PSA: Amateur and at-home tattooing can be extremely dangerous. This article by no means endorses it. Tattooers train for many years to maintain a sanitary work environment to prevent bloodborne illness. If you want a tattoo, see a professional.
My first tattoo was more of a ritual, at least that’s how I thought of it, than a tattoo.
In my latter years of art school I raised hell, getting drunk and stoned every night, and generally lashed out against the world that I realized would never pay me for my art, as young artists, especially ones in art school, do. It was during those years that on a few separate occasions my other drunk friends would decide that it was time for tattoos. And so we would find a sewing needle, wrap thread tightly around its shaft, dip it into india ink, and tattoo crudely rendered symbols or images on each other. It just felt like the right thing to do, that it made me an adult. That feeling of that dull sewing needle slowly popping through the top layers of dermis somehow made everything better. I would wake up the next morning and feel a mixture of regret and triumph. Mostly, though, they made me feel powerful. They were a totemic force that gave me strength and courage, I didn’t just wear them because they made me feel cool, though 21-year-old Will might have thought so.
Many years removed from those smoldering nights I can still make out a few dots of my old stick n’ pokes peaking out from underneath the “real” tattoos that cover them. At some point I decided that I wanted a real tattoo, and so I got one. Then another, then another, and then many more. I am now very heavily tattooed, including my hands, neck, and a few small pieces on my face. They still function, for me, as that same totemic force. They make me, an otherwise rather sheepish person, confident. They make me feel beautiful, like they should have been there the whole time. In a certain light, I never chose to be tattooed, I just was tattooed.
90% of my tattoos don’t “mean” anything on their face. The massive bluebird on my neck, chosen by my tattooer, who just “kinda wanted to put a bluebird on my neck,” is not without meaning, though. It has accumulated meaning over time. It’s been with me during my best and worst, my happiest and my most cripplingly depressed. No matter what happens, that bluebird will always be there, and that’s important. There was the girlfriend who named it “Fernando.” There have been the countless people who have commented on it, generally in a positive light. The black and grey rendering of Lucile Ball on my right forearm was mostly chosen because she has an interesting face, and because my tattooer wanted to practice portraits. But over the past five years, it’s been the source of many interactions with older folks, who ask “is that Lucy?!” and when I respond in the affirmative, are delighted.
What I’m trying to say is that my tattoos are as intertwined with my being as anything could be and I can’t imagine my life without them. Because my tattoos are so important to me, and so are video games, I am constantly baffled by how poorly tattooing is represented in my favorite medium.
Often, heavily tattooed people in video games, and really any entertainment media, don’t exist outside of their tattoos.
Their bodies become a shorthand, and a shortcut, to creating a cartoon character. On the far end of the spectrum we have El Sueño from Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Yes, full facial tattooing is more common, and often customary, in certain sects of Latino gang culture, but the way El Sueño is depicted is something different. The massive cross that covers his face (aside from being really cool) is a tool to tell the player that “this is the bad guy.” In fact, most of the people you kill in Wildlands are facially tattooed, because, of course, they’re the bad guys. You’ll notice that facial tattooing, despite how ubiquitous it is among your enemies, is mysteriously absent from character creation. Sure, you can have full sleeves, or a scar on your eye, or wear sugar skull-style facepaint, but you’re not allowed to be one of them.
As much as Jack from Mass Effect may evolve throughout your time with her, her entire personality as the badass, damaged, person, bent on revenge, is communicated through the way she’s modified her body. They are a cipher for her rage and wouldn’t exist if she wasn’t “the damaged one.” When we look at her colleagues, none of them are tattooed, because they don’t fulfill the stereotypes in which we try to neatly fit tattooed people. Imagine a Jack that didn’t have tattoos, then imagine Miranda with a rose on her brow, and we get to the heart of the problem: while our society has become exponentially more accepting of tattoos and tattooing, we understand that good, normal, contributing members of society can be tattooed, video games never followed suit.
When games attempt to co-opt tattooing as a feature of their character design, or build them into character creation, it’s often handled equally as poorly. There are a lot of problems with Far Cry 3, and while my grievances of their use of “tatau” are rather specific to me, I won’t pretend that they hold a candle to the rest. That being said, there are still issues. Jason Brody, our white, privileged, male protagonist is physically empowered by his tattoos, gifted to him by the islanders (that he will kill a lot of.) He borrows their “exotic” power to survive the island. They are never something natural to him, but an external force he taps into. His tattoos fetishize the nature of tattooing. So much so, that if you Google search “Far Cry 3 tatau tattoos” you’re met with images of other people who wanted to feel as cool as Jason Brody.
In character creation suites, tattooing generally boils down to selecting a handful of pre-placed images.
Very rarely would those tattoos exist in the real world. Part of what makes tattooing such a fascinating medium is that the canvas is alive. It bends and twists and grows old. No part of that canvas is rectilinear. I don’t expect game devs to consult with tattooers, but it would be nice. As it stands, most tattoos you’re afforded, with a few exceptions, look like stickers slapped on to a teenager’s notebook. Mass Effect: Andromeda is a prime culprit. Many of the tattoos you can place on your character are actually impossible, mostly in terms of their rendering fidelity and shading.
An example of well constructed character-allowed tattoos, in my mind, are actually those in Wildlands, despite my previous sentiments. Not only do they look at extremely specific styles of tattooing, many of which are in vogue in 2017, but they look like actual tattoos. Their sleeves fit the musculature of the human wearing it. They take into account elbows and biceps, and wrap around the arm in a natural way. The tattoos in Grand Theft Auto V, while not perfect, are admirable in that they allow the player to shrink, rotate, and maneuver them in such a way that makes the entire process feel more real. Except for the fact that, much like Wildlands, you can swap out your tattoos at any time. They hold no implicit meaning or permanence. They’re exchanged with the same brevity as the t-shirt your character wears or the silencer on their rifle. That you can remove tattoos without incident is, in some ways, insulting to the gravity of being tattooed.
Being tattooed is life-changing. You can never really go back.
If not approached with an immense amount of care, respect, and responsibility, you can quite literally ruin your life. Conversely, they can change your life in a brilliant way, as mine have. They’re not just a decoration, a fad, or an indicator of who a person is. They’re one of the most ancient forms of expression and communication, dating back, as far as we have found, to 3200 B.C, but with a great likelihood, as early as when we became able to use tools. Tattooing is found in nearly every culture around the globe, and has only been maligned in Western culture over the past few centuries.
Tattooing is as important a cultural artifact as any, and proof that we can control our lives, if even just in a small way, through marking our bodies. I hope that developers at large will, someday, be able to capture their importance in a respectful and faithful manner.