Top 10 Most Iconic Film Tattoos
Looking for inspiration? Movies are extremely influential for a number of reasons and that includes reflecting tattoo trends. From classics to animated hits, this list of the top 10 most iconic film tattoos will definitely help you get in touch with your own desires, ideas, and perceptions on ink.
10. Seth Gecko (George Clooney) in From Dusk till Dawn (1996)
Plot: After a bank heist, brothers Richie and Seth Gecko plan to head to Mexico to evade arrest. At a motel, Richie kills their hostage and their journey hits a hard spot, but, just when things could have gotten worse, the Fuller family shows up. Seth takes them hostage and the five successfully cross the border. The five pull to a bar called “The Titty Twister”, where Seth will meet his handler in the morning. When moon strikes, the stripper and workers turn into vampires and the survivors must soon fight for their lives.
Tattoos: To suit his bold and ruthless character, Gecko has a striking tribal flame design tattooed down his arm, from his neck to his hand. The imperfect and non-symmetrical design fits his gangster persona well and is typical of the era. For most of the film, the audience only get to see the top of the design peeking out from his collar. This adds to his bad-boy image as neck tattoos were still pretty taboo at the time. This iconic film tattoo has since been blamed for one of the worst tattoo trends ever, after tribal designs became a huge hit in the late 90s.
9. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento (2000)
Plot: Leonard (Guy Pearce) is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife. The difficulty, however, of locating his wife’s killer is compounded by the fact that he suffers from a rare, untreatable form of memory loss. Although he can recall details of life before his accident, Leonard cannot remember what happened fifteen minutes ago, where he’s going, or why.
Tattoos: The protagonist records key “facts” in the form of tattoos, which he then uses to try and piece a story together. Leonard’s tattoos are all positioned on the front of his body, some written backwards so he can read them in the mirror. However, as the story unravels, it is clear that his flawed method only manages to create a fictional narrative. The film leaves its audience with an important message; a reminder that all of our memories are in fact selective, to varying extents.
8. Carl (Rod Steiger) in The Illustrated Man (1969)
Plot: A young drifter is led into a world of fear when the images on the skin of a tattooed hobo come to life.
Tattoos: The narrative follows a heavily tattooed man who believes his skin is cursed. If stared at too long, his “skin illustrations” come alive and tell bizarre and frightening stories from the future. The only blank patch on his body is said to show the viewer their future, or their demise. While the film was slated by critics, the tattoos in it are pretty impressive. The ornamental designs were hand-painted by multiple artists using vegetable dyes and the muted colours add to their authenticity. To this day, lead actor Rod Steiger still holds the record for most time spent in the make-up chair – 20 hours!
7. Fox (Angelina Jolie) in Wanted (2008)
Plot: Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is an office worker whose life is going nowhere. After his estranged father is murdered, he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), who recruits him into the Fraternity, a secret society of assassins which takes its orders from Fate itself. Fox and Sloan (Morgan Freeman), the Fraternity’s leader, teach Wesley to tap into dormant powers. Though he enjoys his newfound abilities, he begins to suspect that there is more to the Fraternity than meets the eye.
Tattoos: Unlike other films in which Jolie had to cover her ink, this film gave her the opportunity to display her tattoos fully and add additional ones. In an iconic nude scene at the public baths, her character Fox shows off her an array of back tattoos, including a real Bengal tiger design. This was done by traditional stick and poke method in Bangkok to celebrate Jolie’s Cambodian citizenship and fits her bad-ass character perfectly. She also had a temporary floral tattoo added to her hand, as a continuation of the design on her gun, symbolizing that although feminine, fighting is second nature to her.
6. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Plot: Disgraced financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) finds a chance to redeem his honor after being hired by wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the 40-year-old murder of Vanger’s niece, Harriet. Vanger believes that Harriet was killed by a member of his own family. Eventually joining Blomkvist on his dangerous quest for the truth is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an unusual but ingenious investigator whose fragile trust is not easily won.
Tattoos: After being translated into English, the title was altered and the main character’s tattoo became a key feature. Although never explained, the now iconic medieval-style dragon tattoo on her shoulder blade could be a symbol of protection, as in Japanese history, or may be linked to her setting her father on fire for abusing her mother. Either way, it is powerful emblem of strength for this tough female character. In the film, the s-shape design is form-fitting, adding an element of femininity to this dark, mysterious piece.
5. Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in Cape Fear (1991)
Plot: When attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) knowingly withholds evidence that would acquit violent sex offender Max Cady (Robert De Niro) of rape charges, Max spends 14 years in prison. But after Max’s release, knowing about Sam’s deceit, he devotes his life to stalking and destroying the Bowden family. When practical attempts to stop Max fail, Sam realizes that he must act outside the law to protect his wife and daughter in Martin Scorsese’s remake of the classic 1962 thriller.
Tattoos: Cady’s tattoos in the film were designed to look deliberately “bad”. They are faded and imperfect, like real prison tattoos. On his back, Cady has a large crucifix version of the scales of justice. With the bible on one side and a knife balanced on the other, it’s clear that his focus is vengeance not forgiveness. Cady’s twisted take on justice exhibited through this iconic film tattoo, helps to make this unhinged character even more intimidating.
4. Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) in Red Dragon (2002)
Plot: Ex-FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) is an expert investigator who quit the Bureau after almost losing his life in the process of capturing the elusive Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). After a series of particularly grisly murders, Graham soon realizes that the best way to catch this killer, known as the Tooth Fairy, is to find a way to get inside the killer’s mind. For Graham, that means confronting his past and facing his former nemesis, the now-incarcerated Lecter.
Tattoos: Francis Dolarhyde, played by Ralph Fiennes, becomes obsessed with the William Blake painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun.” Francis gets an imposing tattoo of the painting, with detailed horns of the beast, covering his entire back. In the iconic reveal scene, Francis exposes the striking tattoo and insists that he is the Dragon, confirming his insanity. He views his ink as a symbol power, but in reality, he has no control over his evil alter ego.
3. Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) in Eastern Promises (2007)
Plot: Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is both ruthless and mysterious, has ties to one of the most dangerous crime families in London. He crosses paths with Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who has come across potentially damaging evidence against the family, which forces him to set in motion a plan of deceit, death and retribution.
Tattoos: The film’s Director explains: “In Russian prisons you don’t exist if you don’t have tattoos, because your whole life story is written on your body… you’re not trusted if you don’t have those tattoos.” In a key scene, Luzhin’s tattoos are inspected by the mafia bosses and he must account for them. The three domes on his back represent the prisons he’s served in and a crucifix suggests he’s a thief in good standing. Later, he has stars tattooed on him as he progresses up the ranks; a typical symbol that you must have permission to get tattooed. This film’s tattoos were highly researched and were so realistic that Mortensen couldn’t show them in public during filming without inciting fear!
2. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Plot: Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arrives at Port Royal in the Caribbean without a ship or crew. His timing is inopportune, however, because later that evening the town is besieged by a pirate ship. The pirates kidnap the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), who’s in possession of a valuable coin that is linked to a curse that has transformed the pirates into the undead. A gallant blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) in love with Elizabeth allies with Sparrow in pursuit of the pirates.
Tattoos: Depp’s portrayal of Sparrow as a clumsy, lovable rogue has made him one of the most legendary film characters ever, with one of the most iconic tattoos in recent history. His simple, but authentic swallow and sun tattoo on his forearm, is a traditional nautical design. The swallow represents a sailor having travelled over 5,000 miles on water and is perfect for his character, symbolizing Sparrow’s adventurous life at sea. Depp later got a real version tattooed in the same spot!
1. Maui in Moana (2016)
Plot: An adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana meets the once-mighty demigod Maui, who guides her in her quest to become a master way-finder. Together they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds. Along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she always sought: her own identity.
Tattoos: Maui is Disney’s first heavily tattooed character and is portrayed as a wronged victim turned hero, rather than a villain. His traditional Polynesian tattoos show his accomplishments and allude to ancient Maori myths and legends. The detailed designs were created in consultation with Samoan tattoo artist Su’a Peter Sulu’ape to ensure cultural accuracy. They even feature minor flaws to mimic real stick and poke tattoos.
However, most importantly, Maui’s animated body art is used to break down old-fashioned, negative stereotypes. His tattoos act as his conscience, with a mini Maui design coming to life and encouraging him to do the right thing. Such a positive representation of tattoos signifies a major shift in cultural perceptions in recent years and as such makes these designs some of the most iconic film tattoos of all time.
I hope you’ve found this post useful in choosing your next tattoo. Feel free to get in touch using our handy Online Tattoo Quote Form
Also check out tattooist Bang Bang’s take on these movie tattoos in the video below!