• Guy Pearce and his tattoos in 'Memento'. (Sony Pictures)Source: Sony Pictures
Tattoos have long been used in TV and film to add character depth, advance plots and just make actors look cool. These are the best ones.
Rob Hunter

2 Nov 2018 - 1:09 PM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2018 - 1:43 PM

Documentary series Tattoo Age looks at the artists behind the tattoos, highlighting the talent and nuance of their skilled creations. But whether it’s an intricate artwork or a particularly memorable piece of barbed wire, every tattoo tells a story, making them perfect for screenwriters trying to add depth to their characters.

These are some of the greatest tattoos from pop culture…


Suffering severe amnesia, Guy Pearce’s character Leonard Shelby uses tattoos as a series of indelible clues in order to track down his wife’s killer. Leonard may have found this task simpler if the tattoos were inscribed in a symmetrical, easy-to-read fashion. Nevertheless, Memento ironically represents one of cinema’s most memorable uses of tattoos.


Dude, Where’s My Car?

Fun loving slackers Jesse and Chester (Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott) wake up to discover tattoos on their backs they can’t see and don’t remember getting. In an infamous scene, the two then try to explain what each other’s tattoo says, finally answering the question of just how funny it is to say the words ‘Dude’ and ‘Sweet’ repeatedly. (The answer being: a bit, sort of.)


The Simpsons

Bart’s unfinished ‘Mother’ tattoo, Grampa’s ‘Flying Hellfish’ logo, Sideshow Bob’s German inspired ‘Die Bart Die’ and jailbird Tattoo Annie’s ingenious Mad fold-in are just a few brilliant tattoos from the longest running scripted series on television. There may also be examples from recent episodes but like most hardcore Simpsons fans who love the show more than anything, we haven’t watched the show in 15 years.


The Hangover 2

Having not learned a goddamn thing since the original Hangover movie, the characters in The Hangover 2 wake up after another series of drunken mistakes including Stu’s (Ed Helms) facial tattoo based on boxer Mike Tyson’s. In the movie, Stu is shocked he would do something so stupid, although telling Mike Tyson his tattoo is dumb is best left to someone unconcerned about their immediate health.


Prison Break


The tattoos in Prison Break were key, as Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) covered his body with secret codes and maps in order to rescue his brother from prison.Purposefully then getting himself imprisoned, Scofield’s use of tattoos was inspired. They also made many of us feel bad about the lengths we definitely would not go to for our own siblings.


Night of the Hunter

One of the most iconic and referenced examples in cinema, the ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattoos across homicidal reverend Harry Powell’s knuckles in Night of the Hunter represent the good and evil inside every person. Admittedly, it is often tough to focus on the good in ruthless murderers like Powell, but it is nice to know that even insane serial killers have a pleasant side.



Playing an Irish traveller often referred to in less polite terms, Brad Pitt’s tattoos in Snatch include two cats wearing top hats, an image of the Last Supper and the face of what is purported to be Mary Magdalen on his chest. Though their meaning has been debated, it arguably helps establish his character as someone who quite likes tattoos.


Harry Potter

Known as the Dark Mark, the symbol of a skull and snake adorns the wrist of dark wizard Voldemort’s followers known as Death-Eaters. As reviled purveyors of evil, most wish to keep their identities hidden, meaning Death-Eaters are forced to wear long sleeves even on sunny days, serving as an eternal punishment for their misdeeds.


Escape from New York

Understated and suited to any occasion, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) proves that a cobra rising from your groin and covering your stomach remains a lesson in timeless style.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Though the movie’s name reveals certain things about the main character and what kind of tattoo she has, its meaning is otherwise left ambiguous in this thriller remake starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.



When Rebel Wilson’s character Brynn is offered a free tattoo from a stranger operating a tattoo studio in a van, she gives the only sane answer possible – yes! As her resulting artwork confirms, if a tattoo is free, there is no downside.



Sporting the most classic tattoos of them all, Popeye’s anchors serve as a reminder of his proud naval heritage. Despite lingering doubts surrounding the addition of steroids to his spinach explaining his inhuman boost in athletic performance, Popeye remains a beloved character.

Special mention should also go to Robert De Niro for his symbolism-laden tattoos in Cape Fear, Randy Quaid’s risqué tattoo from Kingpin, and the character Maddox from the movie Fortress who appears to have had his tattoo drawn on by a small child.

In Tattoo Age, tattooists are celebrated for their talents but for some people, the thought of getting a tattoo remains unappealing. Fortunately, as the above examples prove, fake tattoos can be just as memorable. So for those unwilling to get a real tattoo who still wish to be known for their artistic ink, becoming a world famous movie star presents another viable option.


Season two of Tattoo Age starts Saturday 3 November at 5:40pm on SBS VICELAND.

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