Adventures in the Screen Trade - Tattoos in the Movies

Published: 06 February, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 208, February, 2012

Continuing the series we began last issue with Paperback Writers, this issue we’re taking a look at how tattoo has been brought on board by the screen medium to enhance its heroes and villains – not always with desirable consequences…

I think we’re all secure enough in our own skin to know that tattoo is used and abused by the creators of characters the world over who know it’s all cause and effect for the masses. The smart writers are able to utilise it positively while the lazy ones will use it as a means to mark their creation as an immediate villain. I kind of understand that to the un-inked masses, this is an easy play.

My first stop is with Robert Mitchum and his role in the classic Night Of The Hunter. With ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across his knuckles, this must surely be the most iconic image ever created by the media when it comes to tattooing. Remember, the movie was made back when tattoo wasn’t anywhere close to the artistic behemoth it is today. This comes from a time when tattoo was a real sign of an outsider. Digging deeper into the psyche of the character, Harry Powell, they are actually an external representation of his battle with himself. So iconic is the character that you can find it repeated the whole world over many, many times, but never with quite so much panache as Mitchum. Not bad for 1955.

The closest we get in the updated (read: colour) world to Harry Powell is in DeNiro’s depiction of Max Cady in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Interestingly, as homage goes, having Mitchum in the movie (who was the star of the original) is pretty damn cool. At one point, Mitchum takes a look at DeNiro’s work and says, “I don’t know whether to  look at him or read him.” No doubt more than a few have had the line aimed at you passed off as an original statement. More interestingly, Cady also states: “There isn’t much to do in prison except desecrate your flesh”, which may go some way to explaining rather a lot of things these days...

Just when you think a movie psycho can’t be depicted much worse when it comes to tattoo, some years later, in 2002 to be exact, we have Francis Dolarhyde foisted upon us in Red Dragon. While the movie itself is passe at best, Francis (played by Ralph Fiennes) is quite a coup. Not many people know that the backpiece is derived from William Blake’s ‘Great Red Dragon’ (hence the film name, so how you could miss the reference, I’m not sure), but the result is defining nonetheless. A true great in the pantheon of movie criminals.

If there is a better movie psycho out there than Dolarhyde, I must have been washing my hair that night. To go more extreme than this, we must go left of field to find bigger and better villains. None come quite so extreme as Darth Maul from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Assumed (wrongly) by some that it is not a tattoo and actually his alien skin, in the novel, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, it is in fact revealed to be the work of Darth Sidious who marked him as part of his acceptance to the Dark Side. So there you go – stuff like that is always handy in a pub quiz.

Surely though, the most imaginative use of tattoo in the movies is Memento. It’s a hard movie to describe without giving away a ton of the plot, so I won’t. Suffice to say, tattooing your own body to remind yourself to kill somebody is a great idea for a movie – not so much in real life however. You won’t be winning any convention awards for ‘John G. raped and murdered my wife’ or ‘Find him and kill him’. Tattoos aside, Memento is a great movie anyway and if you’ve not seen it, shame on you.

Now we come to one of my favourites – for multiple reasons. Does the name Michael Scofield mean anything to you? Ah yes – Dominic Purcell’s anti-hero of the almost, but not quite great series, Prison Break. An entire body suit of black and grey depicting an a demon slaying an angel on the chest and the remainder being blueprints to the prison’s underground tunnels and passageways. Rather neatly, on his back we see the reverse of the chest piece and see an angel slaying a demon. Sound complicated? It is.

So complicated in fact that originally, they were all supposed to mean something far more complex than they ever got round to. With the show actually becoming far more successful than producers had imagined, by the time we got to the final season, we find that Michael has had them all conveniently lasered off. Rather him than me... and probably the most ridiculous tattoo concept we’ve ever been asked to believe on TV. Check out the box copy for more Prison Break goodies.

Can we get any more extreme than this? Well, being as you’re asking and I’ve been around the block a bit and know ‘stuff’, yes we can. How about Once Were Warriors? Perhaps not a movie full of psychos in the ‘traditional’ sense of the word, but possibly more disturbing for it.

Once Were Warriors hails from New Zealand and centres on domestic abuse violence, but far from being an Alan Sillitoe kitchen sink drama, using the cultural backdrop of the Maori as a tool, the movie paints a far bleaker picture of life than Saturday Night, Sunday Morning ever could (SNSM by the way is an Alan Sillitoe book turned into a movie in 1960 starring Albert Finney which, despite being depressing as possible, contains no tattoos whatsoever

– to the best of my knowledge anyway). For paint, Warriors uses alcoholism, unemployment, wife-beating and the absence of hope to illustrate its point.

