Tattoos have a long and rich history in many cultures around the world. Some societies used them to brand criminals or outsiders, some used them to mark spiritual leaders, some used them as a rite of passage or to show stories of the wearer’s life.
Tattoos in video games are often used to communicate character backstory in a visual way, rather than just lore dumping on the player. There are loads of games with tattooed protagonists out there, but I still want more because they add a tremendous amount of depth to their wearers.
I think my earliest memories of tattoos in a video game come from Jak 2. The Krimzon Guard is a ferociously authoritarian militarised police force that all sport heavy facial tattoos. Not only is this intimidating, but it reveals the fanatical loyalty of the guards – once you’re in, you’re marked forever. This detail reveals the game’s resistance leader, Torn, was once a member – his face is covered in the telltale markings of the Krimzon Guard. His switch from jackboot to freedom fighter makes his character far more interesting without lingering on the point for too long.
Some games feature tattoos due to their setting and story, such as the Yakuza games. Yakuza and tattoos are heavily linked in the real world, and the games draw heavily on this link to add personality to their characters. The Yakuza games are so dedicated to authenticity that a traditional Japanese tattoo artist has had his designs in all of the tattoos in the games, according to a PlayStation Blog post. Kazuaki, Kitamura, also known as Horitomo, was brought on board by series producer Masayoshi Kikuchi after he saw his work in a magazine. Series protagonist Kiryu has an ascending dragon tattoo on his. The dragon symbolises power and wisdom, the pearl it clutches bears the word ‘monkey’ – the year of Kiryu’s birth, and the silver outline suggests Kiryu is pure of heart. People who know their stuff when it comes to the intricate meaning of traditional Japanese tattoos will be able to learn a lot about Kiryu just from this back piece. Yakuza 0, the prequel game, shows off Kiryu’s tattoo when it was just an outline before he got all the colour filled in, which is a great detail to add and a nice way to represent that he is younger and at the beginning of his journey.
Tattoos in games can also point towards the end of a journey or denote events in a character’s past. In The Last of Us 2, Ellie has a tattoo covering a scar on her arm. Joel instilled in her a fear of the bite and what her immunity represented – she would never be safe if everyone knew she was immune. They’d be jealous or try to make a cure, and we all know how badly that went last time. To cover up her bite mark, she induced a chemical burn, and to cover the burn, she got a tattoo. Naughty Dog also got a professional tattoo artist to design Ellie’s ink, Natalie Hall. The moth is a symbol of death and compulsion, two things Ellie has dealt with her whole life. The story of the game revolves around her obsession with avenging Joel’s death, often to the detriment of herself and her friends. Even the game’s loading screen is influenced by the tattoo – in it, moths are drawn to a light in an image that mirrors the spores in the first game’s loading screen. One tattoo can tie a whole game together, from the themes to the loading screens.
Just as Ellie’s tattoo allows her to take control of her own life, so too do Kratos’ red markings in God of War. These are not just warpaint, but tattoos meant to honour his brother, Deimos. An oracle foretold that a marked mortal would bring down the fall of Olympus, so Ares, Athena, and Zeus kidnapped Deimos and had him tortured by Death – because that’s obviously how you stop someone from wanting to eradicate you. Kratos tattooed his markings to match his brother’s, and then eventually destroys Olympus himself. So, the prophecy does come true, because Kratos takes fate into his own hands. This is especially true in God of War 2 where he kills the three sisters of fate. His tattoo symbolises a failure to protect his family, something he will never allow to happen again.
Some games use tattoos as a way to mark progression. Jason Brody gets more and more inked as he murders his way through Far Cry 3. Every skill you unlock adds a new piece to your forearm. Certain story beats also add more extravagant elements to the tattoo. The tattoo appears to be magical, as the new designs erupt from beneath your skin with a fabulous glowing white light each time you level up. The tattoo borrows from the real world style of south Pacific Polynesian tattoos, including Samoan and Maori. The tattoo is completed once you collect every relic in the game, unlock every skill, and fully beat the story. As Jason embraces the way of the Rakyat, the magical tattoo becomes a growing part of him, symbolising the culture’s acceptance of him. But that’s a double-edged sword, because it also shows his understanding of the culture is only skin deep, as he is sacrificed to give life to the Rakyat’s next great warrior king. He may have the ink, but he doesn’t truly understand the way of life.
Many other games also have magical tattoos or markings. Corvo, Emily, and Daud from Dishonored all sport the mark of the Outsider – once wrongly considered an antifa symbol – a glowing tattoo on their hand that denotes them as conduits of the Void and bearers of supernatural powers. The mark is described by Emily as “burning from the inside”. It glows whenever one of these characters uses a magical ability. The protagonist of newly remastered Shin Megami Tensei 3 has markings all over his body that show he is half demon, and the boy in Last Guardian gets more heavily tattooed as the story goes on.
There are so many other games that feature protagonists with tattoos, including Days Gone, Mirror’s Edge, Oddworld, and Hitman to name a few. I think every one of them deserves an in-depth analysis to uncover the meaning and beauty behind them. I hope video games keep offering us colourful characters with rich backstories that we can uncover by looking, not just by listening.
Next: Riften’s Lack Of Roof Access Reveals One Of Skyrim’s Biggest Flaws
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- God of War
- Far Cry 3
- Naughty Dog
- the last of us 2
- yakuza 0
Issy is an avid film lover, writer, and game-player based in the UK. He combines his love of film and games in his writing, trying to find as many connections between the two mediums as possible. When he’s not writing, playing, or watching, Issy loves to DJ and look after his growing collection of houseplants, as they make him feel more adult.
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