When presenting a character in a film, directors and costume designers think very carefully about every last detail: what color shirt, what brand of shoes, how mussed the hair. Maybe this is why some of the coolest and most apt tattoos we’ve ever seen have popped up in movies, from the original knuckle tattoos to this year’s hottest movie sensation (hint: dragons). From the silly to the terrifying, the ominous to the controversial, click through to see our ten favorite tattoos on film, and since we know there are hundreds of great ones out there, be sure to let us know if we’ve missed any of your own favorites in the comments.
Harry Powell’s Love and Hate, Night of the Hunter
Pretty much all of the knuckle tattoos in film and pop culture are references to this classic and terrifying killer from 1956’s Night of the Hunter, who as far as we can tell, solely under-uses the right hand in favor of the left.
Captain Jack Sparrow’s swallow and poetry, Pirates of the Caribbean
Though in the film, the tattoo on Jack’s arm is assumed to be a sparrow, in truth it’s a swallow — the traditional tattoo for a sailor after he has completed 5,000 nautical miles. Depp should know — he has almost the exact same tattoo on his forearm in real life, except the swallow is flying in the opposite direction, and his son’s name, “Jack,” coincidentally, in script below. Cooler still, in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest you can see Sparrow’s back, which is covered in the prose poem “Desiderata,” Latin for “desired things.”
Leonard’s memories, Memento
We’ve heard of getting tattoos to commemorate events you never want to forget, but Leonard takes the concept to a whole new level. Not that we blame him. And hey, as far as cinematic notes to yourself go, we’re pretty fond of “find him and kill him” for its sheer simplicity. What was I supposed to do today? Oh, yes.
Chester and Jesse’s Dude and Sweet, Dude! Where’s My Car?
This pair of bro tattoos, and more importantly, the resultant Abbott and Costello bit, has always made us smile, even in the midst of what of the dumbest movies of all time. The only negative thing to come out of this idea is the number of real-life copycats you can find on Google image. What does mine say?
Lisbeth Salander’s dragon tattoo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
With a title like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we’re just saying, that girl better have a pretty killer dragon tattoo. Luckily enough, she does.
Mickey O’Neal’s head-to-toe body art, Snatch
We’ll give a cookie to whoever can name every one of the myriad tattoos that Pitt’s gypsy fighter character has covering his arms, chest, abdomen, and back in Snatch. Two cookies if you can tell us what they’re all supposed to mean.
The Illustrated Man, The Illustrated Man
The premise of this film (and the short story collection by Ray Bradbury that it is based on) definitely requires some pretty epic ink. The illustrated man is covered in tattoos, each one seared into his flesh by a woman from the future, that tell stories of alternative realities when stared at. Though the film was a flop, if you ask us, the tattoos were definitely a success.
Sirius Black’s chest tattoos, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The film depiction of Sirius Black as covered in prison tattoos caused a bit of controversy — there is no mention of any tattoo on the character in the novels, and Harry Potter purists were up in arms. We like the glyphs and Nordic runes on Black, however, especially considering the only other tattoos in the series are the Death Eaters’ dark marks. Which are pretty cool tattoos in themselves, seeing as how they’re magic and stuff.
Max Cady’s myriad tattoos, Cape Fear
Funnily enough, it’s Robert Mitchum, the actor who played Harry Powell, and who also starred in the original 1962 Cape Fear, who peers at De Niro’s chest and shrugs, “I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.” Fair enough — as Cady jokes later, “there isn’t much to do in prison except desecrate your flesh,” especially when you’re just biding your time until you can exact your proper justice.
Snake Plissken, Escape from New York
A giant black snake coming out of your pants and slithering up your stomach, ready to strike? Now that, friends, is a statement. We don’t think we need to say any more.