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Body art has existed in some form since the beginning of human history. Cultures change and some things fall in disfavor for new trends, just like anything else. But they are always a form of self-expression.

Tattoos are a firm part of that in establishing an individuals' identity, and they come with the benefit of being rather easy to simulate on an actor. Thus in an effort to establish a character type, there are many common tricks to use in giving a character a certain flavor in just their appearance.

Type:

  • Basic Symbol- A peace sign, possibly college letters or their fraternity symbols. Generally suggests they had a bit of a wild streak, but not so much that they have major regrets
  • Personal Emblem- Names of family members and/or an image of something they like. A "MOM" tampograph is common for Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas.
  • Organizational Emblem- Most anyone who serves in the military will have a related tattoo, same with biker gangs. It gives a good look at their history in comparison to where they are now.
  • Complex Design- There is almost a story to be told, both within the tattoo and how the person got it, or even something of a history on why they chose it.
  • Cultural- Tribal signs in particular are evident of someone who embraces their heritage, or who wants to be associated with someone else's heritage.
  • Multiple Types (Covered in different tattoos with different designs)- A free spirited individual, loves living day to day. May be a part of a fairly "raw" group like construction workers, mechanics, biker gangs, etc.

Size:

  • Coin Sized- Usually used for the Basic Symbol, unless right on the face it isn't very noticeable.
  • Moderate Sized- Usually in conjunction with the Organizational Emblem, it's identifying the person as belonging to something else.
  • Dominate (More tattoo than "blank" space in a given location)- It means if the area is exposed they want you to see it. There is no mistaking the fact it is there.
  • Full Body (at least the head, arms and chest)- Indicates a ritualistic accomplishment. It could be a cultural thing being a rite of passage, high honor or is self-applied by a serial killer who makes a mark on their body for every kill. Thus personality wise will either be calm and serene (if it was due to a cultural thing) or a raging psychopath (as a serial killer).
  • Asymmetrical (all on one arm or only covers half their face/chest)- Generally represents someone who has struggled to find a balance in their life, thus will likely embody a Beware the Nice Ones. You don't want to be one their bad side, cause that side is the "edgy" tattoo'd side.

Location:

  • Upper Back/Shoulder Blades- Suggests power or supernatural origin, either the person themselves in supernatural or was given supernatural abilities. In other ways it may be the key to a Human Notepad, the person can't see back there and may not even know what is actually written.
  • Lower Back- Generally restricted to women; a flirty and/or "easy" woman, as it is likely not seen unless she bends over and her shirt rides up or is already wearing a midriff revealing top. Nicknamed the "Tramp Stamp" or the "California License Plate."
  • Neck/Upper Shoulders- A tough thug. Because of the location the design may not be clearly visible, poking out from underneath their shirt.
  • Head/Face- Depending on size and the precise location it generally suggests a careful admission of who they are, as the face is the most visible part of the body. The bigger the tattoo and the closer to the center of the face, the more ruthless the character tends to be. The smaller it is and the more hidden away (behind the ear, for example) it may indicate Hidden Depths. A lot of gangbangers in fiction have a tear on their face near their eye.
  • Hands- Indication of power, strength and resilience, see also Knuckle Tattoos. It's also generally known that Russian prisons use tattoos on prisoners hands and feet to indicate the length of time in prison and the crime they did, making it a good reference point to identify how dangerous a Russian character is.
  • Forearms- On the outside it may be used as a badge of honor. On the inside it is popular for personal emblems, such as loved ones. Often someone will have a snake or something like it wrapped around, which seems to be popular for characters of action like The Lancer. Also notable for the "sleeve" tattoos, ink so detailed it looks like the person is wearing a long sleeved shirt when they aren't.
    • For the inside of the arm forearm it is also the place where Concentration Camp Jews were tattoo'd with their registration number, furthering the personal and private nature of that area.
  • Upper Arm/Bicep- Another popular place for the personal emblem or the organization emblem, but unless going sleeveless is not seen very often.
  • Feet/Legs- A lesser used location, often used with the same purpose as with hands or in combination with a full body tattoo. Ankles are popular for small tattoos with a college relation.
  • Chest- Indication of a warrior for a man. For a woman it indicates someone edgy or promiscuous in a similar manner to the lower back.
  • Torso- Similar to the lower back, a place that is generally not seen unless shirtless or the shirt rides up and thus carries the same implications.
  • Intimate Spots- Locations that are generally not seen unless the character is wearing a bathing suit or seen in their underwear, the lower back and torso already sort of fill in such a place. Another is the hip bone/pelvic region. It indicates a private person with a desire for intimacy.
  • Private Areas (Actually on or surrounding genitalia)- Evidently probably not seen on anything mainstream, but may be referenced in dialogue. Usually evident of a pervert or promiscuous individual (as they evidently have to expose that area to get the tattoo in the first place).

