My top 10 iconic movie tattoos

Being someone with quite a few tattoos I am a big fan of their rather unique art form and fascinated by the different and very personal meanings they have for the people who choose to get inked. In cinema tattoos are used for a variety of reasons, most often to demonstrate that a character is particularly tough or has a “chequered” past. This is probably why it’s (unfortunately) actually quite rare for Hollywood to portray female characters with tattoos, making my list a bit male heavy. Most of these are not the most beautiful tattoos out there but they definitely made the characters wearing them and the films they appeared in that much more interesting.

39cCharacter: Derek Vinyard
Played by: Edward Norton
Film: American History X (1998)
Tattoo placement: Arms and chest
Tattoo style: White supremacist/Nazi
Meaning: In American History X Derek’s tattoos are a representation of his history. They are a physical manifestation of the man he used to be and a past that he cannot shake no matter how much he has changed.
“Danny Vinyard: I’m sorry, Derek. I’m sorry that happened to you.
Derek Vinyard: I’m not. I’m lucky. I feel lucky because it’s wrong, Danny. It’s wrong and it was eating me up, it was going to kill me. And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this shit? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did ever took that feeling away. I killed two guys, Danny, I killed them. And it didn’t make me feel any different. It just got me more lost and I’m tired of being pissed off, Danny. I’m just tired of it.”

the-place-beyond-the-pines-Derek-Cianfrance-ryan-gosling-bradley-cooper-eva-mendes-film-review-shelf-heroesCharacter: Luke
Played by: Ryan Gosling
Film: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
Tattoo placement: Everywhere
Tattoo style: Eclectic
Meaning: Luke’s tattoos serve to act as a symbol of his impulsiveness and his reckless disregard for the future, in particular his face tattoo. They also act as a kind of map of his past.
“Luke: He’s my son and I should be around him. I wasn’t around my Dad and look at the fuckin’ way I turned out.


Character: Mallory Knox
Played by: Juliette Lewis
Film: Natural Born Killers (1994)
Tattoo placement: Belly
Tattoo style: Scorpion
Meaning: Mallory’s tattoo symbolises the fact that she is wild and reckless. The scorpion also shows that she has a sting in her tail. Like a scorpion she is small and seemingly fragile but also deadly.
“[after beating the hell out of the guy at the diner]
Mallory: How sexy am I now, huh? Flirty boy! How sexy am I now?”

mementoCharacter: Leonard Shelby
Played by: Guy Pearce
Film: Memento (2000)
Tattoo placement: Arms and torso
Tattoo style: Script
Meaning: With no short term memory Leonard tattoos the facts he learns each day onto his body in his quest to find the man who killed his wife.
“Natalie: But even if you get revenge you’re not gonna remember it. You’re not even going to know that it happened.
Leonard Shelby: My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn’t make a difference whether I know about it. Just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it? Anyway, maybe I’ll take a photograph to remind myself, get another freaky tattoo.

Lisbeth SalanderCharacter: Lisbeth Salander
Played by: Noomi Rapace/Rooney Mara
Films: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009), The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (2009), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Tattoo placement:  Back
Tattoo style: Asian dragon
Meaning: Although Lisbeth’s tattoo is never explained it seems to be a symbol of the anger she holds inside herself and also her desire for strength and empowerment in her life.
“Lisbeth Salander: If you touch me I’ll more than alarm you.


Character: Seth Gecko
Played by: George ClooneyFilm: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Tattoo placement: Arm, neck and chest
Tattoo style: Tribal
Meaning: The size of Seth’s tattoo is revealed slowly throughout the film, just like the revelation that all is not right at the Titty Twister. It also singles him out as a leader with the right credentials to fight off a horde of vampires.
“Seth: Fight now, cry later.”

Eastern_Promises_TattoosCharacter: Nikolai Luhzin
Played by: Viggo Mortensen
Film: Eastern Promises (2007)
Tattoo placement: Hands, arms and torso
Tattoo style: Russian prison
Meaning: As an undercover cop, Nikolai’s tattoos are part of his cover, telling the story of the crimes he has supposedly committed.
“Nikolai Luzhin: [referring to Soyka] Okay. Now I’m going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers. You might want to leave room.
[Nikolai motions for Azim to go away, and then puts out his cigarette on his tongue] “

cape_fear_robert_deniroCharacter: Max Cady
Played by: Robert De Niro
Film: Cape Fear (1991)
Tattoo placement: Arms and torso
Tattoo theme: Justice
Meaning: Max is obsessed with vengeance and the man he believes ruined his life. His tattoos are a visual manifestation of his message to the world.
“Max Cady: I ain’t no white trash piece of shit. I’m better than you all! I can out-learn you. I can out-read you. I can out-think you. And I can out-philosophize you. And I’m gonna outlast you. You think a couple whacks to my guts is gonna get me down? It’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than that, Counselor, to prove you’re better than me!”

brad-pitt-snatchCharacter: Mickey O’Neill
Played by: Brad Pitt
Film: Snatch (2000)
Tattoo placement: Arms and torso
Tattoo style: Gypsy
Meaning: Mickey’s tattoos are part of his tough guy persona but also a representation of his culture.
“Mickey: Good dags. D’ya like dags?
Tommy: Dags?
Mickey: What?
Mrs. O’Neil: Yeah, dags.
Tommy: Oh, dogs. Sure, I like dags. I like caravans more.”

alpha_10Character: Frankie Ballenbacher
Played by: Justin Timberlake
Film: Alpha Dog (2006)
Tattoo placement: Arms and torso
Tattoo style: Asian/gangster
Meaning: Frankie is a spoiled rich boy playing at being a tough guy and so his patchwork of tattoos is part of the persona he has created for himself. The fact that the tattoos appear to be inauthentic and cliched are just part of the fact that Frankie is play acting his Hollywoodised fantasy of being in a gang.
“Frankie Ballenbacher: [to Johnny] Let’s just grease the kid. That it’s taken care of and we’re not running around here like a bunch of fuckin’ chinamen!”


    1. Abbi

      Please do send a photo.

      1. Well they’re in, uh…. various… places…

        1. Abbi

          They’re all on your penis, aren’t they?

          1. theipc


  1. theipc

    Come on Rambler’s, let’s get ramblin’!”

  2. Great job on this list (as always). Love the meanings of the tattoos. 🙂 Even though I’m tattoo-free! But that’s just because I’m boring.

    1. Abbi

      Thanks! I don’t think not having tattoos is boring. I think getting them if you don’t feel compelled to (I genuinely feel a compulsion to ink) is pretty lame.

  3. Great list! Some of the finest cinematic ink on here! 😉

    How’s the swop shopping going for you?

    1. Abbi

      Thanks! I finished my shopping yesterday and packaged everything up today to post tomorrow. Exciting!

      1. Awesome. I still have one gift left to buy and I’ll post during the week!

  4. You should see Prison break ha

  5. Great choices, I’d add Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter. With his tattoos of Love and Hate on his fingers.

    1. Abbi

      I haven’t seen it. I should check it out.

  6. I’m not a tattoo lover. I have none, and wonder about them on others.
    But I would have to go with Max Cady, as they were so relevant to the plot!
    (And he didn’t really have them in real life…)
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. abbiosbiston

      I have loads 😛

      1. Oh well, it’s your body, and up to you of course. It’s not for me to judge, and I don’t intend to. Julie has two tiny ones, not visible in everyday clothing. It’s a younger generation thing, no doubt.

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