An Eye Is Upon You - 221: Love/Hate

Published: 29 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 221, February, 2013

Tabloid newspapers love an opportunity to describe those accused of crime as ‘tattooed’, casually and continuously reinforcing the accepted narrative, sailor, criminal, whore.

Yet, this negative portrayal of tattoos is at odds with the lived experience of many – for most of us, being tattooed is a positive experience, more likely to indicate a love of alternative music or a period at art school than a jail term.

If news media fails to reflect tattoo society, is fiction doing any better? When a character is created each facet can be carefully cut – from name to hairdo, everything is there because it should be there. So if everything is imbibed with meaning, to what ends does cinema employ the tattoo?

In The Night of the Hunter (1955) we meet Harry Powell, an itinerant preacher with ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ knuckle tattoos, played by Robert Mitchum. Powell is an escaped convict and misogynistic serial killer and is eventually captured hunting children. Harry Powell appears at number 29 on the American Film Institute Top Villains list (one place above violent veteran Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle) and his iconic tattoos were sufficiently powerful to enter the cultural lexicon – we see the same tattoo years later in Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear (1991) where it is sported by the extensively tattooed Max Cady (played by Robert DeNiro), a murderous sociopath with a conviction for rape.

Another homicidal antagonist with a penchant for tattoos is the terrifying Francis Dolarhyde (Manhunter and Red Dragon), abused and abandoned as a child, sadistic and delusional as an adult, Dolarhyde is a super strong serial killer known as ‘The Tooth Fairy’. So far, so predictable.

Tattooed crazies aren’t just restricted to the horror section – Iron Man 2 features Mickey Rourke as Russian nemesis, Ivan Vanko. Extensively patterned with tattoos whilst incarcerated for arms dealing, Vanko is deceitful and vengeful. He’s also highly intelligent and emotionally attached to his pet bird, so at least this time around the stereotype is given a new layer.

More complexity is found in the tattooed characters of American History X and Eastern Promises – a former Neo-Nazi gang member dealing with desire for revenge, enlightenment and regret, and an Eastern European gangster climbing the career ladder of organised crime whilst secretly helping the police and a baby girl. Derek and Nikolai, respectively, are self-reflective, independent thinkers making difficult moral decisions. Sadly, their tattoos are used to remind us that they can never really move on from their criminal pasts, just as they remind their owners of what they’ve done.

Sirius Black (Harry Potter) is yet another fictional tattooed ex-prisoner, although not a guilty one, and while his tattoos might be convenient shorthand to denote his past experience, they can’t be describing an innate tendency towards crime. Perhaps instead they are employed to illustrate his rebelliousness, his outcast status and his loyalty to his friends, as fixed as his ink.

Screen tattooed ladies aren’t treated with any more balance than their male counterparts; Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is another criminal, a computer hacker. Portrayed as clever, talented and possessing a photographic memory, she is also damaged, antisocial, murderous, paranoid, psychotic, and possibly schizophrenic.

After all those troubled fictions, it’s rather a relief to get to Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s rock and roll pirate. Jack is still a criminal – he’s a pirate – still, he’s articulate, witty, flighty, irreverent, and fame hungry. Jack wears his back and arm tattoos like a modern day celebrity, his ‘sparrow’ tattoo designed to promote his own legend, much like Justin Bieber tweeting his ‘Believe’ ink.

A character even more legendary than Captain Jack is everyone’s favourite good guy, Santa Claus, and the animated Rise of the Guardians gives him a superhero style makeover, adding protecting children to his current present supply and delivery job.

Santa’s ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’ forearm tattoos and his firm, friendly and fun persona are unusual in cinematic terms, but we know the truth… tattoos are for everyone ,and in real life, tattooed people are just as likely to be ‘Nice’ as ‘Naughty’. Being tattooed is powerful, it can help us to discover who we are, it can lift our spirits, mark important life events and pledge our allegiance to social groups – tattoos are self-confidence boosting, life enhancing, positive; tattoos are the art of the people, and so much more besides. Now, does anyone want to make a film about that?


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos