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"Just a young boy, born to a life of poverty
—Dead Prez, "Behind Enemy Lines"
Tattoos have a long history, and have over the millenia been signs of different social classes, from royalty to the rags. In more recent times, they have become associated with criminals, sailors and criminal sailors. In fiction, a tattoo can act as a shorthand for "criminal", and at times it's not that far off. Organised crime from The Yakuza to Gang-Bangers have their own codes, and prisoners tell their life stories in pictures.
The attitudes towards tattoos has during the past decades softened, and many old pirate and prisoner tattoos have been adopted into the general lexicon of tattoos, prime example being the spider web, which depending on the bearer might have meant drug addiction, incarceration or killing a minority, but is now a fashion accessory.
Still the stigma with the past backgrounds makes tattoos also popular with rebel types. Even the Rule-Abiding Rebel—or especially the Rule-Abiding Rebel, since it does not actually require commiting illegal acts to look rebellious. There is still extreme stigma related to tattoos in Japan, as they are still closely associated with Yakuza to this day. A tattoo is still a common visual cue in Japanese media for a character of dubious morals or simply a Delinquent.
Anime and Manga
- Revy from Black Lagoon has a large shoulder piece. Also, Yakuza muscleman Ginji from the "Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise" arc sports a large traditional Yakuza tattoo.
- Nami from One Piece first had the Arlong pirate's crest on her shoulder, but after breaking ties with them, changed it into a homage to her adoptive mother Bellemere and surrogate father figure Genzo. (Her adoptive older sister Nojiko, despite not being a crook, also got a tattoo to show her sympathy for her.) Also, Luffy's brother Ace has A
SCE on his bicep and the Whitebeard Pirate's crest on his back, which in the manga contained a Maji, but was changed into a cross in the Anime and retconned into the manga.
- One Piece seems to like this trope. In the Amazon Lily arc, Queen Boa Hancock and her sisters Marigold and Sandersonia were revealed to have tattoos on their backs called the "Hoof of the Soaring Dragon", the crest of Celestial Dragons. It is a mark that is burned into people who are slaves to the nobles, and signifies that they are "less than human", which explains why they invented the story of the Gorgon so nobody would look at their backs.. The fact that Luffy personally made sure that no one would see their backs even when they were enemies at that point has him winning BIG points with the ladies.
- Speaking of that, after Fisher Tiger freed a whole lot of slaves of the Celestial Dragons' (the Boa sisters included), he took most of the Fishmen slaves, and re-branded their tattoos into what resembled sun tattoos, effectively making it the symbol of the Pirates of the Sun, which he and Jinbei captained, until Tiger died and Jinbei became one of the Seven Warlords of the Sea. Arlong and much of his crew all sport these tattoos because they were once members of the Pirates of the Sun.
- Trafalgar Law has a number of tattoos, including "Smile" tattoos on his arms, tiny cross-shapes on the backs of his hands, and "DEATH" on his fingers.
- One of Nozomu's co-teachers, Jinroku in Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a large Yakuza tattoo on his back, which scares the titular protagonist.
- In one episode where Nozomu comments on getting through life by ignoring unpleasant things, he sees a guy walk by with a dragon tattoo on his arm. He shudders and comments, "Ignoring that."
- Mugen from Samurai Champloo has blue rings tattooed around his wrists, to mark him as a convict.
- The target of the week in the Cowboy Bebop episode "Heavy Metal Queen" was described to have a dragon tattoo, which caused some cofusion as bounty hunters looked for the right guy.
- Gene from Outlaw Star has a tattoo of a star on his bicep. And is an outlaw.
- Mion Sonozaki has a large yakuza tattoo on her back in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, supposed to mark her as the future leader of the Sonozaki family. It's also a major plot point: 'Shion should have gotten it instead, but a Twin Switch screwed all up.
- Orochimaru's Curse Seals from Naruto are magical tattoos that let you go One-Winged Angel that he gives to his Evil Minions.
- The leader of the clown gang in Akira has a clown face tattooed on both his arms.
- In Black Cat, Train has a tattoo of the number XIII on his chest. It signifies that he belonged to Chronos, and is generally viewed by people as being fearsome. He doesn't seem to mind showing it though.
- Many characters in Gokusen like to let their jacket fall open to reveal a heavily tattooed shoulder, for intimidation purposes. Kumiko sometimes does this unconsciously while yelling at her students (although she doesn't seem to have any tattoos).
- Delinquent Jacuzzi Splot from Baccano!! has a scimitar tattooed on his face, as a symbol of solidarity to Nice, who got her face scarred in an accident.
