Mar 28 2014 11:00am

Tattoos Speak Louder Than Words: SFF Characters with Ink


Tattoos are pretty socially acceptable nowadays, but there was a time when just having interesting ink marked you as an outsider, a rebel, or even a criminal. Writers have used them for years to literally mark their characters, either to push them toward the edge of society, or to mark them as special, mystical, in touch with a magical word invisible to others.

We asked on Twitter for the best tattooed SFF characters, and we’ve collected some of the responses below. See if your favorite is here, and let us know who we missed in the comments!


Illustrated Man, The Illustrated Man
Mr. Dark, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man

Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man is a carnival worker who becomes “The Tattooed Man” to save his job. Unfortunately, his tattoos also predict a grim future…so be careful when you decide to get ink. Bradbury used a similar concept in Something Wicked This Way Comes, when Mr. Dark, a demonic carnival leader, gains a tattoo for each soul he entrances. Our favorite rendition of the character, however, comes from Guillermo del Toro’s mind-blowing opening to The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror XXIV.” Complete withe bonus Richard Matheson!


Rand al’Thor, Wheel of Time

Rand al’Thor, Dragon Reborn, Champion of the Light, Breaker of the World, Prince of the Dawn, has some epic ink. The palms of his hands are branded with images of herons, which mark him as the Dragon Reborn. But most striking are the two metallic, scarlet and gold dragons, seen in this image by Seamas Gallagher, that snake up his forearms, marking him as the Chief of Chiefs to his people, the Aiel.


Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan

Spider Jerusalem initially appears at the spitting image of noted comics writer/snake-puppet enthusiast Alan Moore. Then he is put in a shower that strips all of his hair off, and emerges as the spitting image of Hunter S Thompson. He is also revealed to have some pretty elaborate tattoos. He has a small spider on his forehead, a variety of tribal-looking designs, and, supposedly, a tattoo in a particularly sensitive spot. Luckily, we never see it.


Mercy Thompson, Mercy Thompson Series

Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson is a half-white, half-Native American shapeshifter who can transform into a coyote. She owns an auto-repair shop, and she can see the dead! She is quite a tattoo enthusiast, as we can see from the intricate art on her back and arms. She also has a bright red coyote paw right beneath her navel, presumably to honor her shape-shifting ability. Dan Dos Santos provides the art for the series, including this cover for Night Broken.


Phédre, Kushiel’s Dart

Phédre is a Servant of Naamah and an anguisette, which makes her a particular type of holy courtesan. He back tattoo, called a marque, denotes her House, her status as a Servant, and shows the level of her debt to her sponsors. Once enough clients have paid toward completing the marque, she will gain her freedom. Artist Donato created this oil painting for Kushiel’s Dart—it premiered at Spectrum Live II and was published by the Science Fiction Book Club for the new release of the classic novel by Jacqueline Carey.


Haplo, The Death Gate Cycle

Of the seven-book Weis & Hickman series, The Death Gate Cycle, Haplo stands out amidst a giant cast of characters, Labyrinths, intrigues, and four different elemental realms. He’s a force for chaos, a reluctant Anti-Hero (or possibly just Hero?) and a committed dog person. He is also possessed of some fabulous ink.


Darth Maul, Star Wars Universe

As if Darth Maul’s demonic looks and saberstaff weren’t enough to strike terror into the hearts of the less badass, his naturally red skin is also covered in erratic black tattoos. These were done by Darth Sidious in a sort of initiation rite to prove his devotion to the Dark Side of the Force.


Karsa Orlong, Malazan Book of the Fallen

Karsa, the giant Teblor warrior, has a tattoo spreading out like veins across his face to mark him as an escaped slave. Chris Hawks’ art shows both the extent of the tattoo (it truly shatters the warrior’s face and marks him forever) and Karsa’s innate strength.

Heboric, Malazan Book of the Fallen

Karsa’s fellow Malazan character, Heboric Light Touch, is an ex-priest of Fener. His face, like Karsa’s, is covered in intricate tattooing, but of an altogether different sort: “the boar’s face [overlay] his own, the intricate maze of script-threaded, curled fur [wound] down his arms, covering his exposed thighs and shins, and […] detailed hooves [were] etched into the skin of his feet.” This full-body tattoo is so intricate, in fact, that the first search for images turned up a drawing exercise by a Malazan fan intent on rendering them correctly! Here’s the result:


Sirius Black, Potterverse

Ordinarily the words “prison tats” don’t come up too often in children’s literature, but Sirius Black is used to being a rebel. Presumably he didn’t have these before he was sent to Azkaban, but after his escape we catch occasional glimpses of occult-looking markings that may be either tattoos or brands. Given that he was in solitary, though…who did this to him?


