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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.
As tattooes used to be exclusively for a Tattooed Crook
, but went mainstream in The Nineties
, this is an Evolving Trope
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, but also for collusion in something sinister and/or dystopian. 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.
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Anime and Manga
- Revy from Black Lagoon has tribal symbols on her right arm and neck, and fittingly usually wears a tank top to show them off. Also fits in that she is an Action Girl who dual wields pistols and is very violent, qualifying her for the "thug" type above.
- The heads of the Sonozaki clan in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni have an elaborate Yakuza tattoo on their upper back/shoulder area, in this case symbolizing their status as leaders of the group. It also played an important role in the backstory of two characters, since they had pulled a temporary Twin Switch and the younger twin was the one who got the tattoo, meaning that she's recognized as the heir and her older sister, the actual heir, had to permanently switch places with her.
- Riza Hawkeye of Fullmetal Alchemist has an alchemical array on her back that was put their by her father containing his research into flame alchemy, qualifying her for the Human Notepad variation of this trope since he was entrusting it to her to make sure it did not fall into the wrong hands. Later on she actually requests that part of it be burned off to keep its secrets even safer after she shares it with Roy Mustang.
- 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.
- 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).
- Hefty Smurf in The Smurfs began to wear a heart tattoo on one or both of his upper arms in the cartoon show, which then migrated over into the comic books starting with "The Jewel Smurfer". Without the tattoo, he was able to disguise himself as a rebel Smurf in the comic book version of "King Smurf" when he was serving as captain of the guard. Unfortunately, he was also mistaken for a rebel Smurf by King Smurf's troops, and nobody believed he was Hefty Smurf until he gave them a good beating.
- Dart from the Atari Force second series is given tattoo marks all along the left side of her body by her partner Dalia for successful missions performed during her time serving as a member of a mercenary school.
- In Strangers in Paradise, Parker Girls (Darcy Parker's henchwomen) are all given a lily tattoo. If you're her "favorite toy" (read: Katchoo), she'll put it on your breast.
- Rasmus Klump: Sea captain Skæg has an anchor tattoed on his chest.
- 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 VFD
- In The Night Circus, Tsukiko the contortionist has a full-body complex tattoo that makes her already-exceptional performances even more beautiful. They serve as her source for Hermetic Magic, since she got tired of lugging books around.
- Mainyu Mazda in the Left Behind book series tattoos his neck with a double M for each kill he makes. Sometimes he gets the tattoo mark in advance for someone he is about to kill, as Albie unfortunately found out when he paid him a visit.
- A women in or descended from the military of A Brother's Price has what's called the Order of the Sword tattoo on the back of one hand. "Crib father initials" mark how many generations; the Order of the Sword maintains its own crib captives who women can be serviced by. These are somewhere between Personal and Organizational emblems. It's mentioned that crib captives also have tattoos, and suggested that these involve their name and number in some way, but never elaborated on.
- Phedre no Delunay of the Kushiel's Legacy series has a tattoo of a briar rose running the length of her back. In addition to its in-universe significance (her being a High-Class Call Girl dedicated to the d'Angeline goddess of love), it connects with her characterization as soft but strong (i.e. a rose smells nice, but be careful of the thorns).
- Blake Thorburn, the narrator of Pact, has tattoos of sparrows perched on branches on his arms, which serve as a Karma Meter and a measurement of his spiritual health.
- Extreme sports guy Xander Cage of xXx has the eponymous 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 third movie, a newly recruited (and heavily inked) mutant asks Magneto where his ink is. He shows her the concentration camp tattoo and says something to the effect of "I was marked once, and no needle will ever touch my skin again."
- 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.
- In Down Periscope, Commander Dodge has "Welcome Aboard" tattooed on his penis. Apart from the fact that this cements Dodge as a loose cannon, it is also in and of itself a bar to his continued advancement ("Are we really going to hand a multi-million dollar submarine to a man with a tattooed johnson?!").
- In The Hobbit, Dwalin has tattoos on his knuckles (fitting given his status as The Big Guy) and on the top of his head; his actor has stated that the head tattoos are a pictoral history of the dwarves.
- 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".
- Kingdom: Lyle is sent to deal with an old man who might lose his house because he has failed to pay rent on it. Frustrated with Lyle prying into his life, the old man pulls up his sleeve to reveal a series of numbers, asking Lyle if he knows what it is. He is a holocaust survivor.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- Faith has a tattoo on her upper arm. Because she's naughty.
- Also Giles, whose Mark of Egyhon tattoo was a link to his dark past.
- Angel has got a tattoo representing his name back during his Angelus days. It ends up ID'ing him in his early Buffy days.
- The Science Fiction Channel (predating it changing the name to SyFy) 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.
- One episode showed that Fiona has the letters "I.R.A." tattooed at the small of her back.
- 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).
- Subverted on CSI NY. Klaus Braun had what appeared to be a concentration camp tattoo, but it was really part of his elaborate hoax, pretending to be Jewish to escape prosecution after the war.
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Jim Brass's tattoos are mostly backstory-connected. He's got at least two date tattoos at the sites where he was injured. One was apparently a war injury, and one was his bullet wound from "Bang Bang".
