Tattoos aren’t just for sailors and criminals anymore – people from all walks of life get them for all sorts of reasons: to commemorate a special event in their lives like the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, to let everyone who sees it know what their favorite flower, animal, or sports team might be – or maybe it’s a symbol that holds a special significance to them and they keep hidden on an ankle, calf, or other non-visible-while-clothed part of the body.
In the movie world, tattoos usually have a defining meaning to convey to the audience about the characters that wear them. A tattoo can help the audience understand that the person wearing it is very bad and should not be messed with, or it can give clues to a character’s personality – as it does for Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
We’ve selected 12 tattoos from movies and TV that we think are especially memorable – see if you recognize them all.
In the Red Dragon, Ralph Fiennes gives a chilling performance as the schizophrenic killer Francis Dolarhyde a.k.a. the “Tooth Fairy” – who tortures, kills, then butchers his victims. The tattoo on his back is disturbingly beautiful and is easily one of the most memorable tattoos on screen of the past 10 years.
Watching Guy Pearce as the tortured Leonard Shelby – a man suffering from anterograde amnesia – in director Christopher Nolan’s first critically acclaimed film Memento is at times heartbreaking, as the audience can’t help but feel pity for the protagonist as he searches his wife’s killer. To assist him in his crusade for justice, Shelby tattoos the clues he finds each day somewhere on his body so that he won’t ever forget his mission (since his condition keeps him from storing new memories).
This tattoo is useful but sad as it is a constant reminder of his wife’s death and his inability to remember anything useful.
Viggo Mortensen’s character Nikolai Luzhin is a Russian mobster who cleans up other mobster’s “messes” – in other words, he throws dead bodies in the river. His tattoos in Eastern Promises are mostly religious in nature – featuring a Catholic cross on his chest and a large image of St. Basil’s Cathedral on his back. But they also serve as a warning to anyone who would challenge him. He is not a man you want to cross (no pun intended).
Ray Park as the evil Darth Maul and apprentice to Sith Lord Darth Sidious is arguably the best thing about George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. Darth Maul never utters a word of dialog but speaks volumes with his dual lightsaber as he hunts down Queen Amidala, along the way battling Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Darth Maul’s facial tattoos are more tribal in nature in that they serve no other purpose other than to instill fear in those he battles.
Wentworth Miller’s character on the TV show Prison Break, Michael Scofield, is convinced his brother Lincoln Burrows has been framed for murder and is determined to help him escape from prison before he is executed. To help him achieve that goal he had detailed blueprints tattooed on almost his entire upper body. Hidden inside this massive and impressive tattoo of devils and angels are escape routes that he will use to break out of Fox River prison.
Matthew McConaughey as Denton Van Zan in Reign of Fire is a true bad-ass and his tattoos help to reinforce that notion. Van Zan is the leader of the Kentucky Irregulars – a group of Americans who hunt down and kill dragons. His Alpha male personality, bald head, cigar smoking and huge battle axe all increase Van Zan’s badassness, and the impressive tattoo depicting two dragons breathing fire across his chest seals the deal.
A woman wearing a tattoo in a movie is often incredibly beautiful, with the tattoo used to further enhance her sex appeal to the male audience. That is exactly what happens when Angelina Jolie’s character, Fox, a highly skilled assassin, drops her towel revealing an intricate and beautiful tattoo made up mostly of Khmer characters on her shoulders and a large Bengal tiger on her lower back.
Chris Ackerman’s character in the movie Elektra is appropriately named Tattoo. His entire upper body is covered in tattoos of animals that he can bring to life and control with his mind to defend himself or attack his enemies. A wolf, snake, bird and spider are his main tattoos but we wonder why he wouldn’t add a kangaroo or a zebra? (OK, not really.)
In Snatch, Brad Pitt is a fighting gypsy name Mickey O’Neil who has a hard time losing a fight. He is a scrappy guy who can knock opponents out with one powerful punch. Mickey loves his “mum” and even has a tattoo of her profile on his chest. All he really wants is to get his “mum” a new caravan (a trailer) and will do whatever it takes to see that she receives it – too bad for him and the bad guys that she dies in a fire before that can happen.
Louis Changchien is Hanzo in the movie Predators – a Japanese gangster and Yakuza enforcer who is just as deadly and cold as he is silent. Like most members of the Yakuza, Hanzo has a full body tattoo known as an irezumi, is performed by hand and in the real world would have taken hundreds of painful hours to complete. Ultimately he loses out to the Predator but he looks impressive doing it.
Tom Hardy is a beast as the former Marine turned Mixed Martial Arts fighter Tommy Riordan in Warrior. With tribal tattoos on both arms and his squad’s logo on his chest Tommy shows he is both an aggressive Alpha male and fiercely loyal to the Marines and his squad.
There are few characters in movies as bad-ass as Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in director John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Snake is a former U.S. Army Lieutenant and was in the Special Forces before eventually turning to a life of crime. Along with his iconic eye patch he also has one gigantic cobra tattooed to his stomach with a tail that disappears into well… let’s just leave it at “disappears.”
There are plenty of other tattoos from films which we didn’t mention, but these were some of our favorites. Whether it is functional, beautiful, intimidating, tells a story or is just painful – each tattoo serves a purpose and should be appreciated by the audience.
Which are some of your favorite tattoos from film? Be sure to leave a comment below.