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!
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: