1. Jake and Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers
Nothing drives home a character’s bad-assery like an awesome introductory sequence, and The Blues Brothers features one of the best. We first meet Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) when the latter comes to pick up the former as he’s released from the prison where he earned the nickname “Joliet Jake” and got his own name tattooed across the four fingers of his left hand. Elwood isn’t lucky enough to have the letters in his name match up with his number of fingers, so he lets the “O-D” run over to his right hand. And while the two may look like Hasidic diamond merchants, there’s more inked evidence of their criminal backgrounds: Both sport prison crucifix tattoos with time-served dots on their hands as well.
2. Harry Powell, The Night Of The Hunter
Of course, the words tattooed across the Blues Brothers’ knuckles—like so many hand tattoos in cinema and television—are a callback to 1955’s Night Of The Hunter, in which terrifying preacher Robert Mitchum has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across his hands, one letter per finger, back when tattoos were considered an actual sign of degeneracy rather than artistic self-expression. That’s far from the only contradiction about Mitchum; he uses his tattooed hands to illustrate the battle between love and hate and to mesmerize the rubes, but those same hands are demonstrably capable of dishing out beatings and murder when someone dares to balk their owner. Harry Powell and his hand-tats are so memorable that numerous movies have copied the idea verbatim, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Do The Right Thing to Cape Fear to The Simpsons. (To be fair, Sideshow Bob was parodying Cape Fear copying Night Of The Hunter. Also, like the rest of the yellow-skinned, overbite-sporting oddities in the world of The Simpsons, he only has three fingers per hand, so his tattoos read “LUV” and “HAT.”)
3. Max Cady, Cape Fear
Then again, Robert De Niro in the 1991 Cape Fear had tattoos that went well beyond his hands. Mitchum also starred in the original 1962 pulp classic Cape Fear (sans hand tattoos); turning up for a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s remake, Mitchum stares at the ink on De Niro’s barrel-chested jailbird and deadpans, “I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.” Tattoos are common enough in prisons real and fictional, but De Niro’s are merely a component of a much more intimidating package: Imprisoned due to the deliberate negligence of his defense attorney, De Niro is hell-bent on revenge, and he’s sharpened his body and mind for the task by learning to read (from See Spot Run to law books) and bulking up his frame. Though he later jokes, “There isn’t much to do in prison except desecrate your flesh,” his tattoos are a statement of purpose, fusing a thirst for justice with Old Testament retribution. He’s a great talker, but he doesn’t have to open his mouth to make his dark intentions clear.
4. Seth Gecko, From Dusk Till Dawn
George Clooney doesn’t look like a bad guy, which is one of the reasons he’s so effective as a criminal threat in the first half of the road-trip/gore-flick mash-up From Dusk Till Dawn. He’s charismatic, friendly, and good-looking in a way that seems safe in dark alleys. But then there’s that tattoo, a wild swirl of black flame running up his arm and neck. Friendly as he looks, he can’t hide that ink, nor what it says about his character: This is a dangerous man, good to have on your side in a fight, but he’ll burn anyone down who stands in his way, or his brother’s.
5. Blade, Blade
Tattoos can demonstrate commitment, personality, or an ideal, but in the world of Blade, they have a special meaning. Being a vampire means invitations to all the coolest parties, but it also means a serious allergy to the daylight hours. So powerful vampires take on human “familiars” to do their weekday chores, and give them ink cattle-brands to indicate their status as property. Blade’s tattoos indicate the opposite. While they don’t have any properties to help him battle the legions of the undead, or control his own struggles with the hunger that’s part and parcel of his superhuman strength and endurance, they do provide a simple, clear mission statement: He belongs to no one, and he’ll probably stab anyone who asks about his affiliations.
6. Edward Jerse, The X-Files, “Never Again”
Edward Jerse had a bad day. His wife left him, the divorce was finalized, the kids were gone, and after drowning his sorrows at a nearby dive bar, he went and got a tattoo at the parlor across the street to commemorate the occasion. It’s a picture of a winking pin-up girl, with the words “Never Again” written underneath, and the next day, it starts speaking in Jodie Foster’s voice, emasculating him and driving him to violence. The fourth season of The X-Files showed the series at its most creative, and “Never Again” is a compellingly odd entry about how good it can be to be ordered around, and what happens when those orders start to chafe. Agent Dana Scully, for once separated from her obsessive partner, meets Edward, sees something in him she understands, and forms a tenuous, doomed bond. As Scully explains, she, like Edward, has always wanted someone to tell her what to do. Some designs live under the skin, and can’t be seen until it’s too late.
7. Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon
Brett Ratner’s 2002 film Red Dragon didn’t have much to recommend it over Michael Mann’s Manhunter the previous adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon; the former was essentially made so Anthony Hopkins could pay serial killer Hannibal Lecter again, and all involved could hopefully get another taste of that sweet, sweet Silence Of The Lambs money. But Manhunter was a more chilling film by far, and Red Dragon was overblown enough to be almost comedic. Still, Ratner got one thing right: The images of crazed murderer Francis Dolarhyde (played by Ralph Fiennes) walking around shirtless, sporting the full-back tattoo derived from William Blake’s Great Red Dragon, which is what Dolarhyde is in his own imaginings. Seeing him sinewy, inked, and plotting his next killing, it’s actually easy to believe he’s something more than human.
8. Mal’akh, The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown’s follow-up to The Da Vinci Code didn’t match its predecessor’s astronomical sales figures, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. The Lost Symbol takes every Da Vinci single element and replaces it with some other element, in a crazed literary game of Mad Libs. Paris is replaced by Washington, D.C., the Priory de Sion is replaced by the Masons, and an unstoppable albino villain is replaced by an unstoppable tattooed villain, who hopes to unlock the secrets of the Masons’ hidden treasure using the art inked on his body. The villain, Mal’akh, has a secret origin story that delves heavily into why he got so many tattoos, and Brown spends plenty of time lovingly describing the assorted symbols Mal’akh has etched into his skin, as though he were a walking, talking Masonic Where’s Waldo?
9. Michael Scofield, Prison Break
Briefly a big hit in the mid-2000s, Prison Break revealed in the pilot that hero Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) had covered his body in elaborate tattoos, many of them of demonic figures and other strange images. And what were these tattoos for? Well, they had the entirety of the prison’s layout hidden in their myriad twists and turns. Somehow, the prison’s officials never grew suspicious of just why this structural engineer who specifically requested their prison kept studying his arms so closely. After the gang escaped at the end of season one, the show attempted to suggest that Michael’s tattoos contained even more secrets, but it quickly abandoned this conceit when it proved too ridiculous. By the show’s final season, when ratings had slumped and all involved needed to cut back on Miller’s time in the makeup chair, Michael had the tattoos removed (surprisingly painlessly).
10. Little Pete Wrigley, The Adventures Of Pete & Pete
Like Mr. Tastee’s secret identity or the true nature of Artie, The Strongest Man In The World’s superpowers, the origin of Little Pete Wrigley’s complementary sailor’s tattoos remained a mystery throughout The Adventures Of Pete & Pete’s three-season run. But questions of “How?” and “When?” rarely mattered on the Nickelodeon series—in Pete & Pete’s surreal, perpetually autumnal suburbia, it’s accepted that the neighborhood hellion should have a wooden ship sprawling across his back and a red-headed enchantress wrapped around his left forearm. The latter tattoo, nicknamed “Petunia,” became more than just a symbol of Little Pete’s rebellion and preternatural worldliness—she was a character unto herself, with an endless repertoire of arm-twist-based dances (“She came up with this little number just for you, Smitty.”) and her own spot in the show’s opening credits. Petunia also served as one of Little Pete’s many allies in his fight against that shadowy, bedtime-setting cabal, The International Adult Conspiracy, routinely freaking out such famous freaks as guest stars David Johansen and Iggy Pop.
11. Tonny, the Pusher trilogy
Danish actor Mads Mikkelson is an intimidating guy: tall, imposing, and with a glower frightening enough to get him cast frequently as a villain, most recently Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. But as Tonny—the gangly, reckless would-be criminal mastermind in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy—he’s about as gangsta as Ali G. The giveaway is the “RESPECT” tattoo emblazoned on the back of his bald pate, which advertises his poseur status well before his actions confirm it. Mikkelson gets the spotlight in Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, a sequel made nearly a decade after the first film, during which time his character has logged a prison stint. Once he’s released, that “RESPECT” tattoo looks all the more regrettable, because he’s aged past the point where it could be explained away as a sign of youthful impetuousness. As he tries to get his life back in order, it ensures that people will always be literally laughing behind his back.
