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Gangsters, Pirates, and Gods: Tattoos in Video Games

Overwatch, video game tattoos, Irezumi tattoos

Grand Theft Auto V tattoos, GTAV tattoos, GTAV, Grand Theft Auto V, video game tattoosAs a kid, I could spend hours creating characters in The Sims. I loved this particular feature so much that I often spent more time building Sim families than I actually spent playing the game itself. Creating these characters was a kind of wish fulfillment because I often designed my characters to look like cooler versions of myself. They had some of my own features like my short frame and dark brown eyes, and they had characteristics I wished I had as well, like wild hair colors or tattoos. The tattoo options were slim, but I found it so exciting to customize my character with stars, hearts, and flowers.

While tattoos in The Sims are all about allowing the user to design a unique character, tattoos in most other games help to tell the overall story. In The Sims, the player creates a character from scratch with a unique appearance and personality, and tattoos are an optional adornment. In games like Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, and God of War, playable characters’ backgrounds and appearances are (mostly) predetermined, so their tattoos are part of their story. Hanzo Shimada from Overwatch displays traditional Japanese tattoos. Michael De Santa of GTAV may not come equipped with tattoos, but players can choose to spend money they earn in the game at a tattoo parlor. Edward Kenway of Assassin’s Creed sports pirate themed ink, and God of War’s Kratos memorializes his fallen brother in the form of a tattoo resembling his birthmark.

Kratos, God of War, video game tattoosMost games allow some sort of customizability with playable characters through the weapons, clothes, and abilities you gain throughout gameplay, but GTAV is one of the few that allows players to tattoo their characters. Because tattoo parlors are a part of the overall story in GTAV, the available designs change depending on which character the player chooses. Some traditional tattoos are universal across each character option, but each character also has tattoos unique to themselves. Players who choose Michael De Santa, an alcoholic, can adorn their character with a proud, tongue in cheek “Whiskey saved my life” tattoo. The ironic tattoo references Michael’s abusive, alcoholic father and his own addiction that has, of course, destroyed rather than saved his life, driving his wife to an affair and leading his children to disrespect him.

While Michael’s tattoo options are nods to his past, Hanzo’s tattoos in Overwatch are integral to his identity and his in-game abilities. Hanzo showcases a pair of dragons done in the traditional Irezumi method. Much like Kratos’s tattoo, Hanzo’s dragons represent the brother he was forced to kill in order to preserve the Shimada family’s criminal empire. In addition, Hanzo’s tattoo is essentially an image of his ultimate ability in gameplay. His most powerful in-game attack is ‘Dragonstrike’ in which he summons glowing dragons as he shoots arrows at his enemies; the dragons inflict continuous damage on any other characters they touch as they travel across the game map. Hanzo’s tattoo is unique amongst the rest in its direct connection to his ultimate ability. For Hanzo, the tattoo both serves as a reminder of the brother he mourns and a powerful attack against his enemies. 

Overwatch, Hanzo Shimada, video game tattoos, DragonstrikeTattoos on video game characters help to tell the character’s individual story and therefore contribute to the overall story of the game as well. Each of these characters’ tattoos have significant meaning pertaining to their pasts, and capturing traditional nautical tattoos or Irezumi designs allows the games to achieve some realism. Hanzo’s Irezumi sleeve for instance is a clear nod to the Shimada family’s history in organized crime along with his Japanese heritage. Video game developers have recognized that tattoos can not only be fun ways to personalize our characters, but also can help shape a character’s personality or even play a role in a character’s unique abilities.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.