As this is about how the tattoos represent something about the character, examples should elaborate on that and not just be "Character X has a tattoo in Y location." As well, no one should take this personally if you happen to have a tattoo type in a location that indicates an evil person...

An Embarrassing Tattoo or Power Tattoo can exist in almost any of the above forms.

Examples:


Comic Books

  • This shows up repeatedly in the X Men titles:
    • Gambit has a royal flush tattooed across his shoulders on his back. He's from New Orleans and is supposed to be a bit of a lucky guy.
    • One of the Hellions could bring tattoos to life.
    • There are at least two timelines in which mutants are forced to get a large M tattoo over the eye, as a mark of the dystopian society making human-looking mutants obvious to any observer. Bishop and Shard come from one such future. Jamie Madrox and Layla Miller visited and came back from another.
  • Kate Kane (Batwoman) has a tattoo of the Green Beret sleeve insignia on her right upper arm, and a nautical star on her upper back, which is associated with the Navy and Marines corps, and also supposedly being used by homosexuals, particularly lesbians, in the 40's to identify themselves subtly.
  • A reveal in one of the Marvel Comics stories of the Mar-Vell version of Captain Marvel -- an elderly character is shown to be a concentration camp survivor at the end by this.
  • Tattoo Assassins: As the title suggests, the assassins wear tattoos on their bodies. These are located on their bellies. One character, Lyla Blue, has tattoos on her back - the same tattoos that the assassins have!
  • One Yakuza boss in the Wolverine comic book had a spider tattooed on his face, as opposed to the usual back or shoulders to symbolize his absolute lack of fear of being identified as a criminal. (And that he was a Chessmaster wannabe).

Literature

  • The book Child of Fire has mystical tattoos that are painted on, and usually on the lower abdomen. They're protection from an Eldritch Abomination. And they're indications to the Twenty Palaces Society to kill anyone on sight who has them (outside the Society themselves). The society themselves also have the magically painted-on tats; theirs are also for protection.
  • The upper back tattoo can be mystical in nature as in the book Touch The Dark. The main character has them as magical protection.
  • The serial killer in Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry had red mouths and black eyes tattooed on various locations on his body. To him, they were personifications of his insanity and the voices he heard.
  • Count Olaf, the villain of A Series of Unfortunate Events has an eye tattooed on his ankle. It's indicative that he belonged to VFW (I think, somebody clarify when the page goes live).
  • In The Night Circus, Tsukiko the contortionist has a full body complex tattoo. They serve as her source for Hermetic Magic since she got tired of lugging books around.

Film

  • Extreme sports guy Xander Cage of XXX has the titular tattoo on the back of his neck.
  • Leeloo has her tattoo inside her left wrist to identify her as The Perfect Being.
  • Played with example: In the first The Omen, Damian had a birthmark that looked like a tattoo of 666 on his head.
  • The little girl in Waterworld had a full back tattoo: the map to the only land left on the planet that was no longer underwater.
  • Armageddon: Max the roughneck has several. There's a quick shot in the "getting the roughnecks together" montage that shows him getting another tattoo. He tells his mother what it is; she smiles genuinely and says, "Aw, that's sweet, Maxie." He's not precisely an example of Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas but the FBI did show up for him in that same scene.
  • In Wedding Crashers Vince Vaughn's character noted one of the bridesmaids had a lower back tattoo, calling it a "bullseye" as their whole purpose is to find the women who were easy to get in bed.
  • X-Men: Magneto bears a concentration camp tattoo from his childhood, giving some insight as to how he decided that mutants and nonmutants would never be able to live side-by-side.
  • In The a Team, the team members all have Ranger tattoos, and this is in fact what helps Hannibal recruit B.A. in the film's intro.

