Tattoos in Film and the Characters Who Embody Them

Tattoos say a lot about a person. They’d better, since they’re permanently etched into their skin, and typically on purpose. Tattoos have a long history in cinema as an important (admittedly optional) aspect of a character’s design, right along with their haircut, their wardrobe and the kind of light the cinematographer throws upon them. Tattooed characters are – or at least were, at one point – confident enough about their interests to get a permanent, meaningful marking on their body. These people tend to stand out in their movies, as does their ink. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – a Silence of the Lambs type of thriller, that juxtaposes a dark serial killer storyline with an even darker look at gender relations in the modern world – making its way to theaters courtesy of David Fincher, we’ve had tattoos on the brain, which are as painful as they sound. Here are some of our favorites, and what they mean.



Poking out from the pants of one Snake Plissken comes the cobra tattoo from Escape from New York, John Carpenter’s misanthropic sci-fi film from 1981. In the film, Kurt Russell plays Plissken, a former military hero who is now the most wanted man in America. He’s thrown into a maximum-security prison – Manhattan Island – and forced to save the President of the United States, whose plane crash-landed there. If he doesn’t save him before a big diplomatic summit, his head explodes. Yeah, it’s not a subtle film, but neither is Snake’s tattoo, which slithers out of his pants and reminds you that, yes, he’s as virile as they come. Not a brilliant tattoo, but it sure seems like something Snake would do to himself. Some people think that the snake tattoo is a reference to The Man with No Name, whose pistol had metal snakes on the grip, which would also be awesome.



Depending on what you’re reading, Darth Maul’s red tattoos from The Phantom Menace are either the tribal tattoos of a warrior or the mark of a Sith Lord. “Depending on what you’re reading,” we say, since they’re never explained in the actual film. Either way, they’re badass, and make him a striking villain despite the fact that he doesn’t have much to do. In George Lucas’s maligned prequel to the classic Star Wars trilogy, Maul acts as the future Emperor’s attack dog, ambushing the heroes whenever the plot requires it and engaging an incredibly choreographed fight sequence at the end of the film. The tattoos make him an instantly recognizable character from the series, and their superficiality speaks volumes about the simplistic nature of his character and the film itself. It’s all about visuals from here on out, they imply, which turned out to be pretty damned accurate.



Not impeccably designed, the tattoos that Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott get in Dude, Where’s My Car? are basically just the set-up for a joke. In the film, Kutcher and Scott are lovable losers who black out after a night of debauchery and can’t find their car. Retracing their steps leads them to one wacky situation after another, from fighting ostriches to alien invaders. In one of the funnier moments, they take their shirts off only to discover that they also got tattoos. What does Kutcher’s say? Dude! What does Scott’s say? Sweet! No seriously, what does Kutcher’s say? DUDE! No seriously, what does Scott’s say? SWEET! This modern update on the old vaudevillian “Third Base” gag is so funny that it’s reportedly the main reason why Kutcher agreed to make Dude, Where’s My Car? in the first place. See? There’s a reason after all.



If you’re in the Russian mafia, word on the street is you’re supposed to have tattoos. These tattoos have specific meanings, and go a long way towards your street cred. Nobody has more street cred than Nikolai Luzhin in Eastern Promises, played by Viggo Mortensen. Nikolai begins the film as the driver for a Russian mobster, played by Shine’s Armin Mueller-Stahl, but gradually works his way up the ranks over the course of the film. Mortensen studied criminal tattoos extensively for the film, and each of his tats has a specific meaning. Example: the stars on his knees? They mean he kneels before no one. You know, kind of like a hobbit. Mortensen’s tattoos were so accurate that he said he neglected to wash them off before going out to eat one night, and the patrons of the Russian restaurant were terrified to speak to him until he revealed that they were for a film.



The Harry Potter movies may have exited theaters, but not our hearts. One of the first tattoos that came to mind when we put together this list was “The Dark Mark” worn by Voldemort’s loyal followers in the now-classic franchise. The Dark Mark is a tattoo of a skull with a snake slithering out of its mouth, so yeah, that’s pretty dark. These tattoos – in which the snake actually moves, which is awesome – meant that the bearer was in a secret organization and pretty proud of it, or willing to wear long-sleeved shirts for the rest of their lives. Like many bearers of tattoos, some folks with The Dark Mark come to regret getting one as they grow older and seek work in the school system.



Not a cool tattoo. Not cool at all, guys. But damned memorable. In American History X, Ed Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a neo-Nazi who’s so confident that he’ll never, ever change that he has swastika tattoos displayed prominently on his chest. Whoops. Tony Kaye’s first film is a harsh, uncompromising look at white supremacy and its consequences, in which Derek goes to jail for voluntary manslaughter (extremely voluntary manslaughter) and gradually learns the error of his ways. He still has that tattoo though. We imagine the first item on his “To Do” list after he got out was to paint right over that sucker, but of course fate – and his old neo-Nazi buddies – had other plans…



Martin Scorsese’s exhilarating remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller Cape Fear trumped the already great original in every way. In the film, Nick Nolte plays a lawyer who turned on his own client, denying him a decent defense because he was guilty as sin. Years later, the past comes back to haunt him when Max Cady (Robert De Niro) gets out of the joint and comes looking for slow, painful revenge. When he’s first revealed, we don’t get a good look at Cady, but we see how he presents himself: covered in tattoos, including “Love” and “Hate” on his fingers, and a monumental “Scales of Justice” covering his back. Tells us all we need to know, doesn’t it? And scary as hell, too. Fun Fact: De Niro was actually tattooed for this film, but with vegetable dyes instead of ink. They faded away in just a few months.



Future The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan had a breakout hit in his second feature film, Memento, which starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from anterograde amnesia. The ailment prevents him from retaining new memories, meaning that he forgets everything that happened to him just a few minutes later. He remembers everything that happened right up until the accident that caused his affliction, including the murder of his wife, and despite his affliction has dedicated the rest of his life to finding her killer. But it’s pretty hard to put together the clues when you can’t remember them, so Leonard tattoos the important stuff on his body so that nothing gets past him. License plate numbers, the name of the killer (an elusive Mr. “John G.”) and, most importantly, “Find him and kill him.” Rarely have tattoos been such an integral part of a film’s plotline, or a character’s motivations. Ignore the fact that he’s turned himself into a walking Post-It Note and enjoy the ride.


The Dragon Tattoo from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Some tattoos send a very clear message. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) hates men who hate women, and although she has been victimized herself she will never stand for it. Lisbeth is emblazoned with a dragon tattoo herself. It’s an unforgettable tattoo because of the story behind it.



The Night of the Hunter is the only film ever directed by acclaimed actor Charles Laughton, who rose to fame with iconic roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny on the Bounty. It is also considered one of the greatest movies ever made, and with good cause. The lyrical, haunting story of two children pursued by a murderous preacher is half-fairy tale and half-nightmare, with Robert Mitchum – never better – playing a velvet-voiced boogeyman who seduces their mother to steal the little girl’s doll, in which their father (Peter Graves) hid stolen money. But beyond the film’s disturbing beauty there are Mitchum’s tattoos: “Love” and “Hate,” scrawled across his fingers, in what has become a truly iconic tattoo ever since (Rober De Niro wore them in Cape Fear, you’ll recall). Best of all is Mitchum’s monologue about his tattoos, which represents a simplistic and hypocritical view of good and evil, coming as it does from one of cinema’s greatest monsters. Spike Lee borrowed the speech almost verbaitm for his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, and it’s easy to see why.




Full Disclosure: This article was sponsored by Sony.