Tattoo artist living his dream with the help of Colin Kaepernick as his canvas

There were mornings as a young child that Nes Andrion yearned for the mother who he says left him behind in the Philippines at the tender age of 8 months old and times his stomach burned with hunger from so many inadequate meals – too often just bread and coffee, even as a toddler. There were days, he says, his feet grew sore from having no shoes and his back ached from sleeping on a hard dirt floor – "just a bed sheet, no pillow," he recalls.

Colin Kaepernick carries the ball on his tattoo-covered right arm against the Packers. (USA Today Images).
Colin Kaepernick carries the ball on his tattoo-covered right arm against the Packers. (USA Today Images).

Through it all, though, a simple dream carried him.

The kid was an artist. The kid could draw. He could create. He reveled in the moment it all came together.

And so, sure, Nes Andrion grew up about as poor as you can in this world – "rock bottom," he says – raised by his aunt and uncle, in a tiny, crowded house on the side of the steep, thick mountains above Olongapo City, the Filipino port town.

He always saw something bigger, though. He saw art. His art, splashed across countries he could hardly fathom, seen by millions of people he could barely envision.

"I wanted to spread my art around the whole world," Andrion said Thursday. "I wanted everyone to see it."

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Some improbable dreams will be realized when the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens meet in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.

None, however, will defy the odds of this: Nes Andrion, the child raised in crushing Third World poverty will have his artwork beamed in front of a global audience of hundreds of millions, on display via the most non-traditional of canvases: the arms of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Andrion is a tattoo artist. Now 35, he lives in Reno, Nev., where he immigrated at age 10, was drawn into working with ink after high school and in 2007 watched a tall, redshirt freshman quarterback from the University of Nevada walk into his small, humble shop and ask for a tattoo.

Andrion didn't know who Kaepernick was that day, although his height and build suggested a considerable athlete. Kaepernick didn't know who Andrion was either. He arrived on the recommendation of a friend. They immediately hit it off.

"I had him do one piece, I really liked it, and I've been going to him ever since," Kaepernick told reporters on Thursday.

Across hours and hours of Andrion covering Kaepernick's back, shoulders and arms with elaborate ink designs, the two became friends – the Californian headed for professional football and the artist from the other side of the earth.

"He's everything you want your kids to be," said Andrion, who texts regularly with the QB. "A real humble guy, quiet. He was always like that. Just a nice guy."

Kaepernick often had a specific idea of what he wanted done, sometimes a motivational saying, often from the Bible. He's focused on drawing inspiration from his tattoos.

"Against All Odds," is emblazoned across his chest. A version of Psalm 27:3 "Though an army besiege me, my heart will not be afraid" can be read on his left shoulder. Those words are surrounded by: "God Will Guide Me," which is Andrion's favorite.

"That's life," he said.

Then there is Kaepernick's back, a mural of angels and demons that took 18 hours over a couple of sessions to complete and has earned Andrion artistic acclaim.

Kaepernick burst onto the national stage in midseason when he became the 49ers' starting quarterback. Suddenly the heavily inked arms were flashing across television screens. "You don't see quarterbacks like that," Andrion said.

First there was curiosity, then some negative press and then a backlash of support.

As a show of confidence to his critics, Kaepernick has taken to "Kaepernicking" – kissing both biceps (he has "faith" inscribed on his right and "to God the glory" on his left).

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"[It] is kind of my way of saying I don't really care what people think about my tattoos," Kaepernick said. "I got them for me and to show people this is what I believe in. And God has brought me this far. He's laid out a phenomenal path for me and I can do nothing but thank him."

For Andrion, the entire thing was a whirlwind impossible to envision. He's done work on other eventual pro athletes, but for the most part he was an unknown guy with a small shop catering mostly to college kids.

Colin Kaepernick smiles following the Niners' win over the Packers in the divisional round. (AP)
Colin Kaepernick smiles following the Niners' win over the Packers in the divisional round. (AP)

It's even more difficult to imagine when you consider Andrion's journey. He says his mother, Evelyn, left him and some of his siblings behind in the Philippines in the late 1970s to immigrate to the United States in search of a better future for the family.

He was, by his own admission, "really poor," basically the kind of poor that has been mostly eradicated in the States but is too common in the Philippines.

"Just bread for breakfast," Andrion said. "Just bread. If you got an egg too, well, that was once in a blue moon." The home featured a dirt floor and everyone lined up at night next to each other. He was barefoot most of his life. "My uncle and aunt couldn't even afford a pair of flip-flops for me."

Finally, in the late 1980s, just as he was about to turn 11, his mother was able to petition to bring him and three of his siblings to America. She was remarried by then and while everyone crowded into a two-bedroom condo in Reno – "four of us sleeping in one bed" – it was a long way from Olongapo City.

All along he clung to art. He developed both his talents and a passion for the work. He graduated from Sparks High School, got into tattoo work and later opened his own parlor, Endless Ink, just southeast of downtown Reno and less than two miles from the UNR campus.

Tattoos, he believed, were the best forum for his work.

"I wanted my art to be on a person, not on paper," Andrion said. "I wanted it walking around. When someone has a tattoo, they are displaying my work everywhere they go. Every country they go to, I feel like I am going with them."

He admits the philosophy was rooted in the idea that a tattoo might be admired one or two people at a time on a beach somewhere. He never, ever, could've imagined this year, when suddenly Kaepernick's tattoos were all over television, the subject of newspaper and magazine photo spreads and website layouts.

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He was quickly one of the hottest tattoo artists in the country. He says he now has a three-month wait period for an appointment and is requiring a down payment to hold the spot. The phone keeps ringing and his email inbox is flooded.

This here is the American Dream.

"It's not about the money," Andrion said. "Right now I'm not even thinking about it. I've always just poured my heart into my work and I've always believed if you do that, things will work out."

And, of course, he knows this story hasn't even come close to its conclusion. Nothing compares to the exposure of the Super Bowl. Of all the companies in the world cashing in on the big game, maybe none will, proportionately, benefit more than Endless Ink.

Kaepernick's tattoos, for any number of reasons, will be a storyline during next week's media frenzy heading into the game. Then there is the broadcast itself, which will attract an expected 100 million-plus viewers in the United States alone and be shown in more than 230 countries, including the Philippines.

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When Andrion stops to consider it all – his background, his present, his future and, of course, the fact so many people will see his artwork next Sunday – it is almost too much for words.

"I'm pretty blessed," said Andrion, far removed from the impoverished Filipino mountainside where such a dream seemed so patently impossible. "I'm blessed to be here in America."

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