Where Red Dragon may be the acceptable face of screen fantasy, Warriors is a powerful face of reality that is really hard to watch sometimes, but if nothing else it brought the clash between Maori traditions and modern values to a Western audience that knew little or nothing about it before.

Finally, to raise the tone a little (although that might be questionable after you read the next few sentences), The Expendables – rumour had it that each member of the crew had a version of the crow tattoo taken from the movie poster. Nice to see Mickey Rourke in this flick as the tattoo artist, but surely the guys in the cast have got enough tattoos between them to insist that Mickey should be wearing gloves while he’s chipping away at Stallone’s back. Nobody in the world is that hard. Not even Chuck Norris.

Also of note is this movie’s Italian poster graphic, which is actually much cooler… now that I’d like to see tattooed on somebody. Stay tuned next issue as we go much further underground…

Prison Break's Hidden Tatto Messages (From Season One)

• Prison layout on Michael’s back.
• Blueprints of the underground passageways of the prison on the front.
• Allen Schweitzer 11121147 is on his forearm, indicating the model of a screw needed to unscrew the cell’s toilet to allow access to the interior layout of the prison.
• A small hexagon is the dot on the ‘i’ of ‘Schweitzer’. It is to check if the screw’s end was filed down properly to fit the bolt.
• CUTE POISON is the chemical formula, 3H2SO4(aq) + Ca3(PO4)2(aq) + 6H2O(l)  2H3PO4(aq) + 3CaSO4(aq)·2H2O(l), to produce phosphoric acid to dissolve the metal sewage cover.
• English Fitz Percy are the names of the three streets leading them out of the prison.
• Image of a devil’s face to plot the drilling holes in Riots, Drills and the Devil Part 1.
• Playing cards with numbers ‘1 312 909 3529’ shows the phone number of Nika Volek.
• Coffin with a cross to hint how to make his brother feel sick to avoid the execution.

Prison Break's Hidden Tatto Messages (From Season Two)

• Ripe Chance Woods is actually ‘R.I.P. E. Chance Woods’. In the cemetery, there was a grave for E. Chance Woods where buried clothes, keys to a car and fake passports were buried. This was the first tattoo deciphered by Agent Alexander Mahone.
• Barcode 38 12 1037 has several meanings. 38 refers to Illinois Route 38, 12 indicates the miles they need to reach the bridge while 1037 refers to the radio frequency 103.7, the one needed to activate the bomb for faking the brothers’ death at the bridge.
• Bolshoi Booze is a mirror image of the numbers which form the coordinate 32°0′09″N, 104°57′09″W.
• A flower represented the Apache Desert Ghost exhibit, where the nitroglycerin was hidden.
• 617 indicates the password for a combination lock.
• A picture of Christ in a rose means Christina Rose, Michael’s mother and the boat in Panama.
• Greek letters were originally on the design, but were left out during the real tattoo. They refer to the steps of escaping, for example, Alpha meaning step one (Allen Schweitzer 11121147), and Omega meaning the last step (Christina Rose).

The Rock

One of the best ‘movie star’ tattoos out there, mostly because it’s authentic and worn in the spirit intended. The Rock – better known these days as Dwayne Johnson (or if you’re still with me in soul, still known as The Rock) sports this fine Marqusan tattoo by Po’oino Yrondi.

If you’re interested in what’s going on here and how much they actually mean when you drill in, take a look at this as The Rock talks us through it:
“There are coconut leaves, or niu, which denote a Samoan chief-warrior.
“There is the sun which brings good fortune.
“Isa/ga fa’atasi (three people in one). Me with my arms open. As it continues on my chest, it connects to my o lo’u to’a/ua (my wife, Dany) and my o lo’u afafine (my daughter, Simone Alexandra).
“The descending swirls represent past, present and future, with the future becoming ever bigger. The pattern continues under my arm, where its meaning is written: ‘It changes in the place where it is found to be gone’.
“The two eyes, called o mata e lua, represent my ancestors watching over my path.
“The Great Eye, It’s an intimidating symbol that allows its user to possess the spirit of his enemy. The eye is used to distract the enemy in a confrontation.
“The broken face, marked by shark teeth — a symbol of strength — is my spirit protector and a symbol of my struggle.
“The priest and spiritual guide, who raises a warrior to enlightenment and supernatural power under the eyes of the warrior’s ancestors.
“The stones are of achievement and abundance. They’re the foundation of my life and symbols of my dedication. They bring the right to stand and speak with honor as a Tula Fale — a high talking chief — and they maintain mana, or supernatural power.
“A tortoise shell, to deflect evil spirits. Warriors used shells as shields.”
Now that’s what we call tribal.


Text: Sion Smith