John Constantine, Hellblazer Comics, Constantine

John Constantine’s tattoos serve a purpose: in the Hellblazer comics, Swamp Thing temporarily possesses John, and has a tree tattooed on his ass as revenge for all of John’s manipulations. And in the film he has several tattoos on forearms. After a particularly nasty exorcism he brings his arms together, using the tattoo as a sigil to summon the Angel Gabriel.


Briar Moss, Circle of Magic series

Briar Moss starts out as a thief, but each time he’s arrested he receives an “X” tattoo between his thumb and forefinger. He later replaces these tattoos with plant tattoos, but because of his own magical nature, and the needles he used, the tattoos become more of a subcutaneous garden, which lives and grown beneath his skin. Minuiko’s art shows the tattoos as they slowly spread up Briar Moss’s arms.


Raven, Snow Crash

Poor. Impulse. Control.

Tattooed, on his forehead.

Raven is the guy who disabuses Hiro Protagonist of the notion that he could ever be the baddest motherfucker in the world. He’s an Aleut harpoon master, and he rides a bike with a nuke in the sidecar. If Raven is killed, the nuke will go off, wreaking vengeance on the United States for their treatment of the Aleutian Islands during World War II. Artist T. Jensen invited Raven to stand in for “R” in his Alphabooks series, and we think it was a wise choice.


Arlen, The Warded Man

In Peter Brett’s The Warded Man, the tattoos are magical runes or “wards,” which protect the wearer from attacks by demons known as corelings. The wards must be maintained properly, however, in order to work…here we have Kim Kincaid’s painting of one of the main point-of-view characters, Arlen. After he finds a spear with combat wards thought to be lost, he attempts to share the new weapon with his friend and leader Ahmann Jardir. When Jardir betrays him and leaves him in the desert to die, Arlen decides to cover himself in the symbols, and become The Warded Man.


And obviously we have to end with Lydia, The Tattooed Lady:


Leah Schnelbach does not have any tattoos yet, but is open to suggestions. She is also on Twitter!

1. Weald_steph
That last is the reason I wasn't named "Lydia", since my sister and brother wouldn't stop singing this song after Mom told them the planned name. Well, :-P I got my tattoos anyways!

Atticus O'Sullivan from The Iron Druid Chronicle'Sullivan.jpg

The tat -- which is made up of very intricate Celtic knot work -- starts at his right hand, winds around his arm, down his side, to finish at the bottom of his right foot. They serve to bind him to the Earth, as well as reveals what animal forms he can shift into. The ritual of recieving the tattoo also plays a big role in one of the latest books.
Bruce Arthurs
2. bruce-arthurs
No love for Gully Foyle, in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination?
3. dwndrgn
Allie Beckstrom from Devon Monk's Magic's Price series has magical golden 'tattoos' even though they weren't actually tattooed on but show up after some heavy duty magic work. You can see a rendition of them on the cover of the first book: Magic to the Bone
Cory S.
4. Hungry_For_Hands
I'm here to second Atticus O'Sullivan. The whole ritual / process/ background of the druid tattoos is awesome.
Joseph James
5. wjames1204
Shuhei Hisagi from Bleach. Aka, the guy with the 69 tattoo on his face. One of my favorite side characters in the series, despite relatively little screen-time.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
1. Four, Tris and everyone else from Dauntless faction in Divergent.

2. Narcheska (Princess) Elliana from the second and third books in Robin Hobbs' Tawny Man trilogy. She has very elaborate back tattoos that serve an important plot purpose (that I won't spoil).
Christopher Andrews
7. DrBlack
How about Ka D'argo, who wears the chin tattoos of a general that he adopted to protect his commanding officer from torture.
S Cooper
8. SPC
Or how about Larry Niven's Warlock, who stores a demon in a tattoo on his back?
Sky Thibedeau
9. SkylarkThibedeau
Kyra "Starbuck" Thrace and Sam Anders in Battlestar Galactica

Uncle Sam Adama and just about every 'dirteating Tauron' Halatha member on Caprica
Karen Simley
10. Simka
Kaylin Neya from the Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara.

