A tattoo historian rates 15 iconic tattoos from movies and TV shows

  • Matt Lodder PhD rates famous tattoos in movies and TV.
  • He is an art historian and director of American studies at the University of Essex.
  • Lodder discusses the cultural significance and accuracy of famous tattoos in movies and TV shows, such as Jason Momoa in "Justice League", or Jared Leto in "Suicide Squad."
  • Lodder also mythbusts some inaccurate historical tattoos, such as those in "The Mummy" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
  • He discusses true stories and real-life tattoo artists that may have influenced the design choices for "The Hangover Part II" and "Red Dragon."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.

Joker: Really, really bad.

Matt Lodder: Whoever designed the stencil for it just typed up on a font on Word and just stuck on his head.

My name's Dr. Matt Lodder. I'm an art historian and director of American studies at the University of Essex. I'm a historian of tattooing. And today we're gonna be looking at some tattoos in movies to see if they're any good or not.

"John Wick" (2014)


That kind of motto at the top of his back, "Fortune favors the brave," is what it translates to. It is apparently the motto of quite a lot of, like, military regiments, including a marine regiment from Hawaii, which is where Keanu Reeves traces his heritage from. But also various other kind of police forces and organizations. So you can read in that potentially some kind of military history, that he's been part of a marine unit, maybe.

Some of the tattoos on his shoulders evoke Russian prison tattooing.Some of his tattoos may indicate, for example, that he was very aggressive in prison.

The hands themselves are copied pretty closely from a print by Albrecht Dürer, the engraver. They have the right kind of color tonality. Like, really, really, really works.

Rating: 10/10

"Prison Break" (2005)

Michael: I've got them on me.

Matt: Apparently the production crew got really fed up, and he got really fed up with having to sit for hours in wardrobe every day, so they contrived this, like, laser-removal scene. He gets the whole bodysuit removed in, like, one go. Which would, like, would literally kill you. When you're lasering it, it basically pops the skin cell, and it lets your lymph nodes, your lymphatic system use the sort of standard bit of your body's waste-disposal mechanisms to remove the ink. You'd need more than one session to remove it. You'd have loads of scarring. And you'd be dead.

These were done by a tattooer called Tom Berg. Bonus points for getting a tattooer to do it. Iconically, like, beautifully done. I think they're really, really nice, and it's a clever kind of conceit, I think. Whether or not you'd get away with it in real life, I doubt it.

Rating: 3/10

"Waterworld" (1995)

Highest-budget movie at the time ever made, wasn't it? But they couldn't afford a good Chinese-English translator. Linguistically, it's a mess. So, it's got a Japanese character in there. Apparently geographically it's a mess as well, like, it doesn't actually tell where it should be, it points to, like, at least four points on the globe, so it wouldn't even be that useful as a map. Like, why in the 26th century they're still doing real '90s-looking tattoos?

Rating: 2/10

"Blade" (1998)

That's a bit of thing. Certainly was then, it certainly is now. People getting very heavily tattooed on their hands and their necks first, so they can, like, kind of walk around and look super heavily tattooed even though they haven't really got that many tattoos. I wouldn't have said this to Blade's face, obviously, but it's a bit of a hipster thing to be doing.

Really iconic. Like, I think one of the reasons you saw, like, spiky tribal everywhere in the late '90s and early 2000s is because loads of people had seen "Blade" and thought it looked awesome. Places where skin tones are darker, you find less tattooing traditionally, because, you know, the ink just doesn't show up as well under black skin. You know, tattooing has gone on to be a really, really big, important part of, like, contemporary American black culture. And, again, I think probably Wesley Snipes' role in this movie is a big part of that.

You know, it sort of showed that tattoos did look really awesome on black skin if they're done well.

Rating: 10/10

"Justice League" (2017)

Batman: Died fighting next to me.

Aquaman: My point exactly.

Matt: On Momoa, they actually look pretty, even in close-up, look fairly like tattoos, actually. They're not super black like they've just been painted on with black paint. Aquaman's tattoos are kind of Polynesian-inspired, but they're not specifically any particular Polynesian tradition. Momoa's tattoos are Hawaiian. Triangles around his arm. In specific cultures, there's a real kind of sense of connection to one's ancestors and family. And tattoos are a way of kind of indicating connection to that. The kind of hexagon things on his breastplate aren't particularly traditional, but they kind of work, actually.

