Ink on Screen: The Most Iconic Tattoos in Movies

Archie Fenn
Written By Archie Fenn

Archie is a writer, journalist, and critic from South London. He spends most of his free time (and his work hours) watching and writing about cowboys in space and hip-hop samurai. His parents are very proud of him. You can learn more at and

Despite now being considered mainstream in popular culture, tattoos are still a rarity on the big screen, with only a handful of characters having and proudly displaying their inked skin. One upside of tattoos being a rarity in movies is that those displayed become instantly iconic and memorable.

Here are the 10 Most Iconic Tattoos in Movies.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Image Credit: Columbia TriStar

Starting off with an obvious one, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features one of the most recognizable movie tattoos ever, thanks in part to it being featured in the title. The film’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salamander, uses her tattoos as a way to remember key events from her life, with the bands around her arms and ankles symbolizing her breaking free of her bondage. While the actual dragon tattoo is never fully explained, many theorize it represents how she attempted to kill her father using fire.

Memento (2000)

Image Credit: IFC Films

Tattoos don’t just feature in Memento; they hold the entire plot together. Suffering from extreme short-term memory loss, Guy Pierce’s Leonard Shelby uses his skin to tattoo clues about his murdered wife in order to remember them the following day.

The Illustrated Man (1969)

The Illustrated Man
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Based on the classic Ray Bradbury collection of short stories (a book that I actually have a tattoo referencing), The Illustrated Man centers around the meeting of two traveling men, one a regular guy, the other a completely tattooed hobo. At night, the tattoos come to life and move, with each tattoo telling a story. On the hobo’s back is a blank space that, when all the stories have been told, a new tattoo emerges, revealing the fate of the one looking.

Cape Fear (1991)

Cape Fear
Image Credit: Universal

Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 classic sees Robert DeNiro’s Max stalk his defense attorney after spending 14 years in prison due to his lawyer burying evidence that would have supported his case. Max’s tattoos are a form of self-expressionism, reflecting his mental state whilst in prison. In the iconic booking scene, a policeman looks at the tattoos and says, “I don’t know whether to book you or read you.”

Moana (2016)

Image Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

The first time tattoos have appeared in a Disney film, Maui’s tattoos in Moana are heavily inspired by Polynesian culture. Maui’s tattoos in particular are used to display and boast the character’s exploits and achievements, including how he holds the sun in place with his iconic fish hook.

American History X (1998)

American History X
Image Credit: New Line Productions

Edward Norton’s Darek Vinyard only boasts one tattoo in American History X, a thick, bold swastika worn proudly on the chest of the neo-Nazi. As we are introduced to Derek, the swastika is displayed as a source of pride regarding the character’s political views. However, after his time in prison for killing two young black men, Derek’s tattoo becomes a reminder of his past and a reminder of the change he has committed himself to.

Blade (1998)

Image Credit: New Line Cinema

As well as his katanas and terrible line about ice-skating uphill, one of the most iconic elements of Blade’s character is his tribal tattoo which runs from the top of his back, up and around his neck, and through to his chest. While the tattoo isn’t given any definitive meaning, it was actually drawn by the film’s director Stephen Norrington. The tattoos have now become so iconic that several of the character’s recent comic book appearances feature the tattoos.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

The stand-out tattoo of The Matrix is small and only appears for a few seconds, but its importance in the plot is what earns its place on this list. Inspired by Alice in Wonderland and the song by Jefferson Airplane, the iconic White Rabbit tattoo leads Keanu Reeves’s Neo down the path of discovery that transforms him into The One.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Image Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.

While many may mistake Darth Maul’s iconic black and red design as the skin color of his race (and it partly is), the dark elements of his skin are actually embellished by tattoos. Maul’s black face tattoos represent his allegiance to the Sith after he was stripped of his Nightbrother markings – which initially left his face entirely red.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

Nowadays, the L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattoos across the knuckles have become somewhat of a joke. However, in 1952 they were a big deal, especially when the character boasting them was a preacher. Worn by part-time Reverend, part-time serial killer Harry Powell, the tattoos represent the character’s internal struggle with good and evil. They also embody the irony of the killer’s Christianity, as tattoos are considered a barrier to Heaven according to the bible.

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