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Tattoo as Character Type

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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 tattoos used to be associated with sailors, circus performers, and tattooed crooks, but went mainstream in The '90s, 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.
  • Code: Barcodes or strings of digits without obvious artistic merit generally imply the wearer has or had been through something awful, not asked for, and presumably heavily dystopian.
  • 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 always 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.
  • Dominant (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 honour or rite of passage (in which case the character's personality is likely dignified). It could also be self-applied, perhaps by a circus performer as a gimmick (in which case the character is probably an eccentric Large Ham), or even by a Serial Killer who makes a mark for every kill (in which case the character is probably The Sociopath).
  • 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" tattooed 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 its 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, which in real life has various meanings, including have killed someone, having served time in prison, or a gesture of mourning for a dead friend/loved one.
    • In a subtle and practical way, permanent makeup is technically tattooing the face that resembles makeup. It can be a way to correct the face and/or to make the wearer apply little or no makeup as possible.
  • 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 Prisoners were tattooed 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. In real life, the legs are a reasonably popular place to commemorate having successfully completed a Marathon, Ultra-marathon, or Triathlon event.
  • 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 & 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: When They Cry 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 there 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.
  • The first six Straw Hats and Princess Vivi in One Piece have X tattoos on their left forearms. While it was originally used to foil Baroque Works' resident Master of Disguise Bon Clay and stop him from infiltrating the group, it was eventually used again as a sign of camaraderie between the Straw Hats and Vivi when they finally part ways. The infamous leader of the Revolutionary Army Dragon also has a very noticeable tribal tattoo on one side of his face.
    • In the beginning of the series, Nami always wore shirts with sleeves because she wanted to hide the tattoo on her left shoulder as it marked her as a member of Arlong's Fishman Pirates (thus an Organizational Emblem/Embarrassing Tattoo/Slave Brand). This is the reason her adopted sister Nojiko gets a personal tattoo to make herself similar. After Luffy defeats Arlong, she asks the Doctor to have it removed, but he observes she will still have a scar where it was, so instead she asks him to replace it with one symbolizing her home and adopted family. As part of her Character Development, Nami's tattoo changes from an Organizational emblem to a Personal one, and from that point forward she's no longer ashamed to go Stripperific.
    • Another changing tattoo/changing meaning story. Slaves of the World Nobles (the "untouchable" descendants of the founders of the World Government) had their symbol, "The Claw of the Soaring Dragon" (fitting description—a circle with a few claw-like triangles on top), etched on their backs as a Slave Brand. When a bunch of these slaves rebelled and escaped, they added additional triangles to the circle branding, changing the look from a claw to a sunburst: thus creating the infamous Sun Pirates (the other members of the crew also had the brand in order to remove the distinction between who had been a slave and who hadn't).
  • Rooster Fighter: Impressed by a Yakuza tattoo, Piyoko asks her owner to give her one, and he writes "Justice" on her, which she's proud of.
  • Mugen from Samurai Champloo has solid stripe tattoos on his wrists and ankles. They indicate his lawless nature because he got them as a prisoner.

  • Played for Laughs with Comedian Shayne Smith and his Dry Bar Comedy special, 'You Will Immediately Regret Your Neck Tattoo', who despite being a former criminal, averts the neck tattoo characterization by being rather nerdy looking, describing himself as looking like the accountant of the toughest prison gang. Played straight by his friend Anton though, who is more heavily tattooed and is described as so intimidating a cop walked away from him stealing rather than deal with him.