12. Leonard Smalls, Raising Arizona
The stench-ridden embodiment of all that is evil, scowling bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) strikes fear into the hearts of baby-nappers and bunny rabbits alike. But he lets his guard down just a smidge with a shoulder tattoo reading “Mama Didn’t Love Me,” a telling admission in a movie so concerned with parental love. Of course, chances are if you’re close enough to make it out, it’ll be the last thing you ever see.
13. The Illustrated Man, The Illustrated Man
A wandering sideshow attraction whose moving tattoos tell the elegantly crafted short stories of Ray Bradbury, the title character of Bradbury’s 1951 collection appears only in the introduction, a brief epilogue, and a few interstitial interludes, but that’s enough for him to leave a permanent impression. Covering him from ankles to collarbone—courtesy of a tattooist he surmises must have been a witch, or a visitor from the future, or both—his ever-shifting designs spin alluring tales. That is, until the onlooker works his way around to the Illustrated Man’s right shoulder, where a blank patch of skin reveals the entirety of the viewer’s life, right down to the manner of its end. The 1969 film adaptation followed a similar anthology structure, but apart from a comedic mention of “space whores,” the image of Rod Steiger as the Illustrated Man, shirtless and covered in ink, is more memorable than any of the stories his tattoos tell.
14. Nuke, Daredevil
In Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s masterful 1986 “Born Again” arc of Daredevil, the Kingpin, frustrated at his inability to take down the titular superhero, unleashes a murderous, pill-popping mercenary named Frank “Nuke” Simpson on his home turf of Hell’s Kitchen. Nuke, a misguided super-soldier, bears a tattoo on his face of the Stars & Stripes—a fact that leads to one of the story’s most shattering emotional moments, when Captain America gets involved in the struggle. When Daredevil asks Cap why he cares so much about stopping Nuke, Cap responds that it’s because the madman “wears the flag.” Daredevil, of course, is blind, but his comment that he “hadn’t noticed” is interpreted by Cap as indifference to the meaning of the greatest of American symbols, and Miller makes readers feel the full weight of a man who has taken it on himself to represent an entire nation. To anyone else, Nuke’s facial tattoo is a menacing show of brutal American imperialism; to Cap, it’s a disgrace to everything he stands for.
15. Leonard, Memento
Which is more inherently bad-ass, tattooing yourself with a needle dipped in ink, or using your own body as a memo-board reminding you to go kill someone? The protagonist in Memento does both. Some of his many text tattoos are his own handiwork, while others are professional jobs, but they all have the same purpose: to get him past his memory blocks and keep him going day to day, through a system of reminders that let him surpass his critical injury. The central ones across his chest keep him focused on his purpose for continuing to live: “John G. raped and murdered my wife” and “Find him and kill him.” Usually, movie and TV tattoos are meant as a message to everyone but the person wearing them. In this case, they’re a personal commitment that neither need nor invite anyone else’s eyes.
16. Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises
In a detail so in tune with the director’s oeuvre, it’s hard to believe David Cronenberg didn’t invent it, every tattoo on Russian thug Viggo Mortensen tells a story: three onion-shaped Orthodox domes on his back for his three prison terms, stars on his knees to indicate he “bow[s] to no one.” The film’s famed naked bathhouse fight gives us plenty of opportunity to inspect them, because what else would we be looking at?
17. Frederick “Junior” Frenger, Miami Blues
The tiger tat ex-con Frederick Frenger (Alec Baldwin) sports has less to do with genuine fearsomeness than his self-image as a wily cat prowling a world of unsuspecting prey. When a pushy Hare Krishna demands his name, he drawls “trouble” and snaps the Krishna’s finger, inadvertently sending him into cardiac arrest. But notwithstanding his ace Tony Montana impression, he isn’t much of a criminal mastermind: He struggles to avoid Fred Ward’s literally toothless cop and fails to outwit Jennifer Jason Leigh’s simple-minded prostitute, but he still has some sweet ink.
18. Darth Maul, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
With no Darth Vader around yet, George Lucas wanted a nightmarish villain to spook the kiddies in The Phantom Menace. The result was Darth Maul, whose most striking feature is a series of elaborate, tribal-looking markings on his head and face. Maul doesn’t ever become a major enough character in the films to enjoy a backstory, but his origins are detailed in the novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, in which it’s revealed that the designs aren’t some natural trait of his alien race, but Sith tattoos given to him by Darth Sidious as part of his indoctrination into the Dark Side.
