T.J. DeFalco claps after a VNL match. Photo by Volleyball World

In June, as I was watching the U.S. Men’s National Team play in the Volleyball Nations League on VolleyballWorld.tv, something struck me about outside hitter T.J. DeFalco.

T.J. DeFalco standing with no tattoos
T.J. DeFalco did not have visible tattoos during this 2022 photo shoot.

I have known T.J., now 26, since he was on the U.S. Boys Under-19 Team in 2014. I have watched him grow, and I’ve seen him go from “new kid in the gym” to Olympian.

And yet, this year, something was new and different. What was it?

TATTOOS! This summer, T.J. had an arm sleeve of new tattoos on his left arm. I consulted photos of him from 2022. Sure enough, no visible tattoos.

I sat down with him in July in Anaheim to discuss this development.

Turns out, he got the tattoos done in Poland, where he plays professionally during the fall and winter.

(There is a photo gallery at the bottom of this article)

USA Volleyball: At this time last year, did you have any tattoos?

T.J.: I think I might have had this one (small Olympic rings tattoo on his upper left leg)

USA Volleyball: Have you always wanted tattoos? How did this arm sleeve come about?

T.J.: I’ve always had an admiration for art, especially people who can do something like this on the human body. It wasn’t like I’ve wanted tattoos for a long time. Something came to me one day after I got this one (Olympic rings). I enjoyed the look of it and the artistic value of it. I got the idea that I wanted to do some sort of big tattoo for my family.

I love Disney. I love the movies I used to watch as a kid. The idea that came to me one day is that I wanted to pick a character that closely resembles each of my family members to me. That’s what I did. All these characters represent members of my family.

(On his shoulder) This one is Tarzan’s mom holding Tarzan. (Tarzan’s) not supposed to be me. It’s just a loving picture of Tarzan. That’s my mom (Gina).

(On his upper arm) Scrooge McDuck is my dad (Torey). I thought this was a great picture of him because he’s throwing the money down on the sidewalk. It’s the experience you have having seven kids. There’s always something to pay for. There’s always groceries to go get. There’s always some activity. I thought this depicted him pretty well.

(Inner lower arm) Tweety Bird is my sister Teagan. This picture of Tweety Bird is a little bit of a different version. She’s got a volleyball in there. She has flowers. She’s got a gun, whatever. Gangster Tweety Bird. That’s a good thing to represent Teagan.

(Outer lower arm) This one is Popeye, my older brother Tony. I always saw him as bigger, stronger, can move anything and do all the chores as an older brother.

(Just above the outside wrist) This one is my other little sister Taryn. Baby Dumbo. This one was for her because she’s always been very shy, very loving and kind of shelled up a little bit. That’s how I saw her.

(Inner arm below Tweety) This one is Baby Groot, my little brother Tanner. He’s just a wrecking ball but he’s also just a lover like Baby Groot is in the movies. That was the closest one to represent him, I thought. He’s the youngest of all the family members. He’s the last one to go through the cycle.

The other two I have (still to do): Remember Land Before Time? Remember Cera? Triceratops? That’s going to be my older sister Tia. In the show that I remember watching and all the movies, Cera was always a little bit more of the meaner one, a little bit more of the stern one of the group. But whenever it came time to show the emotions and have a heart, the rest of the group would say, “Wow you’re showing emotions? This is crazy.” It was very heartfelt. It was very emotional. That’s what resonated with me with her. Cera was the mom of that group. And my older sister has always been our second mom.

The last one I am going to have is for my other older sister Talia. She is going to be Baby Moana. When the wave dangles the crystal over and she’s reaching up to grab it. The reason I picked that character, and that variation of Moana is that my sister was very rebellious when she was younger and so was Moana. She always wanted to go away and get to the ocean. Her father kept telling her, “You’ve got to be the chief,” but she kept running away to the water. But then later, she finally gets the stone and goes through this whole maturation process and becomes this whole new person of enlightenment. That whole journey for my older sister is almost exactly what she’s gone through.

USA Volleyball: What were your family members’ reactions?

T.J.: My dad just laughed at his. He said, “I can’t believe you depicted me as that.” They acknowledge the art (of the tattoos) as well. The artist I found is amazing. Knowing that they are represented on my arm in this way is even more special.

USA Volleyball: Were you inspired at all by Matt Anderson (who also has tattoos that represent family)?

T.J.: No! He claimed that last week. He claimed that I copied him. But no.

USA Volleyball: Aside from tattoos, how are you feeling about your performance this season?

T.J.: I feel good. I feel very proud of the body of work I’ve put in. That’s the most important thing to me is that I go through the process year in and year out. There’s no slacking; there’s only grinding at all times.

It’s nice these moments when I get to sit and say, “Yeah, I worked my butt off.” To have it finally pay off and all the hours and hours and hours that my dad and I sacrificed driving from San Diego to Huntington three times a week just for club, it’s been a nice shift in mentality.

T.J. will return to Poland this month to play for Asseco Resovia Rzeszów and plans to get the final two tattoos while his is there.

“There’s a lot of very deep meaning with each character,” he said. “And it was fun when I had it done (in Poland). Just this is 56 hours of work. Each character took five to six hours maybe. I was thinking of each family member as I was getting it done. That meant even more to me to have my family with me at all times.”