    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 (a match to a tattoo her dead mother had), a nautical star on her upper back (associated with the Navy and Marines Corps, and also supposedly being used by homosexuals, particularly lesbians, in the 40's to identify themselves subtly), and a bluebird tattoo on her left shoulder to cover a bullet scar.
  • Robin: A small tribal tattoo on Star's arm and another wrapping around her waist are used as a visual shorthand to indicate she's a rebel.
  • 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 is able to disguise himself as a rebel Smurf in the comic book version of "King Smurf" when he is serving as captain of the guard. Unfortunately, he is also mistaken for a rebel Smurf by King Smurf's troops, and nobody believes that he is Hefty Smurf until he gives 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 tattooed on his chest.
  • Transmetropolitan: Anti-Hero protagonist Spider Jerusalem has assorted asymmetric tattoos scattered over his body. They include mismatched tribal patterns on his arms and legs, a spider atop his bald head, a "Kiss Here" on his butt-cheek, and a couple only mentioned, not shown. Very fitting for such a rebellious character.
  • The protagonist of Mark Millar's Prodigy, Edison Crane, has the letters ABC tattooed on his left arm. It's in honor of his mother who told him as a child that it stood for Always Be Curious.

    Fan Works 
  • By the Sea: As per merfolk tradition, Cody has extensive traditional tattoos over his chest and arms, each one signifying status, family descent, and personal accomplishments. A circle over the sternum is intended as a signifier of marriage, of a custom design representing "that who makes one's heart beat". When Obi-Wan and Cody finally marry, Obi-Wan gets his own marriage tattoo.
  • Vow of Nudity: Each Genasi slave is given a unique identifying code that gets tattooed on their upper arm. After escaping, Haara covers hers up with a tribal armband, plus adds more mystical-looking tattoos to her arms, back, and legs so the coverup's less obvious. Overall, her heavy use of tattoos signifies both her adherence to her monk lifestyle and her limbs being well-trained deadly weapons in their own right.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Extreme sports guy Xander Cage of xXx has the eponymous tattoo on the back of his neck.
  • The Fifth Element: Leeloo has her tattoo inside her left wrist to identify her as The Perfect Being.
  • Played with example: In the first The Omen (1976), 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 (1998): 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 Bound (1996), Violet can identify Corky as being a lesbian thanks (in part) to the Labrys tattoo on her upper arm; the weapon being associated with the Amazons, it came into vogue in the 1970s as a symbol of lesbian feminism.
  • 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 Film Series
    • In 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 coldly says "I was marked once, my dear, 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.
  • In Mad Dog Morgan, a brutal prison guard has a teardrop tattooed below his eye.
  • Te Wheke, the protagonist of Utu receives a full face tattoo as the mark of a warrior.
  • The DC Extended Universe version of Aquaman shows him with extensive tattoos that resemble fish scales, showing a duel [Polynesian/Atlantean cultural heritage, while also referencing his traditional orange fish hide shirt. This was actually based on Jason Momoa's own tribal tattoo, his left forearm design was mirrored on his right and integrated into the overall design. In his solo film Aquaman a flashback with him as a teenager shows him with the left forearm tattoo before the rest of the design was done. His father (played by Temuera Morrison) has Maori ancestry, and in one scene is shown encouraging his son to get the rest of the tattoo finished.
  • Suicide Squad:
    • The film features a tattooed Joker, who sports a variety of Joker-themed emblems ranging from a deck of cards to a wide, demented smile on his right arm.
    • The Squad also features El Diablo, a man who possesses prison and gang tattoosnote .
    • Harley Quinn has a tiny heart on her face, indicating that she's crazy enough to get a face tattoo but still cute, 'rotten' written along her jaw, "Lucky You" above her crotch (the Joker pimps her out to gang bosses) and a variety of upside-down amateurish stick-and-poke tattoos (reading things like "HARLEY + PUDDIN") that (according to Margot Robbie) she did herself while bored in prison. She also has Harlequin diamonds wrapped around her wrist.
  • Assassin's Creed (2016): Aguilar and Maria have facial tattoos, indicating their, and the Spanish Assassins', Moorish origins and how they are nomadic outsiders in Spanish society.
  • Soldier: Todd and all of his fellow soldiers (and the genetically-engineered soldiers that replaced them) all have multiple tattoos on them, most distinctively the ones with dog tag-style information on their faces.
  • Star Trek has Big Bad revenge-obsessed Romulan hard-liner Nero with his facial tattoos. (Vaguely canonical) Expanded Universe information says that this is part of a Romulan mourning custom (people paint it on with a special type of ink that washes off after a few months, after which mourning period is considered over), but the fact Nero placed it on himself permanently is a blatant sign he refuses to get over the loss of his family and he doesn't really cares what other Romulans think of him.
  • Eastern Promises has a fairly major plot point revolving around this trope. By acquiring the requisite tattoos on his chest and knees, Nikolai cements his position as an undercover agent within the Russian Mob. The use of tattoos as a coded criminal resume is discussed among various characters at various points.
  • Pacific Rim: Dr. Newton Geizler has tattoos of various Kaiju as arm sleeves with dominant coverage, with Word of God stating he has more on his torso. This shows his deep love of the creatures, even though they've killed millions. Naturally, he's also one of the world's leading kaiju biologists.
  • The Monster: Kathy, an alcoholic divorcee and negligent mother has a number of tattoos covering her body that are frequently made visible, signalling that she's not traditional mother material.
  • Kill Ben Lyk has The Dragon Bale, a hulking assassin covered in prison tattoos.
  • Leonard Shelby of Memento is similarly covered in tattoos, but his serve a purpose — they point to the identity of the murderer of his wife, as well as reminders of his crime and Leonard's vengence for him; being tattoos and not something impermanent like a notebook, they persist throughout Leonard's anterograde amnesia. They also serve to keep Leonard from understanding and believing that his wife's attacker was already brought to justice... and that Leonard himself is the reason she is dead.
  • The Big Bad of Night Teeth has a design resembling flames poking out from underneath his shirt.
  • In Black Swan, Lily has a tattoo on her shoulder blades that resemble wings, fitting the swan motif. Especially given Nina's recurring nervous rash on her back, it also marks Lily as her Darker and Edgier counterpart.