Live Action TV

  • Due South: The elderly coroner, in a late episode of the series, casually tells a story about a camp he went to when he was a kid. At this camp, one of the adults would throw explosives into the lake to cause the fish to float to the surface. When asked where this camp was, he raises his sleeve to reveal a serial number tattoo, and replies with "Auschwitz".
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Faith has a tattoo on her upper arm. Because she's naughty.
  • The Science Fiction Channel (predating it changing the name to Sy Fy) had a version of The Invisible Man who had a Sanity Meter tattoo.
  • Burn Notice:
    • Sam Axe of has a military tattoo on his right arm just below the shoulder. When confronting an older ex-spy Sam showed the tattoo in an effort to convince the guy they were on the same side. In another episode Michael noticed an enemy with a special forces tattoo, eventually prying from him that he was in a bomb disposal squad and was not as bad as he seemed.
    • In another episode they recruited a random thug to run part of an operation, due to limited manpower. Sam mused that he wished they didn't have to rely on a guy with a neck tattoo.
  • Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager had a large Native American facial tattoo over one side of his face. They established that he got that tattoo in memory of his father, and he was trying to continue their traditions after previously rejecting them, thus embodying the "conflicted" characteristic. Interestingly, in "Living Witness" among the many things mistaken for the "historic re-enactment" they made his tattoo even larger, covering both sides of his face. Appropriately his personality changed to something of a sadist (as with most of the crew).
  • Tattoo from Fantasy Island does not count for Mr. Rourke.

Music

  • Gregg Allman has a song called "I'm No Angel" which has the lyric: oh, come on baby / come and let me show you my tattoo but does not specify its location. Given that the song has a recurring line of "I'm no stranger to the dark" and otherwise sounds like it's trying to seduce a woman, it'd likely be in a "tough guy" location and/or an "intimate" location.

Real Life

  • Yakuza members get huge tattoos of dragons on their backs. This leads to Japan's stigma against tattoos in general.
  • Holocaust survivors. The tattoo indicates the wearer is Jewish and has not removed it out of respect for those who did not survive, and usually as a reminder that the Nazi atrocities must never be repeated.
  • Many sailors get propellers, fish, and mermaids because the superstition was/is that these things will help keep them safe at sea.
  • Medical science has come up with a sugar-reactive ink. It's not completely there yet, but when it's done, diabetics will be able to monitor their own blood sugar simply by looking at their tattoo. (Which might go a long way toward removing the stigma of tattoos). So would, for necessity's sake and for practicality's sake, be in a visible location, or one easily found by a paramedic.

Video Games

  • Jr. of Xenosaga has the number 666 tattooed on the inside of his right hand to signify that he was the 666th U.R.T.V. created. While it is implied, it is unknown if the others have similar tattoos.
  • Gears of War:
    • Tai Kaliso has tribal patterns covering his face, arms and chest. He is the most relaxed and mild mannered character of the series, taking even horrible events in stride saying "Everything happens for a reason." He seems vaguely Samoan/Pacific Islander as well, he is one of the more spiritual characters.
    • Dom can be seen with a tattoo of his wife on his arm as he is one of the few people who wear short sleeves, but in Gears 3 everyone wears a stripped down armor and you see nearly everyone with military tattoos. As the games are heavily Band of Brothers, it represents their united nature.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • Wyatt from Sixteen has a small eighth note tattooed on his upper arm, although it doesn't come up too often.
  • Popeye as a sailor has anchors on both arms.
  • In Batman Beyond Terry got into a discussion with his Mom about the recent craze of "Splicers," modifying personal appearance with animal characteristics. His Mom was disgusted with the very concept of self-modification, while Terry pointed out a heart tattoo on her ankle from her college days.
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