- The tattoo as backstory/identity is a big part of the Watchers in Highlander. Each has a tattoo on his or her wrist, a circle with a vertical chevron-like shape inside. The lines of the design have a row of pale circles inside (around the circle rim and following the lines of the inner shape.) Joe has his removed when he chose Duncan's friendship over his job, but presumably got it returned when Duncan told him he belonged with the Watchers because he was a man of honor, not some gloried file clerk. The exceptions were one flashback watcher from several centuries ago who had a pendant, and possibly Methos, as it's uncertain whether or not he had one or if an immortal could keep a tattoo or if it would simply vanish.
- In the miniseries Horatio Hornblower, the evil bastard Jack Simpson from "The Even Chance" has an ominous skull tattooed on his hand. It's shown when he intimidates or beats up other midshipmen.
- Sherlock Holmes in Elementary has a series of tattoos all over his body which he put on himself. When Watson asked him how he put them on his back, he replied he is ambidextrous.
- Sam Shaw from Person of Interest, a former Marine, has an anchor with the letters "USMC" tattooed on her forearm.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hard Rock / Heavy Metal / Visual Kei musicians generally do tattoos of words/sayings/imagery meaningful to them personally, trademarks of being in a specific band or being a fan of a specific band (as an example, both Hideto Matsumoto and Taiji Sawada of X Japan had rose tattoos, with roses being symbolic of the band), or fashion tattoos. Memorials are also highly common - especially funerary memorials for late musicians among both other artists and fans of said artists. The arms are a very popular location (both forearm and bicep), and more adventurous ones may go for chest/abdominal area, back (if they want to signify how tough they are to pain), or intimate parts or close by (a good example there being Miyavi's "Don't Hesitate And Go," which is on his lower abdomen just above his groin).
- 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.
- 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!
- Zaeed Massani, introduced in Mass Effect 2, has a tattoo on his neck, visible when he's first introduced. Its importance only becomes apparent during his loyalty mission.
- Subject Zero, a.k.a Jack, is unhinged super-biotic felon and required party member. An engineer on the Normandy notes that "the only thing she wears from the waist up is tattoos." Justified, as she was raised an tortured from infancy to become their biotic superweapon, and suffered permanent mental scarring once she escaped. Just like real-life victims of torture and abuse, Jack's tattoos are a way to both assert control over her own body and serve as a reminder of her own history and exploits that nobody can remove.
- In Schlock Mercenary, Tagon has a bowl of oatmeal tattooed on his shoulder from his time in the Oatmeal Peacekeepers. They're a Badass Army who take pride in being able to feed you your heart with a spoon if you make fun of their tattoo.
- As one of the main characters of Sunstone is a tattoo artist there are a few examples of this;
- Lisa gets a tattoo of a winged heart containing the words "Property of Allison" on her posterior, it's design and intimate location displaying her relationship to her mistress.
- Cassie, despite being a lawyer, is in the process of getting an overly elaborate BDSM tattoo that will cover her back, she points out just like the trope says although it covers a large portion of skin only people she will want to see it will as she is fully dressed in court.
- Anne as said tattoo artist has a tattoo of a dragon spanning her back, this shows Anne, like Cassie, is adventurous.
- Old Man Death from Girl Genius has a Jägersymbol tattoo from his time riding with the Jägermonsters (Super Soldier monsters serving a Mad Scientist family) on his upper arm. Despite claiming those days are behind him he wears a shirt with a ripped sleeve, leaving it clearly visible. It works as an organisational symbol despite the actual Jägers not having (or needing) them to be identified.
- In El Goonish Shive, Immortals can bestow powers to pre-Awakening magic-capable mortals, at the expense of a discolored area of skin which resembles a birthmark or tattoo. Since the arrangement is undertaken willingly, the mortal is usually allowed to choose the shape of the marking. Susan chose the symbol of Venus on the back of her shoulder: a personal emblem in the supernatural location.
- In more recent updates, markings of this nature have been bestowed on Dexter in the shape of a fairy (summoning), Justin in the shape of a flame (??? possibly fire resistance), and Rhoda in a swirl going from small to large (size altering). More importantly, they're all in the center of the back, unknown to the bearer, which is a severe violation of conduct.
- The Autobiography of Jane Eyre: Mr Rochester is a CEO of Thornfield Exports and a father of an eight year old girl. His tattoos show his wild streak as he's not in charge of the company quite voluntarily. He has several tattoos on his arm (perhaps arms). They are shown when he rolls up his shirt sleeves or when he wears a T-shirt. They look like a diamond or a paper plane — definitely some kind of geometrical objects with sharp lines. The tattoos are as mysterious as he is, and some viewers speculated that one of them might be a Harry Potter tattoo.
- Wyatt from 6teen 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 "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire", Bart gets a tattoo. It was supposed to say "Mother", but the artist only got as far as "Moth" when Marge found him - and not as happy as Bart thought she'd be about it. She wound up spending the money she had saved to buy Christmas presents getting it lasered off.
- In "Cape Feare", Homer is trying to get back at Bart for somehow managing to get "Wide Load" tattooed on the former's butt as a prank.
- In "'Round Springfield", it's revealed that Homer has a tattoo, as he explains to Lisa — who is grieving the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy — that getting a tattoo is a way to honor something you love. His tattoo honors..."Starland Vocal Band? Awww, they suck!" (That was The Seventies group best-known for "Afternoon Delight", suggesting that Homer got it as a teenager/young adult.)
- 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.