  • 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.
  • Taurau Tangaroa in Birthright (2017) has extensive tattoos covering his chest, torso, shoulders and arms. They're of the cultural/religious variety, depicting various symbols and faces. He explicitly keeps his torso tattoos uncovered, as it's mentioned that they're sacred and should never be hidden in any way.
  • 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.
  • Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon has a tattoo of a dragon's tail starting on his lower back and wrapping around one of his legs. He is deluded into thinking that by killing people he is transforming himself into his image of masculine ideal, which to him is personified by the William Blake painting "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed In Sun." His tattoo is a physical attempt at transformation. The 2002 adaptation changes the tattoo to be the painting covering his entire back, emphasizing that Francis isn't the Dragon but is actually the Woman in the painting, who is ensnared by the Dragon.
  • The Millennium Trilogy: Lisbeth Salander has all manner of markings to show her rough life before the books began, including the dragon tattoo from her series' first book title, a small wasp on the back of her neck (used to represent her idea of vengeance as well as where she gets her hacker alias), thorns and a date tattoo (from when her guardian raped her — she argued with her girlfriend about it because said girlfriend thought it was a suicide note).
  • Four from Divergent, has tattoos of all the faction insignias to symbolize that he wants the traits of someone from all factions.
  • Most Yuuzhan Vong in the New Jedi Order have elaborate tattoos which signify their caste, social standing, and personal history (ritual scarring serves a similar purpose, particularly among the warrior caste and/or those who want to appear particularly devout, and scars and tattoos are typically woven together into complex designs). Another Yuuzhan Vong (or someone familiar with the culture) can quickly identify the most important details about an individual just by the particular appearance of their tattoos and scars.
  • Raven in Snow Crash has a large forehead tattoo saying "POOR IMPULSE CONTROL", which tells Hiro that he got in legal trouble somewhere in the world where they didn't have the money to put him in prison, but wanted to leave him with a permanent warning to others, prominently displayed. Fitting for the "baddest motherfucker in the world". Hiro also runs into an unabashed racist who has "RACIALLY INSENSITIVE" and "MOOD SWINGS" tattooed on his forehead, but he solves that guy's problem very rapidly.
  • Most witches in The Witchlands have the symbol of their particular type of witchery tattooed somewhere on their skin, as it's required by law.
  • The titular Warded Man from Peter V Brett's The Warded Man is covered head to toe in magical wards he painted on himself. These do serve a purpose in fighting demons, so the tattoos themselves aren't indicative of his personality as others on this page, but it shows his utter dedication to his cause.
  • Haik in The Crocodile God has extensive cultural tattoos to reflect his pre-colonial Filipino nature (which shares many traits with Polynesian tattoos), with a bonus of being crocodile-themed as he is the titular "crocodile-god" for the ancient Tagalog tribe: Zigzagging ridged tattoos on his back and a sleeve-tattoo of crocodile scales from his shoulder to his wrist. It's repeatedly stated that crocodiles were not BAD symbols in native Tagalog mythology—rather, they thought crocodiles were dragons. However, the less-savory meaning of tattoos is doubled up with Profiling, as Haik's tattoos combined with his dark skin frequently make people THINK he's a criminal. It's revealed through Pensieve Flashbacks that he was once covered in upper-body and facial tattoos, and in the present-day, the lower-body Samoan pe'a and a modern-day sleeve reappear on his skin. When Mirasol asks what happened to make his tattoos vanish, he says he had to "take them off" after the Spanish started converting the Philippines to Christianity.
  • Able Team. Carl Lyons is attacked by gangbangers and sees several of them have a teardrop tattoo which supposedly shows they've killed someone or done time, but he cynically notes that a lot of gangbangers wore them without having done either. Then their leader appears with two teardrop tattoos, and Lyons thinks he looks like someone who earned his the hard way.
  • Briar Moss in Circle of Magic got caught stealing twice at ten years old and got two X's tattooed on his hands, but was freed by Niko on his third strike due to his plant magic. He was brought to Winding Circle and taught to control his magic, and a few years later, Briar covers his original tattoos with vines that react strangely to his magic and become Animated Tattoos.
  • Grey of Knights of the Borrowed Dark has a phoenix tattooed across one shoulderblade. He's a formidable warrior wielding light-based powers, and a good deal of his arc revolves around returning (partly) from a crossing of the Despair Event Horizon.

