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10 Incredible Character-Defining Movie Tattoos

Memento Tattoos
By  · Published on March 8th, 2012

by David Christopher Bell

It’s easy to stick some cool tats on a character and enhance their presence – and we all love cool-looking tattoos. It gets better when there is thought put into the tattoos, such as Mickey Rourke’s surprisingly well-researched prison tattoos in Iron Man 2.

What’s even better than that is when a tattoo is not only well thought out, but also speaks worlds about that character and the story surrounding them. It’s not always possible in the context of the film – but when it is, it’s nice to see. Here are some of the tattoos I’m talking about.

10. Steve O’s Off-Road Tattoo In Jackass

Well-thought-out is probably not the best word for this one, which of course is the point of it. In the third Jackass film, Johnny Knoxville is heard remarking that the act of Bam Margera urinating toward a jet engine is “the story of Jackass.” It makes sense – one guy pissing in the wind is a good analogy but Steve O’s off-road tattoo seems more fitting.

It’s such a permanent act… in fact, it’s one of the only permanent stunts they do in the series. Steve O isn’t just doing something stupid painful on camera, but also marking his own body as proof of the stupid painful act. One is reminded of the swastikas carved on the foreheads of German soldiers in Inglorious Basterds. Steve O has to live the rest of his life marked.

He probably doesn’t mind considering what’s on his back though.

9. Sirius Black’s Prison Tats In Harry Potter

Sirius (played in the movies by Gary Oldman) apparently didn’t have tattoos in the book – or at least the book didn’t specify. Adding them in for the film seems like a good idea; it roughs the man’s edges in a way that exposes the character’s layers of pain accumulated over the course of his life. He’s always been a punished person, disowned by his own family when he was young. While he has this formality to him – in that he at least knows what formalities exist – he chooses to embrace being an outcast even in his fighting techniques.

Seriously – for Order Of The Phoenix they hired choreographer Paul Harris to establish different wand fighting techniques – Sirius’s style was modeled to be a rough street fighting type of technique as opposed to the more formal, fencing style that Malfoy has. So it only makes sense that this otherwise kind-hearted, albeit somewhat demented man, would embrace all that Azkaban had to offer – including sweet body art.

8. Captain Jack Sparrow’s Sparrow In Pirates Of The Caribbean

It’s funny that while the point of branding a pirate with a mark is to identify them as such, Sparrow chooses to do that without anyone else’s help. Sure – he has the brand, but just in case that is missed, anyone with enough knowledge would recognize him from his Sparrow tattoo as well. That’s what’s funny – his vanity and lust for infamy are just a little more prominent than his need for cover. He doesn’t want to go to jail, but he also doesn’t want people to not know his name.

It’s amazing just how significant Johnny Depp’s role in making this character was, for before they cast him Sparrow was actually seen as an Errol Flynn type of pirate – just check out this production art from before Depp got heavily involved…

Yeah – the facial hair, bandanas, probably those tattoos as well – all spawned from Depp’s approach to the character as being more slanted and rock n’ roll. Boy did he have the right idea – you can say what you want about these films but Jack Sparrow is one seriously solid character.

7. Veritas Aequitas In The Boondock Saints

Latin for ‘truth’ and ‘equity’ – These are tattooed on the trigger fingers of our two main characters. Connor’s left hand being truth and Murphy’s right being justice. Kind of like those BFF heart necklaces people get, only with a lot more retribution and immense badassery. These tattoos say two things – firstly that these two men are doing what they believe to be the will of God, channeling his message through their very hands as they deliver punishment. Secondly that these two men are never planning on getting a respectable job.

Seriously, Target won’t even go for hand tattoos. Face? Maybe.

This is really more proof that Latin is by far the most badass language ever – just try screaming it insanely in church and see how fast that place clears out… double points if you do it in a really deep booming voice. There would be nothing more chilling than hearing the click of a pistol hammer while Latin prayer is spoken in unison behind you – you’d die of fright before the bullet got in there.

6. Harry’s Knuckles In The Night Of The Hunter

Probably the most badass knuckle tattoos you can get, Reverend Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum) seems like such a straight arrow on the outside. The only hint that he may be off-kilter is his knuckle tattoos, which read ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’. Other than that you’d never realize that he is a vicious serial murderer. Of course, he has a symbolic explanation for his tattoos, a story that is one of the better monologues in films.

