The Meaning of Tattoos in the Movies and Real Life

Tattoos today have become extremely mainstream, and more popular than ever. Many tattoo artists are reporting an increase in consultations for first-time tattoos now that social restrictions are more relaxed.

It would appear that during the lockdown, many people had the time to put thought into what they would like inked on their bodies. For some getting a tattoo is part of their bucket list, due to the realization that life is short. But for others the tattoo they have planned will have deep significance.

For many people, their tattoos have a meaning behind them. For some, it is something very personal, and even psychologists ponder over the meaning of their patient’s tattoos sometimes. 

The rise of the celebrity tattoo

One area of life that has pushed tattoos more to the forefront is that of celebrity gossip and news. Magazines, newspapers, and websites, have enjoyed many years now of displaying the latest celebrity tattoo and gossiping about their significance.

Back in 2016, the media had a field day with Kendall Jenner’s lip tattoo. Whether it was the unusual positioning of the art or the less than obvious meaning behind it, many column inches were filled with Jenner’s tattoo.

Johnny Depp’s tattoos and their meanings have also been popular with the press. There is no mystery behind the tattoo dedicated to his mother’s name, but there has been a lot written about the infamous Wino Forever inking. The story has it that when Depp was dating fellow Edward Scissorhands star, Winona Ryder, he had Winona Forever tattooed on him. Once they split the tattoo was altered to its current state.

Quite a few celebrities, and about a million backpackers – it seems – have gone for the traditional Cambodian and Thailand tattoos, perhaps with not all understanding what they are. 

Thailand tattoos

Sak Yant tattoos have become increasingly popular with visitors to Cambodia, and Thailand especially. Angelina Jolie is responsible for many getting a copycat of the Sak Yant tattoo on her shoulder. However, most tattoo shops in Thailand will not provide a genuine tattoo.

Sak Yant comes from the words Sak (to tap) and Yant (from Sanskrit meaning a geometrical design). The words ‘to tap’ come from the use of bamboo to tattoo rather than a machine.

These types of tattoos should be created by a master who has trained for years and can understand the meaning of the design. Some people say that when they visit a monk for one of these tattoos they are unable to choose the design themselves. This isn’t completely true. It happens because most people cannot understand Sak Yant tattoos so the master will choose something appropriate.

This type of tattoo is believed to have magical properties and can bring the wearer luck and protection. Any Sak Yant tattoo that was made in a tattoo parlor will have no meaning and will most likely have corrupted text. 

Card tattoos

In the recent movie Nobody, card tattoos were worn with great significance. For most people, cards are something that you play with for games such as poker. Visiting Energy Casino or another online site will bring up blackjack and baccarat, but for the characters in these movies, cards meant something else.

Bob Odenkirk plays the main character Hutch in the movie, and although he seems to be a quiet unassuming family man, his tattoos tell a different story. In one scene where it looks like he is in some danger, one character spots the wrist tattoo of two cards and immediately backs down.

The cards Hutch has tattooed are the 7 and 2. Anyone who plays poker will know that these are possibly the last cards you want to see, and Hutch is the last man you want to pick a fight with.  

Prison tattoos

Val Kilmer plays John Smith, a man who is inside for life for murder. He explains the date tattoos on his arm in one scene. The meaning of them ranges from the date he met his wife, to the day she and their daughter were murdered. The last box is empty for the day they are all reunited.

Another Hollywood name who was proud to wear his prison tats on-screen is Harvey Keitel in the Grand Budapest Hotel. The tattoos were purposely drawn to look like they were made inside, but their meanings are left vague.

In the very recent Black Widow, The Red Guardian is shown in prison covered in tattoos and if you understand Russian, you will see the names of his daughters on one arm.

One real-life prison tattoo that has meaning is having a cobweb inked on the elbow. This can mean that the owner has spent a length of time in prison, and is not supposed to be used as a fashion statement. In the Paddy Considine movie, Honour, his character chastises a man he sees wearing this tattoo because he has never been inside. 

Lucky tattoos

Many people get tattoos of symbols or numbers that they feel bring them luck. If you search ‘slot machine tattoo’ on Google, a surprising amount of results will come back.

There are dozens of images of slot machines tattooed onto people’s skin and many of them have the numbers 777 and coins included. For many, 7 is a lucky number. Whether these tattoos were made to bring luck or were inked after a big win is unclear but having the 7 and coins tattooed clearly represents fortune and luck.

Perhaps more surprisingly is that not only are there slot machine tattoos, but the reverse is true too. Visiting a live casino and looking through the slots will reward the visitor with games based on tattoos. Perhaps good fortune and tattoos are linked in more than one way. 


The very earliest evidence of tattoos comes from a mummy found in 1991 in the Alps. Ötzi the mummy was by this point 5,300 years old. It is believed his tattoos may have had a therapeutic role and helped with pain relief. Nowadays, tattoos can have many meanings, and for some, they are deeply private.

If you are thinking of getting your first tattoo, look for a good artist and sit down for a consultation about what you want. Better to spend time considering the meaning of your future art, than years regretting it.