And Maxine Kiss from the Hunter Kiss series by Marjorie Liu.
11. mdunnbass
How about the Obligators from the Mistborn universe?

Government officials tattooed across their face to mark both their job and their rank. As if being a beaurocrat wasn't punishment enough!
12. Athreeren
Planescape Torment's Nameless One: "No wonder my back hurts, there's a whole damn novel written on it."
13. Indi
2. Narcheska (Princess) Elliana from the second and third books in Robin Hobbs' Tawny Man trilogy. She has very elaborate back tattoos that serve an important plot purpose (that I won't spoil).

Yes, came here to see this!
14. bekr451
I got to submit Dana Parker from the Troy Rising series by John Ringo. This young lady has a full back tat of Greek warfare

I also agree about Atticus O'Sullivan
15. Muswell
Sam and Dean Winchester and their anti-possession tattoos.
16. BridgeFourBeauties
How about all the members of Bridge Four from Tor's very own "Words of Radiance?" There is artwork of those tattoos already on Tor.Com after all.
17. AgingComputer
What about Vinculus, from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell!
18. ladypimpernel
How about Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor? She has some awesome ones, particularly "True" and "Story" tattooed one on each wrist to indicate that the stories she tells about her life are true even though she makes them sound like lies.
19. Cybersnark
Don't forget Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist, with elaborate alchemical designs tattooed around his arms, allowing him to perform alchemy without drawing a circle.

And, love him or hate him, there's Chakotay, from Star Trek Voyager.
Ben T-Moore
20. BenTGaidin
Tara, of Three Parts Dead, has an elaborate set of magical tattoos that she uses to convert starlight into necromancy. (Okay, slightly more complicated than that, but still awesome.)
21. Bill Campbll
How about Snake Plissken in Escape from NY?
or Ivan Vanko in IM2
Birgit F
22. birgit
Axies in the Stormlight Archive uses his shapeshifting to make notes as tattoos.

In the Night Angel Trilogy the vir are tattoo-like parasites that allow using Khali's magic.
23. AlyxL
Part of the graduation ceremony for magicians in Lev Grossman's The Magicians involved the application of a tattoo incorporating a protective demon.
Steve Taylor
24. teapot7
Surely Gully Foyle from_Tiger, Tiger_ (aka _The Stars My Destination_) should be at the top of this list? At the very least second after _The Illustrated Man_.
Elizabeth Bear
26. matociquala

I have a few tattooed characters of my own--Matthew Magus in the Promethean Age books; Jackie in One-Eyed Jack, DCI Garrett in the New Amsterdam books, Tin and Fargrimr in the Iskryne books... and others. *g*

Tattoos are incredibly appealing as both a mark of magic/sacrifice/initiation and a thematic/character indicator.

Scarification is another fertile literary playground. What makes a mark makes a mark, as it were.
Thomas Stessl
27. tommythecat
Guy from Carnivale with the tree tattooed across his back. I can't remember his name and am too lazy to google. Character was played by Clancy Brown.
28. Tegan
Pet Peeve time - I LOVE Mercy Thompson, but she only has one tattoo (which is stated multiple times throughout the series). For some reason the cover art gives her a gorgeous set of themed tattoos for every book, and while they are lovely, she doesn't have them.
29. jaf
Let's not forget Lededje Y'breq from Ian M. Banks Surface Detail . Her tattoo was a very intergral part of the plot.
Kerly Luige
30. Celebrinnen
Love Rand's.
But looking for badass tattoos, take a look at Barrons from K.M.Moning's Fever series. Like, really. The man ... errr... whatever he is covers himself with red and black rune tattoos to reverse some side effects of what he does, and when he runs out of skin, he can very conveniently die and start fresh. And he's the ultimate badass.
31. Sonya Rhen
I love Kermit and the belly dancing tatooed pig! Love Mercy Thomson and Snow Crash. My book "Space Tripping with the Shredded Orphans" the main character Lix has a tatoo of a space worm up his arm. I just can't remember if it was his left or right. (Hmmm.)

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