- In King of Thorn, Marco Owen is identified by the other survivors as a criminal due to his prominent prison tattoos.
- Inverted example in Yu-Gi-Oh!: while Marik Ishtar is a Big Bad and the leader of his own criminal organization, what caused him to become a crook in the first place was the painful coming of age ritual where he received his large tattoo covering his back. This tattoo is merely associated with becoming Pharaoh Atem's tombkeeper and not with crime; however, this reception of the tattoo augmented Marik's hatred toward Atem as well as created his Super-Powered Evil Side, which he would harbor until he would actually become an active Big Bad.
- Also, Marik's stepbrother Rishid/Odion has a tattoo on the right side of his face.
- Played straight in 5D's, criminals are given facial scar-like tattoos when incarcerated, even for seemingly minor crimes.
- Also, Marik's stepbrother Rishid/Odion has a tattoo on the right side of his face.
- Cabbage from Rainbow Nisha Rokubou no Shichinin has a tattoo on his bicep. His criminal activities are just an act of violence while drunk, but it's possible he had the crime pinned on him because the suspicious tattoo.
- Horada from Durarara!!!! sports a butterfly tattoo on his left wrist. The butterfly logo also can be found on his shirt and the hood of his car. He is also one of the more ruthless gang members, also being a former Blue Square higher-up that was involved in the kidnapping and crippling of Kida's girlfriend Saki.
- 20th Century Boys features two tattooed former criminals, one Thai and the other Italian, who have both become Catholic priests.
- Taken to its logical extremes in The DCU, with two supervillains known as the Tattooed Man, both of whom have the ability to bring their many tattoos to life for villainous purposes.
- Though subverted in Final Crisis where he performs a Heel Face Turn and becomes an honorary member of the Justice League.
- Recently two of his tattoos, Kabuki Dan (a samurai) and Altara (a succubus) have been coming to life outside of his power and committing crimes of their own volition, making them the most literal possible expression of this trope: criminals who are tattoos.
- Joker in the The Dark Knight Returns has a large tattoo of a red dragon on his back, suggesting possible Yakuza ties.
- King Snake, the blind Evil Brit from Batman comics has a large snake tattooed on his chest.
- The conspiracy members in XIII.
- Sakura the gambler, in Usagi Yojimbo.
- Death Reaper, the supervillain groupie/specialist in Dark Reign: Zodiac
- The Deacon from Ghost Rider has religious symbols and iconography tattooed all over his entire body, and true to form he is a very devout... uh... Christianity-derived murderous evil cult member.
- Wolverine's Magnificent Bastard son Daken sports a very prominent tribal tattoo on his left pectoral, trapezius, and arm, despite having inherited his dad's Healing Factor.
- In Love and Rockets, Izzy Ortiz has a tattoo on her arm of the logo of the Widows, the female street gang she was a member of in her youth.
- In X-Men Noir, all of Xavier's original X-Men have an "X" tattooed somewhere on their body - and all of them are master criminals in the making. In the sequel, Mark of Cain, prisoners at Genosha Bay are marked with an "M" tattoo over their right eye. This is ostensibly to signify that they pose a "maximum" risk should they ever be transferred to another facility, but functionally it serves as an automatic identifier should they manage to escape.
- Sin City has the occaisional tattooed criminal with the most obvious example actually comoing from a corrupt federal agent who had a big black tattoo of an eagle across his face.
- El Diablo from the 2011 Suicide Squad series, a slumlord turned holy man with tats all over his upper body; the ones on his head in particular make it look like a skull.
- After Hun was brought into the Mirage comics from the second cartoon, his stylized Dragon tattoo was made exponentially more elaborate, full of scales and covering his entire arm.
- Kyon: Big Damn Hero has Tsuruya's father Kenshiro and her bodyguard Kasai. Both of them belong to Yakuza.
- Combined with Embarrassing Tattoo in American History X.
- Night Of The Hunter, the Trope Maker for Knuckle Tattoos featured a serial killer with LOVE and HATE tattood on his knucles.
- Another serial killer, the titular Red Dragon (nicknamed "the Tooth Fairy" by the media) had a whole-back tattoo based on a William Blake painting of a demon.
- Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean has plenty, including the trademark Sparrow tattoo on his arm.
- Seth in From Dusk till Dawn
- The skinheads in This Is England have home made tattoos. At one point, they give a Shaun one too, a cross on his left middle finger.
- The Finglerling in The Number 23.
- In Little Odessa Tim Roth plays a hitman for the Russian mob with his tattoos occasionally on display. The Russian mob is known for its use of meaningful tattoos.
- In Captives, Tim Roth plays a prisoner with tats.
