Tattoos On The Big Screen Are In Need of A Makeover

With Oscar fever beginning to sweep in, accompanied by the justified criticism over their complete lack of diversity, I feel its only right that we turn our gaze to the big screen and its portrayal of tattoos.

Though both online and on the small screen tattoos are the focus for many shows, Hollywood’s glamour does not seem so keen to embrace the topic.

What started with Miami Ink, “the gold standard” of tattoo shows as AV Club labels it, has now grown, for better or worse, into a multi-million pound industry of tattoo-related output for television audiences.

Ami James, Chris Nunez and co pioneered the standard format for tattoo television and paved the way for a host of other artists to make their mark on their clients, and the public, with AV Club stating that Miami Ink “spawned the whole subgenre”.

Following the shows launch, audiences have been treated to the sensual delights of LA Link, London Ink, Madrid Ink, NY Ink, Tattoo Fixers, Tattoo Nightmares, Inked, Ink Master, My Tattoo Addiction, America’s Worst Tattoos and many more.

As Margaret Lyons explains in an article for Vulture, tattoo shows seem to have settled into four main categories. There are The Contest Shows where artists pit their skills against a panel of judges or fellow artists; The Workplace Shows focusing on one studio and their steady stream of tribute tattoos; The Bad Tattoos Shows that provide emergency services to those tattoo disasters; and finally the Kitchen Nightmares where the audience visits problematic parlours. sketchy studios, and barely believable businesses.

Personally, I feel the format is already in need of a shake up with the tried and tested method gradually becoming monotonous and formulaic. But as fans of body art we should not be too downbeat, as tattoo television is not the only area where we are able to witness ink on the small screen.

As tattoos have become more popular with the public, they have increasingly been incorporated into the mainstream shows that we watch on TV. In some cases tattoos have been themselves the unique selling point of the entire show as producers seek to tap into the tattoo-mania sweeping society.

Prison Break is the most obvious example of this with character Michael Scofield, played by Wentworth Miller, covering himself in the elaborate blueprint of a prison so that he can escape with his brother.

More recently Blindspot has hit the screens with its heavily inked heroine raking in 10 million viewers in the US for its opening episode. In the words of The Guardian’s Graeme Virtue “It’s just the latest and most bombastic example of the mainstreaming of tattoos”.

Even the fast food giants McDonalds have attempted, and failed, to get in on the act recently with an ad featuring an alternative punk looking pork wrapper. And though they fail in their attempt to seduce me to visit the less-than golden arches, they at least seem more accepting of her body art than they were of mine when I spent three (regrettable) shifts working there as a teen.

Despite the growing popularity of tattoos on the small screen, there are still those who are opposed to the phenomenon. Dawn Cooke, a tattoo artist from Detroit, USA, and blog writer for Tattoo Artist, is one such critic.

Cooke, who appears to be somewhat of a purist and is a self-confessed “traditionalist” when it comes to tattoos, has written for The Huffington Post in the past about why it is she has come to hate tattoo television. Among her “10 reasons the tattoo community doesn’t respect tattoo reality TV shows” is that the topic has been beaten to death, watching tattooing is boring, and that “these shows and people who make them are missing the point altogether”.

Despite its critics, surely the growth and acceptance of tattoo television can only be a positive phenomenon for those of us who appreciate and admire the art form.

And though tattoos are becoming more widely used and seen on television, they are still yet to break the mainstream barrier of Hollywood.

Some may question why I consider this important, but with almost 172 million cinema admissions in the UK in 2015, how things are portrayed on the big screen can have a dramatic impact on public opinion.

Such a huge figure – almost three times the entire population of the UK – does not even take into account movies downloaded, streamed, or bought on DVD, and with the rise of services like Netflix, movies are only going to become more frequently watched.

To be blunt, the impact of the big screen can be hugely powerful and its influence over public opinion should not be underestimated. Take the 1975 Spielberg classic Jaws for example, which not only made audiences think twice about swimming in the sea, it also led to a huge growth in shark-hunting, because as the film wrongly suggested, sharks were nothing but man eaters.

Now whilst people with tattoos are not quite being portrayed in the same light as 25-foot Great White Sharks, they, or should I say we, are being portrayed in a light that is less than flattering, or indeed accurate.

The stars of Memento, Red Dragon, Eastern Promises, Pirates of the Caribbean, American History X, Snatch, and Wanted are all memorable due to their body art, but their characters play into the stereotype of tattoos belonging only to certain members of society. These being, essentially, the undesirables.

In Memento, the protagonist suffers from severe memory loss and is responsible for the deaths of a number of people. In Red Dragon, the protagonist is a serial killer and a cannibal. In Eastern Promises he is posing as a Russian gangster. In Pirates of the Caribbean, the protagonist is a pirate – as the name suggests. In American History X he is a murderous Nazi. In Snatch he is a bare-knuckle boxing champion. And in Wanted, the protagonist is an assassin.

It’s hardly a line up that is going to instil trust and respect from the public for those of us who choose to cover our bodies similarly.

With one in five Brits being tattooed, and one in three young British adults adorning themselves in permanent art, with similar figures occurring across the pond in the US, how is it that there are so few tattooed people being seen on the big screen? And more importantly, when they do appear on the big screen, why are they not being shown in a more positive light?

I am preaching to the converted here I know, but could somebody please have a word with the Hollywood directors and screenwriters, and tell them that not all tattooed people are criminals, murderers, or racists. Some of us are teachers who are busy educating the next generation, some of us are nurses who save lives every day, and some of us are scientists pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and looking for solutions to the biggest problems.

Bring on the Hollywood tattoo revolution.


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This article was originally published in Skin Deep Tattoo Magazine issue 261


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