What’s interesting about this film is that the director, Charles Laughton, never directed again. The reason? This film received such poor reviews when it was released, which is pretty funny considering how revered it is today – often shown at film school and referred to as inspiration for many directors. When Martin Scorsese remade another terrifying Mitchum film Cape Fear, he was sure to include the tattoos on the film’s villain.

5. Dolarhyde’s Entire Backside In Red Dragon

This tattoo is a bit of a showstopper, both in the film and, one imagines, at the local gym. It’s a special moment because, even though we are more than aware that this guy is nuts, this is really that moment where we take it all in. This is the moment that we stop and think, “Wow – this guy really is just freaking nuts.” Think of the money and time he’s spent on that thing – it makes his murders that much more thought out.

The other great part about this scene is the spoofs that have come from it. The two that really stand out are The Venture Brothers – where the Monarch reveals himself to be the “mighty minotaur” – and (the personal favorite) South Park’s spoof on the whole “do you see?” part of the film.

4. Quint’s Missing USS Indianapolis Tattoo In Jaws

The only non-existent tattoo on this list – as Hooper and Quint drunkenly compare scars on the Orca in Jaws, Hooper notices a scar on Quint’s arm. It is identified as a removed tattoo for the USS Indianapolis, a real-life Navy ship sunk during WWII that was known for the number of shark attacks inflicted upon the survivors.

It’s this story – Quint’s time stranded at sea told in an amazing monologue – that reveals so much about the character. We suddenly understand exactly where this man is coming from, that he experienced something that will never go away, no matter how hard he tries. His only hope is to face it head-on, which explains his profession.

Really it’s the fact that he removed the tattoo, the fact that he didn’t want people to ask him all the time about it and not be reminded by it that shows a sliver of vulnerability in an otherwise hard-as-nails man.

3. Leonard’s Body Tattoos In Memento

This had to be on here for obvious reasons. Frankly, it seems like the least efficient way to take notes, but also would be the best way to bring some spark to any study group. No doubt you’d not be allowed into the class on quiz day though.

The fact that Leonard is covering himself with these little notes about his wife’s killer really shows how unable he’d ever be to move on. Tattoos are permanent, they describe the person you are right on your skin – imagine if Leonard actually did move on and try to live a normal life. How could he? He’s covered in the memories of his revenge.

These tattoos aren’t memories of his wife – but the sadness and rage that his wife’s murder brought him. That’s who he’s chosen to mark himself as. And seriously dude, there are better ways to keep notes. Get a laptop and password protect that shit – maybe carry a video camera around or something… hell nowadays a smartphone would do wonders.

2. Derek’s Swastika In American History X

Yikes. You know, getting a tattoo is a big deal, especially when it’s somewhere really noticeable… like your chest. This is the reason it’s best to go with something that you’re absolutely sure you won’t regret.

This tattoo really symbolizes that regret… and regret as a whole. Derek is marked by his horrible past – and he totally deserves it. As aforementioned earlier in this list, it’s pretty much exactly what the point was of carving those swastikas on German soldiers’ foreheads in Inglorious Basterds. You can’t hide your sins; you can’t disguise yourself as anything different. So until Derek makes a really, really awkward appointment with a tattoo removal specialist it’s no white shirts or summer days at the pool for him.

This has to be the role that really made Edward Norton the amazing actor that he is – it’s almost a shame that this movie is as hard to watch as it is considering how good it is, and how painful playing the role had to have been.

1. Carl’s Entire Body In The Illustrated Man

Not the best movie on this list – not even the nicest looking tattoo either, but this has to be the most significant tattoo in a film because it is the film. The entire plot revolves around a roaming vagrant played by Rod Steiger who is covered from the neck down with nothing but tattoos. When gazed into, these tattoos tell stories from the future – the stories in which this film is made up of.

That is, except for one blank space on his back that shows the gazer their own future – a future that you wouldn’t want to know.

That’s also what explains Steiger’s bitter character and inability to keep associates: everyone he meets eventually runs away in terror – everyone except for his loyal dog companion. He spends his time roaming around looking for the gypsy who marked his body and cursed him to be a pariah – probably the coolest reason for anyone to roam the country ever.

This film deserves to be seen mainly because its depictions of the future are some of the best retro 70s futures out there. You know, the kind of awesome kitschy future we should be living in today but aren’t.

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