    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".
  • Kingdom (2007): 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 Sci-Fi Channel (predating its name change 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). Similarly, in "Author, Author", his counterpart in the Doctor's holonovel is a Bajoran, and his tattoo is the ovular Bajoran religious/national symbol.
  • CSI: NY:
    • Zig-zagged in "Yahrzeit." Klaus Braun had what appeared to be a concentration camp tattoo on his arm, but it was really part of his elaborate hoax, pretending to be Jewish to escape prosecution after the war. But, the ep also features a Neo-Nazi Red Herring who has "white power" in all caps across the front of his neck and a large swastika on the back of his shaved head.
    • Played straight with the Tanglewood Boys gang who all have a large signature tat across their shoulders. They once used an electric sander to remove one that a wannabe had presumed to get done.
  • CSI: Jim Brass' 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.
  • At the start of Arrow, Oliver Queen returns from his five year ordeal bearing multiple tattoos representing his trials and experience during the time. Of note is one denoting his membership in the Bratva, and another is of a dragon on his shoulder blade identical to the one worn by Shado, and inflicted on him by Slade Wilson who blamed him for Shado's death. He also has Asian characters on his right side given to him as a Protective Charm by John Constantine.
  • In The Expanse Belters often have tattoos for cultural reasons, most often a neck tattoo with an off-center gap, symbolizing contact burns from the faulty connection collars of early space suits, now added after a Belter's first spacewalk. Those Belters who are old enough to have received the original version are slightly dismissive of the tattoos as not being the real deal.
  • The Mandalorian. Cara Dune is a former rebel soldier. She has a unit insignia encircling one arm, and a Rebel starbird under her left eye, done as a tear in mourning for the destruction of her homeworld of Alderaan.
  • The three main characters in Nikita all sport tattoos, most of them their actors'. The chief exception is a butterfly tattoo sported by series deuteragonist Alex on her upper back, representing the opportunity of a better life. Another prominent character, Owen, sports tattoos to commemorate the people who have died at his hand or because of him. One of these is of a butterfly, in memory of his murdered love.
  • Evangeline Navarro from True Detective' is a state trooper working in Alaska, so her uniform hides most of her tattoos. However, her neck tattoo is visible when she is not in her parka. She also sports dimple piercings, which seem impractical in winter weather and likely forbidden in appearance regulations for law enforcement.