Rating: 8/10

"Suicide Squad" (2016)

Joker: Oh, I'm not gonna kill you.

Matt: These probably are some of the worst movie tattoos in movie-tattoo history. Whoever designed the stencil for it just typed up on a font on Word and just stuck on his head. It's weird, 'cause, like, the sort of overall look of it is like 2003. But some of the topography and things are much more like now, so it's sort of indicating that maybe he got tattooed quite recently.

It just reminds me of, like, too many, you know, 18-year-olds on Instagram, who are getting their faces tattooed 'cause they think it makes them look crazy.

Rating: 1/10

"Cape Fear" (1991)

These do look like transfers rather than tattoos. Although the panther on De Niro's arm is his real tattoo. In fact, apparently it was the first time he'd shown that in film.

In more than the back piece, the pieces, the script that are on his arms and stuff, and the "Loretta" heart on his chest, is that they look really bad. They look really messed up. Which would make sense if they were done, you know, in prison, or intimately, you know, not in a professional tattoo shop.

Ed Hardy, the famous American tattooist, did once describe tattooing as like therapy. And I think there's something to that, right? Like, you're getting tattooed, you're being touched by a stranger, and you can imagine it being this kind of process of cathartic conversation to produce it. I mean, for the movie it works as a real kind of straightforward symbolism of his character, you know, he's a vengeful, you know, con.

Rating: 7/10

"Glass" (2019)

What I think's a bit self-defeating is that if you want to be a secret underground organization, it's probably not that useful to be marking yourself out as such, particularly not in a place that's really visible. In a lot of criminal cultures that have had traditional tattooing, or have tattooing as part of their initiation, so, in Russia and in South America and Japanese criminal gangs, a lot of them are moving away from tattooing now, 'cause it makes it a bit harder to commit crime if you're, like, marked out as a member of the gang.

You know, four-leaf clovers are really lucky, so maybe a three-leaf clover is, like, not lucky at all. Is there some kind of connection to, you know, superheros and mutants and, you know, some other connection? Some people are human, some people are mutant, some people are superheroes, is that the connection? Who knows? It's very heavy-handed.

Rating: 4/10

"Alpha Dog" (2006)

Frankie: It's definitely daylight.

Matt: Clean-cut white boy, like, trying to look tough in the early 2000s kind of tattooing. Nautical star, made famous by the guy from Blink 182.

Chinese characters. Apparently one of them says "ice skating"? One that says "criminal" on the back. [laughs] You can just sort of imagine the prop designer or the costume designer just, like, flicking through and kind of, "Yeah, like, what would this, like, tough criminal guy, oh, yeah, he'd definitely have 'criminal' tattooed on his back, wouldn't he, 'cause that's what hard-core criminals do." You know, Google-image-searching, like, "Chinese character tattoos" or "tattoos" and getting that, like, nautical-star tattoo up.

Cross on his arm, I think, is definitely his real tattoo. They're not the kind of thing that are particularly kind of accurate for the kind of things people are getting done in prison in that period, but they're quite kind of standard, you know, suburban-white-boy-trying- to-look-tough tattoos from that period, a bit. They're a bit David Beckham, they're a bit kind of Chicano-prison-inspired.

Rating: 5/10

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (2009)

Draco: I was chosen.

Matt: Tattoos are really indicative of, like, some kind of character flaw, right? This idea of, like, stigmata again. The idea that somehow people's evil or badness is, like, manifested on their skin. It's a pretty problematic idea. It leads to some pretty dodgy places. That, like, somehow we can read people's character by what they look like.

So, skulls and snakes, like, are really traditional tattoo images. I mean, we find them, you know, right back into the, like, 17th century. The memento mori of the skull, you know, "Everyone will die." Even in pre-Christian mythologies, but certainly in Christianity, we associate the snake with the serpent, with evil, and with the corruption of humanity and stuff. So, together, work really, really well as sort of allegories of human fragility.

And it is produced in the movie as this, you know, it's quite nice placement, for example. I mean, you know, thanks a lot, Voldemort, centering it on my arm, not just sticking it somewhere randomly.

Rating: 6/10

"Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003)

Norrington: Fetch some irons. Well, well, Jack Sparrow, isn't it?