19. Snake Plissken, Escape From New York
Kurt Russell’s tough-as-nails, post-apocalyptic hero in Escape From New York and Escape From L.A. doesn’t need a badge to prove his bad-assery. What he does have, though, is a giant tattoo of a hooded cobra on his stomach—a nod to his nickname, Snake Plissken, and—as some have conjectured—possibly an homage to the snake-handled pistols slung by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. The former war hero, criminal, and savior of America gets to put his champ-stamp on full display during his big shirtless gladiator-style battle against the monstrous Slag in Escape From New York. Word to the wise: When picking someone to fight to the death, avoid the guy with the deadly animal inked into his skin.
20-21. Dean and Sam Winchester, Supernatural
Hell-battling brothers Dean and Sam Winchester are usually able to concoct or luckily run across all kinds of spells and talismans to help them out of a jam—one that often involves being pulverized and/or devoured by some minion of Hades. But in the season-three episode “Jus In Bello,” the siblings reveal a new trick: matching tattoos on their chests, a flame-enshrouded pentagram pattern that provides some form of protection from demonic possession. Of course, nothing in Supernatural is surefire or safe—but at the very least, their tattoos gave rabid Supernatural fanatics an excuse to put down the remote and head for the nearest tattoo shop.
22. Ink, Young X-Men
Heroes and villains with superpowered tattoos are nothing new in the comic-book world: The longest-running (and least imaginatively named) of these characters, the Tattooed Man, debuted in the ’60s and is still around in a different form. But Ink from Young X-Men was a killer new twist on the old idea. Eric Gitter, a founding member of the Young X-Men, is a teenage punk with a chip on his shoulders and access to a mutant tattoo artist—one who can imbue the tattoos he gives Gitter with superpowers: lightning bolts on his head grant him telepathy, a biohazard symbol on his hand can make people deathly sick, and so on. Of course, there’s a price to pay—the tattoos sap his soul, and in a future timeline, Ink winds up practically brain-dead and with tattoos on his entire body. Good luck getting a day job.
23. Timothy Hunter, The Books Of Magic
Neil Gaiman’s boy wizard, Timothy Hunter of The Books Of Magic, is one of many characters cited as possible sources of plagiarism for J.K. Rowling. In spite of the surface similarities between Tim Hunter and Harry Potter, though, the former always had a much darker streak—one that manifested itself in ink when the troubled 13-year-old allowed himself to get mystical tattoos over the entire front of his torso in an attempt to contain his vast, unpredictable, potentially world-shaking powers. The two sinister-looking tattoos—an overlapping moth and scorpion, wind up dumping all kinds of problems on Tim, who already has more than enough of both.
24-25. Connor and Murphy MacManus, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day
The MacManus brothers from Troy Duffy’s Boondock Saints movies spring from a phenomenally juvenile place of bad-assery: They’re trash-talking, swaggering vigilantes who’ve literally been empowered by God to go kill the bad guys, with plenty of smug banter and over-the-top, repurposed religious iconography along the way. For instance, the half-and-half tattoo the brothers share on their backs: One has the head and shoulders of Christ on the cross, the other… has his shins and feet. Thank goodness there weren’t three brothers, or the third would presumably be walking around with Jesus’ belly-button and crotch on his skin. (Warning: Clip contains naked asses and profound ridiculousness.)
26-plus. The Sons Of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Sons Of Anarchy
Motorcycle gangs take their symbols pretty seriously. If you don’t believe it, try wearing a Hell’s Angels jacket if you aren’t one, and enjoy the vicious stomping that will inevitably follow. Even though it’s fictional, the Sons Of Anarchy Motorcycle Club treats its logo with particular devotion—and why not? It’s only a goddamn Grim Reaper with an anarchy symbol, a bloody scythe, and a machine gun, after all. To get more badass than that, it would have to be a vampire Grim Reaper with a pet tiger and its own blimp, or something. That’s why full members of the gang not only wear the logo on their jackets, they also get it tattooed on their backs. And if they transgress against the club, as did former member Kyle Hobart in the “Giving Back” episode, they no longer have the right to display the symbol—even if it’s permanently etched into them. Kyle is given the unpleasant choice of “fire or knife” to remove his reaper, and the episode ends with Tig taking a blowtorch to his bare skin.