  • 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.
  • "Whiskey Girl" by Toby Keith: "Don't my baby look good in them blue jeans?/Tight on the top with a belly button ring/a little tattoo somewhere in between/She only shows to me." The rest of the song describes a tough, sexy woman.


    Tabletop Games 
  • Lunar Exalted are tattooed by the Silver Pact to prevent them from becoming monsters. The tattoos' exact aesthetic varies, but all symbolize the Lunar's identity and the deed that earned them Exaltation. (They also serve an authorial purpose- indicating Lunars' wild and countercultural natures.)

    Video Games 
  • Psychos from Borderlands often have tattoos of the Vault Symbol, showing their cult-like devotion to finding the Vaults. Sirens have large, arm-covering Power Tattoos that identify them (Handsome Jack had to tell mercenaries to stop sending in dead women with fake Siren markings because 'It was funny the first couple of times but now [his] office smells like blood and marker fumes.' Jack himself has the Vault symbol scarred across his face with the same meaning as the Psychos and, from Tales from the Borderlands shows, Rhys, who self-styles himself after Handsome Jack albeit a bit more heroically, has a large Vault Symbol tattoo under his shirt.
  • Far Cry 3: At the beginning of the game, Jason is given a tattoo of a shark-crane-spider totem pole. As you level him up, his tattoo literally grows to represent his growth as a warrior, and how insane he's slowly becoming. Destroying the tattoo at the end of the game by defying the cult leader restores a portion of his sanity, while giving in to it enslaves him to the island's curse of taking over and being assassinated.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • Final Fantasy VII:
      • The Sephiroth clones are each tattooed with a number in a significant location (one has a tattoo of a 1 on his hand, one has a tattoo of a 9 on the back of his neck). This indicates that they're scientific experiments. Cloud, who is also a clone, does not have a tattoo (as his experiment was a failure) and in his darkest moment ends up pathetically begging Hojo for one.
      • Red XIII is heavily tattooed which indicates that he's capable of symbolic thought despite being quadrupedal, and they have a tribal look (as he is a warrior from a tribal society).
      • Violent and angry Barret has a tattoo of a firebreathing skull on his arm.
    • Final Fantasy XIII gives the characters magic "l'Cie brands" which are designed to evoke tattoos.
      • The locations indicate details about the characters - Lightning, who has to learn to be Team Mom, has the brand on the left of her chest (over her heart and on her breast); the sexual and secretive Vanille has hers on her inner thigh; the confident Fang has hers on her left shoulder and bears it openly; the outgoing and powerful Snow has his on his left forearm; the sinister and mystical Cid Raynes has one on his hand; and so on.
      • The idea of being branded, and the discrimination faced by those with brands, somewhat evokes concentration camp tattoos, especially since the opening image of the game is a train full of identically-dressed people of various ages being taken off to their mass state extermination.
    • Final Fantasy XIV has two kinds.
      • The first is the "legacy" tattoo. This is exclusive to characters (and their Legacy Chocobo) who migrated from 1.0 to A Realm Reborn, and are survivors of the Seventh Umbral Calamity that ended the original game.
      • The second of which is the Archon Mark, a tattoo that marks alumni that have successfully pursued higher education in Old Sharlayan's Studium. It's akin to receiving a Doctorate's in your chosen field, and becoming an Archon allows access to the restricted archives within the Noumenon, the public archive.
    • Mobius Final Fantasy prominently features the complicated tribal full-back tattoo of the protagonist, which is visible in most of his Stripperific outfits, and his tribal armbands. As he is a Blank with no memories, this indicates that he is still somehow 'marked' by whatever his past was. The design is also based on a stylised Mobius loop, possibly referencing the time loop in Final Fantasy (which Mobius is a prequel to).
  • 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.
      • Dom also gets his tattoo reworked to depict his wife as an angel after he had to Mercy Kill her along with growing a Beard of Sorrow, providing an example of "tattoo marking character development."
  • Grand Theft Auto V has tattoos available for all three protagonists, reflecting their personalities and styles. Franklin has a selection of various gang related tattoos as well as tributes to family members and his dog, Chop. Michael has a selection of Celtic themed and Old School pin ups. Trevor, meanwhile, has a selection of janky looking joke tattoos such as a cat's butt around his bellybutton, and a "cut here" line on his throat. Grand Theft Auto Online meanwhile lets the player customize their character with an absolutely dizzying array of different designs.