- Lester has an Ace of Spades tattooed on his arm in Rounders, calling it the ace up his sleeve.
- Barcode Tattoos are marks of prisoners in Alien 3. This is one of the few remaining elements of William Gibson's version of the script.
- Darth Maul from Star Wars. See also the Expanded Universe entry below.
- Tran, the 10-year-old drug kingpin from Tropic Thunder.
- Operates as a Chekhov's Gun for
AragornViggo Mortensen's character in Eastern Promises. It says something that while taking a break, he accidentally scared several Russian Immigrants into thinking he was the real McCoy.
- Corky from Bound.
- Nig in Once Were Warriors. In an unusual but in-setting variation, his tattoos are a mixture of criminal gang markings and traditional Māori face markings, or ta moko.
- Max Cady in Cape Fear has his torso completely covered with tattoos of Bible verses, a broken heart, and a cross, among other things. To quote an officer seeing him shirtless, "I don't know whether to look at him or read him."
- Toorop, the mercenary protagonist played by Vin Diesel in Babylon A.D.
- In Disney's Peter Pan, Hook sings:
As a special offer for today, / I'll tell you what I'll do / All those who sign without delay / will get a free tattoo...
- Cole from Twelve Monkeys has two barcodes tattooed on his neck, that reveal that he was convicted for violent crimes.
- Ivan Vanko from Iron Man 2 is covered in Russian prison tattoos.
- Subverted in The New Guy, in a prison yard scene where a heavily tattooed Henry Rollins is one of many shirtless men applying tattoos. When the prison guard comes up to him, he is forced to put on a shirt, revealing he is in fact the Warden.
- The bikers in Hell Ride. Small plot point comes from villain Billy Wings who has different colour wings tattooed on him to mark sexual transgressions, including purple wings for "licking dead pussy".
- Curse of the Zodiac features a killer with unexplained tattoos printed on the left side of his neck.
- Most of the gang members in Sin Nombre are heavily tattooed. L'il Mago, the leader of the gang, takes this trope Up to Eleven, as seen here. [dead link]
- Teen Wolf: The basketball coach, who apparently has a very sordid personal life, advises Michael J. Fox to never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.
- Faster. Driver has a tattoo on his forearm marking those people he killed in prison over the past ten years. A Badass Samoan takes one look and backs off, knowing full well the reputation of the man wearing it.
- Transporter 2. Lola has a tattoo on her inner thigh labelled "Death by Rabbit" with a snarling rabbit wielding sixGuns Akimbo.
- Many characters in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Put to use in Bar Brawls, an organised sport in Ankh Morpork, where contestants tattoo their names to all their limbs so The Igor knows to reattach them later.
- Trolls being living rock, their equivalent is gang grafitti, or carvings if they're really tough.
- In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel, the Ghosts have tattoos. Aristocratic Guardsmen regard them as visual proof of the Ghosts' general uncouthness, along with their Wild Hair. But new Vergast Ghosts desperately want tattoos to show they are part of the regiment.
- Prisoners in ancient China were often tattooed with their sentences. This is a sore point for a character in Heroes of the Water Margin and he takes pains to get it removed.
- "The Masked Breton" in Papillion, which would also make it a Real Life example. Escaping from the harsh prison camps, too late did he realize that the distinctive facial tattoo he got in prison made him extremely easy to identify and would prohibit him from living a normal life pretty much anywhere.
- A group of young skinheads make trouble at a mall in Jennifer Government, and are full of corporate logo tattoos.
- The Death Eaters' signet in Harry Potter.
- Count Olaf has an tattoo of an eye on his leg in Series of Unfortunate Events.
- The Sith, and various alien races in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
- Snow Crash has prisoners issued tattoos revealing their convicitions. On the face. Badass Biker Raven is marked on the forehead with "Poor Impulse Control".
- A bizarre inversion in China Mieville's Kraken, where the crook is the tattoo.
- Polar Star. Former Moscow detective Arkady Renko encounters a crook he sent to The Gulag for murder who has the scars from when the prison doctors removed his tats. Arkardy points to an evident injury on the man's forehead and asks what he had up there. It was "Communism drinks the blood of the people". Arkardy is impressed that he could fit all that on his forehead.
- In Red Square, the sequel to Polar Star (which is the sequel to Gorky Park), one of Renko's partners looks at witness's tattoos and sounds off that each picture has a meaning, e.g. he's been to prison and is willing to murder and so on.
- The book of Peter Pan has Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed.
Live Action TV
- Dexter found his biological father after he died, and noticed he had a prison tattoo, a spider web on the elbow.
