A large majority of the population expresses itself through tattoos, and I find that fantastic.”

Even in the rest of the world, where expressing a culture through body ink is less prevalent, Bousquet says he finds that tattoos have become “acceptable and accepted.”

“Since the beginning of the 2000s, mentalities about tattoos have changed enormously,” he said. “It’s gone from a cultural phenomenon to a fashion statement to now a societal norm. In the ’60s, ’70s, and even ’80s, tattoos were synonymous with gangs, bikers, criminals, with those who were marginalized, who were on the margins of society and its laws. Today you see television hosts — both men and women — CEOs, and all sorts of people with tattoos. It doesn’t have the same significance anymore. It’s more a way to express oneself rather than a sign of belonging to a group.

“I don’t think it’s a generational thing. I have seen elderly people appreciate certain tattoos on certain people. I specify ‘certain tattoos on certain people’ because there are, and there will always be, people with types of tattoos that depict a particular aggressiveness, a particular violence through words or images — they signify adhering to a movement, such as a political movement. Unfortunately, they get lumped into the family of tattoos.

“I don’t necessarily believe we need to accept all types of tattoos. Personally, I try never to judge another person by his appearance, by his looks, by how he dresses, and even less by his tattoos. But it’s difficult to do, and I understand that some people are still shocked by tattoos. I think it’s a question of culture, of values, of appreciation of life in today’s society. Some people hold onto values that for others have evolved and have no reason to exist anymore.”

Bousquet himself doesn’t feel the need to add a tattoo every year. He doesn’t make an annual pilgrimage to the tattoo parlor. “It has to do with what I’m feeling at the time,” he said.

“I have been working with the same tattoo artist for the last 12 years,” he continued. “It’s a collaboration — we exchange ideas, we discuss it a lot. He knows me very well now, so he participates fully in the creative process. Sometimes we add to an existing tattoo with something that is related; other times we do something completely new.”

At 35, Bousquet is still one of the world’s premier sprinters and competes regularly. (He blasted a 22.95 in the 50-meter free at a regional meet in Courbevoie at the beginning of February.) He is a consultant to the municipal government of Marseille and the regional body of Aix-Marseille-Provence. He was a member of the organizing committee in Marseille that bid for and was awarded the European Capital of Sport 2017. He represents his corporate sponsors at promotional events. He is a motivational speaker and appears often on radio and television programs.

All this adds to his portfolio of life experiences and provides fodder for new ink. So what’s coming up for Fred Bousquet?

“Rendezvous in March to see the next tattoo,” he said mirthfully.

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6 months ago

Very cool piece. One of my favorite swimmers growing up. Thanks for writing this!

6 months ago


Reply to  Anonymoose
6 months ago

Spare a thought for the sports Journalists who have no sports to report on….

6 months ago

Very cool article. Great personal philosophy. Proud of Fred for all he embodies. A well written eclectic piece!

jason zajonc
Reply to  Ladyvoldisser
6 months ago

Thanks for a cool article.

About Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant is the mother of four daughters, all of whom swim/swam in college. With an undergraduate degree from Princeton (where she was an all-Ivy tennis player) and an MBA from INSEAD, she worked for many years in the financial industry, both in France and the U.S. Anne is currently …

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