    • Of the non-playable characters, Lamar is tattooed from wrist to neck, as is fitting for his gangsta lifestyle.
  • In Horizon Forbidden West, the proud and proactive Tenakth tribe have a tradition of tattooing great deeds all across the doer's arms. It's a fast way of recognizing rank in a society with no textual language.
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist:
    • Rex and Nomi have the same tattoo design running across their noses, indicating their close bond.
    • The tattoos around Vace's eyes add more to his badassery as a soldier.
    • Naturally for the badass head of the military, Chief Rhett has army tattoos on his shoulders.
    • According to Cal's concept art, the partially-hidden tattoo on his chest is that of his pet dillypillar Socks, showing how close he was to her growing up.
  • Like a Dragon has these as it's about Yakuza themselves. For an example: Kiryu Kazuma has a tattoo of a dragon on his back, Akira Nishikiyama has a tattoo of a koi fish, and Goro Majima has a hannya on his. All three tattoos have meaning to the story of the man: Kiryu is "the Dragon of Dojima" and is as strong and powerful as a dragon but as wise as one too; Nishikiyama's koi fish calls to mind the koi fish swimming up a waterfall to become a dragon as Nishikiyama fights to become as powerful as he can; Majima's tattoo of a hannya (a female demon in Noh theater) shows that he's dangerous but also tormented inside as he can and will kill people who gets on his bad side and puts up a dangerous fight but beneath he's deep thinking and morally conscious, using his "Mad Dog of of the Shimano Family" to deal with his harsh life as a Yakuza and the loss that comes with it.
  • Mass Effect 2:
    • Zaeed Massani 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.
  • Return Of The Obra Dinn: Maba has a number of tattoos all over his torso, and is a Walking Shirtless Scene as well. They fall under "cultural", as the character is from New Guinea. Because there's he's the only character on the ship to hail from the region, he's one of the easier ones to identify.
  • Krystal of Star Fox Adventures has tribal tattoos wrapped around her upper arms and on each thigh. Despite being covered with fur (freeze brands?)
  • 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!
  • 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.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 
  • Cirque Royale:
    • Kingston's many tattoos cover his entire body (except his face, hands, and feet); he originally got them to cover up the scars inflicted on him from the bombing he was in that killed both his parents. The ones near his right wrist of five elephants represent his family, and his back one is of the Mimopolis skyline, which is where he grew up; there's also one that's in memory of his pet rabbit. (The octopus is just because he thought it was cool). He also was in the Freak Show, and was called the Tattooed Harlequin.
    • Quinn has three stars near her c-section scar, representing her three children.
  • 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.
    • 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.
    • Pandora gives Tedd and Sam mage marks to let them change their true gender. In both cases, the mark is put on the top of the head under the hair, where it would be almost impossible to see by accident, so that they don't have to reveal it to anyone they don't want to.
  • Homestuck:
    • Dirk Strider has a tattoo of his bro's character Hella Jeff on his shoulder, suggesting that despite his aloof demeanor, he has a deep admiration for his brother. Especially since, as he lives completely alone in a post-apocalyptic future, he must have applied the tattoo himself. When Dirk and Jake start dating, Jake gets a matching Sweet Bro tat on his own shoulder — but begins to regret it after the relationship goes sour.
    • Meenah claims to have a tattoo, but says that you can only see it if you're "lucky".
  • In Alice and the Nightmare, people get natural tattoo-like marks on their bodies denoting their Suit, which translates to their personality to an extent. For people with powers, those double as Power Tattoo.
  • In Rhapsodies, Circle Band guitarist, Fedya's right arm is covered with stars, He has a Russian two-headed eagle on his left upper arm and a large Orthodox cross on his chest with the Circle Band's logo over his heart. While it hasn't been shown, apparently he has a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his back. (with a halo that looks like a rifle sight.)
  • Donald Na, Big Bad of Weak Hero, has tattoos covering almost the entirety of his body. Some allude to his lofty aspirations and position of top dog ("KING" printed on his knuckles, a lion over his heart, and two dragons across his back and arm) while others point to a possible religious background (the Lord's Prayer printed on his chest, angelic figures on his other arm, and a pair of angels wings at the back of his neck).