Matt: These films are set in the sort of 1730s? The idea that there was no tattooing, like, before Captain Cook turns out not to be true. And there is tattooing in the European fleets, on European bodies, right the way at least from the 17th century, beginning of the 17th century all the way through. Would a sailor in 1730 have a tattoo of this kind? Probably not, like, it's a bit more like a kind of 1920s, 1930s sailor tattoo, actually, I have to say. It looks a bit too neat, a bit too nicely done, 200 years too early for that design.

Norrington: Well, well, Jack Sparrow, isn't it?

Matt: So, you might hear, for example, that, like, "Oh, a swallow tattoo means you've crossed the equator." Or a swallow tattoo means you've done so many miles at sea, or so many days at sea or something. If that it is true, it would have only been true in particular, narrow context. So, in the context of particular fleets or particular moments in time. There's not a huge amount of kind of iconographic complexity going on. So to go, "Oh, you've got a swallow tattooed on you, you must be Jack Sparrow," seems pretty unlikely to me.

Rating: 4/10

"Red Dragon" (2002)

The movie's set in the '80s, so that tattoo would've been done in the '80s or maybe even the late '70s. And, like, there are certain, certainly tattooists who were doing kind of blacks, or fantasy black and gray. But that really looks like an early 2000s tattoo.

The horns are very reminiscent of the work of a guy called Paul Booth, who was a real kind of pioneer of, like, Gothic, dark, black-and-gray tattooing in the '90s.

The way it's been stuck on as well, it looks like it's still healing, like, as if he's only just had it done, which seems unreasonable to me.

Rating: 5/10

"The Hangover: Part II" (2011)

Stu: Oh.

Matt: It was obviously kind of a comedic reference to Mike Tyson's tattoo.

The tattooist sued the film studio and said, "You've infringed my copyright on my artwork." Right? "I am the artist." And it went to court. Warner Bros. did threaten to have to digitally alter the film, but eventually they settled.

In the 19th century, men got tattooed in the Americas and in the Pacific and ended up performing as tattooed men in the circuses and in freak shows. And telling the story that they were forcibly captured and tattooed against their will.

The Great Omi, he, in the 1930s, had his face tattooed in black, and really kind of, actually, very progressively. And he would, again, use that as a story that he was captured by jungle natives and tattooed against his will by savages, but it was done by a guy on Waterloo Road in London.

Rating: 4/10

"The Illustrated Man" (1969)

Carl: Yeah, well, I was the one that said it.

Matt: There's no tattooing like that, really. Certainly not in kind of itinerant circles, in non-really-high-end, really cutting-edge studios, and there weren't really many high-end tattoo studios in 1969. So it's just really grating, actually, that the production designers just hadn't really looked at any tattooed people. Maybe it's OK, 'cause they're meant to be magic. So, again, maybe we can forgive him.

But, like, if this guy had been tattooed in 1969, this would've been, like, so cutting-edge and so cool. You know, there were plenty of people who were heavily tattooed coming out of the war of this age. But you wouldn't be covered in stuff that looked like it was from a kind of hippy free sheet from San Francisco.

Four, four out of 10, something like that.

Producer: It is a hot mess.

Matt: It is a hot mess.

Rating: 4/10

"The Mummy" (1999)

The tattoos on the outriders' chests are sort of done, which tell the story of, like, of guarding Imhotep and stuff. They're done, like, while Imhotep's still alive. In the universe of the movie, why these characters would have these symbols before the plot of the movie actually happens, and then why they'd be surprised about it happening, 'cause it's on their bodies already?

The British Museum mummies actually do have tattoos on them that are figural, they seem to be animal designs. And we find much more recent ones, so about 2,000-year-old, 3,000-year-old mummies that have religious marks and things.

But that kind of facial tattooing, I think the production designers have probably tried to draw some inspiration from wider North African tattoo traditions, like the Berber people.

But even in those cultures, that kind of facial tattooing would more often be, almost exclusively be on women rather than men.


Pretty racist, because they're obviously using tattooing to signal some kind of otherness and primitiveness and strangeness. A mess filmically. They just don't look very good. And, yeah, just bonkers, really. Whoever designed them was, like, thinking about what they imagined tattooing might be like.

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