- Also, the hitman for a Latino street gang has a large bicep tattoo of a heart, with blood drops under it, each representing one victim. Dexter observes him as he takes a new drop.
- Prison Break, Michael's whole-body blueprint tattoo.
- One CSI New York episode dealt with a group of young mafiosos killing a guy who had taken an unauthorized membership tattoo.
- In Doctor Who, the third Doctor (or at least his actor) had a snake tattoo on his arm, due to the actor having one. Because it first appeared on screen after he was exiled to Earth, Fanon and Expanded Universe says it was a prison tattoo.
- In Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Goren has been known to identify what prisons a criminal has served time in by identifying their prison ink. One episode had him being puzzled by a tattoo on a body until he discovered the victim had entered the U.S. from Canada. A Canadian contact was able to identify what prison the victim had been in on seeing a photo of the tattoo.
- Many of the inmates in Oz are heavily tattooed, especially the bikers. Also, for the purpose of making the intro, the show's producer had the crew film him getting the logo tattooed on him.
- Tom, in the recent BBC remake of the series Survivors, is turfed out of the ex-minister's community for being a convict, entirely on the basis of a prison tattoo.
- Glen from My Name Is Earl got his first tattoo in juvenile detention, reading "Fudge The Police"
- Nip Tuck's Escobar Gallardo, as well as almost everyone else portrayed by Robert Lasardo, who in Real Life has tattoos all over his arms, neck, and chest.
- Cook's dad in Skins has a tear drop tattoo under his left eye, suggesting he's been to jail.
- There is a very strong tendency in Joss Whedon works for characters with visible tattoos or other body modifications to be villainous and/or highly self-destructive. The most notable examples are Faith, Angelus, and the Reavers, but many more minor characters follow the pattern. The only exceptions are Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter's real lower-back tattoo, which they initially made token efforts to hide before deciding that she looked sufficiently sexy in low-waisted clothes to outweigh the metaphorical issues) and Kennedy.
- In the Expanded Universe for Buffy the Vampire Slayer we find out that Faith's was entirely against her will, as it was put there by being possessed by a dead Greek Slayer. It's the Mark of Kakistos, the very mutated vamp that killed her Watcher. You'd think she'd want something with such connections to one of the biggest losses of her life to be removed. Then again, she might see it as a "taking it from you and using it against you" thing.
- In Angel, the villainous lawyer Lindsey returns in season 5 with a set of tattoos that serve a plot purpose: they ward him from all forms of magical detection, thus protecting him from the wrath of the Senior Partners, who don't approve of his extracurricular activities.
- We can't forget Giles's and Ethan's Mark of Eyghon, which is not just a demon-cult tattoo but an Artifact of Death in itself.
- When amnesiac Peter Petrelli from Heroes joins The Irish Mob for a few episodes in Season 2, he gets the gang tattoo (a Celtic knot) which at one point transforms into the RNA helix and back.
- Everpresent with the bikers in Sons of Anarchy, including the intro sequence, and a plot point, when an ex-member hasn't covered up the gang name in his large back piece, and it's burned off by the members. Samcro hitman Happy also has several smily faces tattoos around his abdomen marking his victims.
- The Ha'la'tha gang in Caprica is made up of these. The elaborate tattoos all have meanings, by the way.
- The Jinn in Supernatural look like heavily tattooed people with blue flames coming out of their hands.
- Subverted in an episode of Luther, where an American kidnapper with a tattoo covering his entire face is seen wiping it off in the next scene, as it's meant to distract attention from his real features.
- In an episode of 7th Heaven, Annie and Matt are mugged at gunpoint, and the former eventually remembers the man had a tattoo on his arm when she spots Mary with a peel-off version on her ankle. In the following scene, Annie is able to pick him out of a police lineup after the police have them roll up their sleeves.
- The song "Blue Wing" has a convict getting the title tattoo in prison, possibly as a symbol of the freedom he's never found in life.
- The song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady", made famous by Groucho Marx, is based on the association between tattoos and "loose" women.
For two bits she will do a mazurka in jazz,
- Vega from Street Fighter has a snake tattoo on his back, meant to invoke Yakuza imagery.
- Kenzo Satake of Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army, as a yakuza boss, has a full-back tattoo.
- So does Kiryu Kazuma of the Yakuza series, as shown whenever he takes his shirt off for a final boss throwdown.
- 47 from Hitman
- Some of the Grand Theft Auto games make it possible for the player character to get tattoos.
- In Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, you have to get a large tattoo of a spider on your chest in order to join the nefarious Black Widowz gang.
- The Tsoo in City of Heroes gain their ever so annoying powers from magical ink in their tattoos.
- All the members of the Mizo gang in Jak X have the same flame tattoo on their right wrists.
- Jack, aka "Subject Zero" in Mass Effect 2, has tattoos all over her body, at least the parts you can see (which is most of it) her lengthy rap sheet includes kidnapping, murder, arson, theft of military craft ("Parades are boring. I helped."), destruction of a space station, and vandalism. (Of an entire moon. With the space station.) Despite this, Shepard springs her from a prison transport for help in fighting Cerberus, a far greater evil.
- In a pre-mission cutscene in Modern Warfare 2 we get a glimpse of the tattoos the Russian ultra-nationalists that attack the airport sport. This includes a church on the abdomen, a popular Russian prison tattoo ("Church is the home of God, the prison is the home of the criminal")
- Casteless Dwarves in Dragon Age Origins.
- Francis of Left 4 Dead seems to enjoy stealing things, and also pretending to be "The cops".
- The Russian mobsters in Chimneyspeak have large tattoos on their arms and hands as a status symbol.
- In the episode "Cape Feare" in The Simpsons we see Sideshow Bob's prison tattoos, including "DIE BART DIE" ("Oh, it's German, 'The Bart, The'"), as well as his Knuckle Tattoos LUV and HĀT, referencing The Night of the Hunter.
- Also, recurring minor character, Snake takes has a tattoo reflecting his moniker.
- Tattooed Annie in Springfield Women's jail has a Mad Magazine fold out page tattooed on her back, reading "What kind of slime would I marry?" folding into "What me worry?"
- The Stalker in Batman Beyond has tribal tattoos all over his body, though in this case it's implied to be part of his attempt to go back to the roots of his trade.
- The Monarch, in a direct reference to Red Dragon, has a full back tattoo of a minotaur at one point in The Venture Brothers. It turns out he was just trying to get his villain on again and used it to intimidate a prostitute; it late came off in the shower.
- The assasin Combustion Man from Avatar: The Last Airbender has a Third Eye tattoo.
- In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003), several members of the Purple Dragons gang sport the gang's trademark dragon as a tattoo. Their leader, Hun, sports the dragon tattoo along his left arm, and wore a tattoo of the Foot insignia on his left.
- Lockdown from Transformers Animated has large black decals on both his robot and car mode that resemble tattoos.
- Harley Quinn has a tattoo of a Joker (the card, not the character) on his thigh in Batman: Assault on Arkham, showing it to distract a guard so Killer Croc can ambush him.
- The real life Yakuza sport full-back to full-body tattoos depicting traditional symbolism. This is a major reason why visiting tourists are advised to cover up tattoos in places like public baths, since tattoos carry major Unfortunate Implications in Japan.
- Street gangs often skip the subtlety and just tattoo rather unambiguous gang symbols, and in a very extreme case, the Salvadoran American street gang MS-13 has the gang name and symbols tattooed on member's faces. Many police departments now keep tattoo databases for this exact reason. One officer remarked that tats were "better than fingerprints".
- Some prison systems identify tattoos for peacekeeping reasons. By identifying a criminal's affiliation, the COs can ensure the inmate is incarcerated with members of the same gang. These 'gang blocks' are easier to control as they can be cut off from rivals. For example, by keeping Aryan Brotherhood members in one block and MS 13 s in another, exercise shifts can be coordinated to prevent the two gangs from sharing the same yard, avoiding inter-gang violence.
- Getting tattooed in prison is very common in many countries, to the point that "prison tattoos" are a whole unique "genre" of tattoo. Many of them, at least originally, carried specific meanings. The spider web can mean drug addiction (when on the inside of the arm joint), incarceration (when on the elbow) or membership of a white supremacist organization/killing a minority (neck, bicep). Teardrops can mean anything from dead family members, bragging about a kill count to being a child molester (the latter being the standard in Australia).
- The Russian Mafia has its own codes. Some tattoos work as a sort of permanent resume, revealing lengths of time spent in prison, what services one offers, what position one holds (including also symbols for "prison bitch" and "snitch/ex member"). "Lying in a resume" may cause punishments, as well as a non-member taking a member tattoo. It also can warrant the offending tattoos being forcibly removed. Painfully.
- Trope relevant to most criminal affiliations in Eastern and Central Europe. For example in Poland exist similar code, however not as strictly abided by. Such tattoos, made usually on hands and around eyes, indicate kind of crime inmate was incarcerated for. Markings of length of a sentence (with eventual paroles) and particular prison are usually made on arms, back and chest.
- Probably the most recognizable real-life example is Danny Trejo, the incredibly menacing Mexican thug in numerous films by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Before he was an actor, Mr. Trejo was a convicted felon.