    Web Original 

    Web Videos 
  • 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.
  • Critical Role:
    • Mollymauk is covered in tattoos, having several large pieces across his arm, back, chest, and partially up his neck and face, mostly of flowers, animals, and mystic iconography. This makes sense for a vain, flashy Agent Peacock (ironically, one of his tattoos is of a large peacock) who, at the start of the campaign, makes his living as a circus performer and is very into things like tarot cards. They're also his way of disguising the nine red eyes he discovered on his body after waking up with total amnesia two years prior, and help him feel like his body is really his.
    • Orym has a large sleeve tattoo of stylized clouds, with Exandria's two moons prominently shown on his shoulder. The clouds represent his connection to the Air Ashari, and the moons represent his relationship with his late husband Will, with Will being the big moon and Orym the little moon.

    Western Animation 
  • Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender has tattoos designed as various bars running down his back and leading to arrow points on his head and limbs. In Air Nomad culture this was an indication of airbending mastery, this pathway in particular represents the internal energy passing through chakra points in the body and would glow when he enters the Avatar State. Other airbending masters, Avatar or not, can be seen with the same tattoos.
  • 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.
  • Popeye, as a sailor, has anchors on both arms.
  • In Daria, Trent has a Maori tattoo around his arm, which he copied out of a magazine. He tells Daria this with a self-deprecating chuckle, so he's apparently come to realize how much of a poseur that makes him.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire", Bart gets a tattoo at the mallnote . 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 '70s group best-known for "Afternoon Delight", suggesting that Homer got it as a teenager/young adult.)
    • Snake has a tattoo of ... a snake. As a petty crook, this is pretty fitting.
    • Sideshow Bob has several tattoos of his Sitcom Archnemesis Bart. One depicting his head cut off saying "OUCH, MAN", the words "LÜV" and "HÄT", and in big red letters "DIE BART DIE" on his chest. The latter meaning The Bart, The, according to the horse's mouth.
  • Wyatt from 6teen got a small eighth note tattooed on his upper arm to prove he can be spontaneous and take risks, although it doesn't come up too often.
  • In Winx Club, Nabu has purple tattoos on his outer forearms. Possibly a Power Tattoo as his magic is also purple and he is sometimes without them in his non-wizard outfit, although that might just be a mistake by the artists.

    Real Life 
  • Yakuza members get huge tattoos of dragons on their backs. This leads to Japan's stigma against tattoos in general.
    • The association of tattoos with criminals in Japan actually pre-dated the Yakuza, as during the Edo period one punishment used on criminals was to tattoo them, so as to forever mark them as a criminal. This lead to the Yakuza practice, willingly (and painfully) marking themselves as criminals as a show of loyalty and courage, cementing the stigma even after the practice (and tattooing in general) was outlawed during the Meiji Restoration.
  • 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). Such a utilitarian tattoo would likely be placed where the wearer (and a paramedic) could easily read it: like on an arm.
  • 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).
  • At one point, The Tattooed Man (or Woman) was a popular sideshow attraction, presumably because of how dangerous it was to receive tattooes over that much of your body (and because it provided an excuse to show a lot of skin).
  • Face Tattoos are nicknamed "Job Killers" as they are more taboo than ink that can be hidden under clothes. When SoundCloud rap started to become its own distinct genre, many artists embraced face tattoos as a sign of dedication to the music with no hope of returning to any regular job.