10 movie tattoos that played a key role in the plot
Tattoos in movies are always a deliberate detail. They appear for two reasons, either they were tattoos that the actors themselves had and were decidedly not covered up, or they were painstakingly applied by a makeup crew. Whatever the case; a tattoo has always intentionally made its way to the camera.
But in some movies, a tattoo was contemplated long before a camera was even turned on. Will likely find its first presence on the pages of a script, or in a team member’s suggestions. These tattoos are there as essential instruments in the story, serving not only as signifiers of the characters they feature on, but of the plot itself.
The Red Dragon – Red Dragon (2002)
Thesilenceofthelambs produced one of cinema’s greatest villains in Hannibal Lecter, but its prequel movie Red Dragon, is often overlooked for bringing audiences the character of Francis Dolarhyde, an equally complex and horrifying villain. The film follows Dolarhyde’s quest to manifest the “Red Dragon”, a painting he has tattooed across his entire back.
The painting in question is ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun’, painted by William Blake – one of his many paintings depicting a dragon depicted in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Dolarhyde’s obsession with actualizing it in Red Dragonthrough murder and bodily mutilation, leads him to treat tattooing as sacrosanct.
Memories – Memento (2000)
Tattoos serve an extremely literal purpose in this mind-blowing Christopher Nolan film. Memento follows a character with anterograde amnesia, meaning they cannot form new memories or recall old ones. One of their many solutions is to tattoo their learnings all over their bodies – at least while they still remember them.
The tattoos the protagonist chooses are direct instructions, “find him and kill him”, “never answer the phone” or most clearly, “John G. raped and murdered my wife”. In a film that questions identity at every turn, the tattoos imprinted on the main character are both a necessary tool for understanding the plot, as well as the character’s motivation.
Russian Prison Tattoos – Eastern Promises (2007)
The 2007 detective film Eastern promises has often been applauded for its attention to detail in depicting Russian crime families and their brutality, its popularity has even sparked the interest of a potential Eastern promises continued. Much of the detail he is applauded for is due to the tattoos worn by main character Nikolai, with every image and every outline having meaning.
Indeed, the criminals of the film belong to the criminal brotherhood Vory V Zakone, a real faction of organized crime. This group has a sort of “coding system” of tattooing that originated in Siberian prisons. Features such as stars, ships, and cats all point to key information about a person and their crimes.
Ta Mokos – Moana (2016)
It’s no surprise that Pixar spares no effort in portraying the intricate craftsmanship of Maori tattoos (known as Ta Moko) for its feature film. Moana. The film portrays the demigod Maui, a famous figure in Polynesian culture, and the character’s striking tattoos are carefully thought out.
Ta Mokos often tell the story of an individual’s Maori lineage as well as their own story. For Maui, things are no different, but Pixar’s animation team has made the usually coded tattoos much more literal in Moana – If viewers look closely, they’ll see Maui’s tattoos depict a smaller version of himself performing miracles to conquer mankind.
Elemental Symbols – The Fifth Element (1997)
A small detail like a tattoo is forgivable forgotten in the visual feast that is Luc Besson The fifth Element, a planetary sci-fi film that the director dreamed up in school, that feels as playful and quirky as the young mind who dreamed it up. The wrist tattoo in The fifth Element, sported by the character Leeloo, is crucial to its plot.
In a film that speaks, shockingly, of the need for the “fifth element”, we learn that Leeloo is herself the fifth element. The tattoo reveals this subtly, if a viewer has to look at it closely (like a character in the movie does), it depicts the other four elements in a dot matrix.
Face Tattoo – The Hangover Part II (2011)
The drawing formula of The hangover movies is pretty consistent: a group of friends wake up hungover and work to unravel the events of the night before. The ends of the sequels faced an increase with the entries in the series. In the second episode, this included a foreign country, a monkey, and a tattoo of Mike Tyson’s face.
The tattoo is one of the first identifiers revealing the ridiculous situation the characters have found themselves in, and it also allows them later to find out that they started a riot the night before. The best part of the tattoo, however, is its clear reminder of the first Hangover film, where the cast got into a run-in with Mike Tyson himself.
Swastika – American History X (1998)
American history x is a harsh and unforgiving film. The glimpses of light it produces turn out to be unbearably overwhelmed by a larger cycle of violence and hatred, exemplified by its exploration of a neo-Nazi group in America. Edward Norton’s character Derek is the popular face of the group, but he wants out.
The image of Derek and the swastika tattooed on his chest was often used as promotional material for the film. He also figures prominently in one of the film’s darkest and most brutal scenes, marking his association with Derek’s crimes even more literally. The tattoo is a vulgar symbol of hate, and its permanence on Derek’s body is a reminder of his inability to escape his past.
Skin Illustrations – The Illustrated Man (1969)
Ray Bradbury was a prolific 20th century American writer. His works detailed fantastical situations as well as authentic realities, writing a range of short stories as well as novels. The Illustrated Man was adapted from a selection of these shorts, detailing a man whose tattoos come to life when watched long enough.
The Illustrated Man is used in the film as an overarching story in which to create a logical flow for Bradbury’s anthology of shorts, with each tattoo detailing a short story. But the titular story does more than that, causing intrigue as to the origin of the tattoos and raising questions as to whether the “skin illustrations” represent fiction or not.
Lone Wolf – Blades of Glory (2007)
Blade of Glory is largely only known for its comedic cast. Although it’s easy to confuse it with one of Adam McKay’s adventures with Will Ferrell as Half brothers Where Talladega Nights, Blade of Glory stands on its own, depicting the fictional story of the world’s first male figure skating pair.
Ferrell’s character displays a few tattoos which he proudly talks about in one scene, explaining them as signifiers of sexual conquests. But the one that makes sense for the plot is the tattoo of a lone wolf – something that Ferrell’s character lines up with. The story goes that Ferrell learns the values of real relationships and eventually changes enough to invite his partner into his “wolf pack”.
Forced Tattoo – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Swedish author Stieg Larsson tragically only came to the world’s attention after his death, with his Millennium the series was not published until 2005, a year after his death. The series was a triumph, the first entry: The girl with the dragon tattoowas adapted in Sweden in 2009 and remade in 2011 by David Fincher, it followed two main characters: an investigative journalist and a vigilante hacker – the titular “girl with the dragon tattoo”.
Although the original Swedish title was “Men Who Hate Women”, it is still the story of the hacker, although she is not the central protagonist. And her dragon tattoo on her shoulder isn’t the only tattoo either, in fact a tattoo far more central to the plot is the forced tattoo she delivers to her attacker, brandishing him with the words “I am a rapist pig”.
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