Once mainly the preserve of builders, sailors and the incarcerated, tattoos have long since become ingrained as part of modern life, with one in three British adults sporting some form of ink somewhere about their person. Representing everything from mainstream consumer culture through to shadowy counter cultures, modern tattoo art really is all things to all men (and women), with the design and placement as much a consideration as the reasons for having them in the first place.
On screen, however, tattoos are still very often used as an indication of the type of character you’re about to meet; something that has recently been demonstrated with aplomb in the superb Taboo, shown on BBC One. Tom Hardy’s edgy, twisted foray into period drama saw his character sporting an extreme example of tribal tattoos, an image that became one of the show’s most enduring. With Taboo recently out on home formats, what better opportunity to celebrate that image and other striking members of the on screen ink fraternity.
Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney is acknowledged as a force of nature the minute you clap eyes on him. His ink, seen mostly in flashbacks located in an unspecified African jungle, joins up with the plot to underline that this is a character that has been to hell and back. The tattoos themselves are distinctively tribal and at complete odds with the Regency period London setting within which we see them. It doesn’t hurt that Tom Hardy is a man who wears a tattoo well…
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Taken from the Steig Larson novel of the same name, the meaning of the tattoo that adorns the back of the title character Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is actually much more subtle than the title suggests. The tattoo adds to Lisbeth’s unique and non-conformist style that goes against the deeply corrupt backdrop of Sweden that the film is set in, and also shows her desperation to take control of her body which is constantly under threat of being used and abused by others.
Harry Potter (1997 – 2007)
As is very often the case, the tattoos on display in the Potterverse indicate a wrong’un is at hand, with Voldemort imparting the Dark Mark on his disciples to terrifying effect. The infamous Dark Mark is a magically animated tattoo found on the inner left forearm of every Death Eater, which depicts a skull with a writhing snake protruding from its mouth. When a Death Eater touches their Dark Mark tattoo with their wands, He Who Must Not Be Named is summoned…
Christopher Nolan’s gripping small budget thriller gives an example of how the ink that covers a film’s character can not only influence the plot of the film, but drive it. Due to a mysterious memory impairment, Leonard (Guy Pearce) must use his tattoos as clues in an attempt to solve the mystery of who killed his wife. As Leonard continues to lose his grip on his memory, he must use whichever tattoo parlour is nearest as quickly as he can, with some of the more graphic tats that he carries making for a very awkward conversation at the tattoo parlour. If a person’s tattoos define part of who they are, then Pearce’s character’s use of tattoos to aid his investigations means that he is sadly defined by the hopeless pursuit of his wife’s killer.
American History X (1998)
Political beliefs are often displayed proudly with film characters’ tattoos, enabling the audience to get a clear and visual understanding of where they stand with society’s most important issues, and whether to follow them with intrigue or caution. It shouldn’t take you too long to work out where Ed Norton’s hate-filled white supremacist Derek stands on some particularly hot topics, with the bold black swastika covering his heart showing he is firmly one side of the fence when it comes to race issues in America. Over the course of the film Derek is challenged on his mindset in a number of different ways, and is forced to question his beliefs, and whether it’s worth the excruciating pain of getting some of his ink erased.
Cape Fear (1991)
This 90s remake of the classic psychological thriller sees Robert De Niro delivering one of his most powerful and most unnerving performances as the unhinged Max Cady. Exacting his revenge on the lawyer he blames for his imprisonment, Cady intimidates, seduces and just plain attacks the Bowden family, with his array of body art implicitly accentuating his intentions at every turn; lawyer dad Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) sees Cady’s prison tattoos as a warning, daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) thinks they add to his appeal whilst the audience sits there wishing everyone would pay attention to the Grim Reaper on his chest…