Tat’s life: A brief look at extreme tattooing on film

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t mind a bit of ‘pop psychology’ every now and again (and have even wrote articles defending it – see ‘further reading’ section below). I’m also someone who believes that art not only imitates life, but life can sometimes imitate art. This has led me to write academic articles on films (such as The Gambler) to see what extent the film represents the reality of psychological conditions. I’m also someone who uses film clips as teaching aids as sometimes film or a two-minute film clip says more than any academic paper about a particular psychological concept. (For instance, I think the film 12 Angry Men probably says more about the psychology of minority influence than any paper I’ve read on the topic). All this preamble is by way of saying there’s not a lot of academic research in this blog, and is one of the few times I will just write about whatever is on my mind.

Anyway, I was travelling back from a work trip to South Korea recently and caught up with a lot of films that I had been meaning to watch for some time. I watched four particular films on one plane flight – Eastern Promises, (released in 2007), Tattoo (2002), Red Dragon (2002), and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – where (quite by coincidence) tattoos were a fundamental part of three of the four story lines (perhaps somewhat ironically, the plot of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has little to do with tattoos). Soon after after I got back from my South East Asia trip, Channel 4 then screened a television documentary called My Tattoo Addiction. This got me thinking about how tattoos have become part of the mainstream and how for some people it borders on the obsessive. In a previous blog I briefly looked at the sexually paraphilic side of tattoos when I wrote about stigmatophilia (i.e., individuals being sexually aroused by scarring but now seems to include those who are sexually aroused by tattoos and piercings). However, today’s blog takes a brief look at the non-sexually obsessive elements of tattoos.

In the film Eastern Promises (directed by one of my favourite directors David Cronenberg), the actor Viggo Mortensen plays the character Nikolai Luzhin who is the driver of a man who used to be of high standing in the Russian mafia. I’m not going to reveal any of the story line but all the tattoos in the film tell the life stories of incarcerated Russian criminals who typically have dozens of tattoos all over their bodies. Here, the constant adding of tattoos is part of the subculture and has a purpose that has nothing to do with style or fashion, and is more to do with life history and psychological identity.

To acclimatize to his role, Mortensen researched and studied Russian gangsters (called the ‘vory’) and their tattoos. More specifically, he worked with Dr Gilly McKenzie (a Russian Mafia/organized crime specialist who worked for the United Nations) and watched relevant documentaries like The Mark of Cain that contains an in-depth examination of Russian criminal tattoos. For instance, in researching this blog I have since learned that among Russian prisoners (i) an upwards-facing spider tattoo refers to an active criminal, (ii) a pair of eyes on the underside of the abdomen refers to the person being homosexual, and (iii) a skull inside a square (as a finger ring) refers to a robbery conviction. Mortensen’s tattoos were incredibly realistic (so much so that when making the film, he had dinner in a Russian restaurant in London and the other diners stopped talking out of fear!). Mortensen also admitted that:

“I talked to [real Russian gangsters] about what [the tattoos] meant and where they were on the body, what that said about where they’d been, what their specialties were, what their ethnic and geographical affiliations were. Basically their history, their calling card, is their body.”

Given the title of the film, it’s not surprising that the film Tattoo (directed by German film director Robert Schwentke) features tattoos as fundamental to the story plot. The main underlying story involves a serial killer who is obsessively murdering people for their tattoos (i.e., the body tattoos are viewed as a work of art by thekiller). The subject of killing people for their tattoos has been covered in other stories (most notably by Roald Dahl in his short story Skin) but the film is very good and unlike Eastern Promises where the seemingly obsessive motivation for the tattoos is a statement about life history and belonging to their cultural group (the vory), in this film the people who have all over body tattoos are a walking piece of art and the obsession is with the unseen protagonist.

I ought to mention there is another (1981) film called Tattoo (directed by Bob Brooks) that is about tattoo obsession. In this earlier film, Bruce Dern plays the character Karl Kinsky, a mentally unstable tattoo artist who makes his living by creating temporary tattoos for models. Kinsky becomes obsessed with a model (Maddy), kidnaps her, and forces her to wear ‘his mark’ (i.e., a full body tattoo). He keeps her captive as he creates his masterpiece on her body. The strapline on all the film posters says it all: “Every great love leaves its mark”.

In the film Red Dragon, (based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name), one of the film’s main characters (Francis Dolarhyde) has a huge tattoo of (surprise, surprise) a red dragon on his back because of his extreme obsession with William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and what he feel it represents. The tattoo covered all of Dolarhyde’s back, and extended onto his upper arms and down onto his buttocks and legs (although this doesn’t win the prize for the most tattooed man in a film – that surely must be ‘Carl’ played by Rod Steiger in the 1969 film The Illustrated Man).

What I find fascinating about all these films is the different ways that psychological obsessions can manifest themselves, and how the stories involving tattoos are totally believable because tattoos have become so much part of Westernized culture over the last decade. Not only that but tattoos have become ‘normalized’ and call into question academic research into excessive tattooing. For instance, I recently read a 2002 case report by Dr. Harpreet Duggal on repetitive tattooing as an obsessive-compulsive disorder that talked about excessive tattoos being linked to those with an anti-social personality disorder and being a “self-mutilatory behaviour”. Their report (which was only written a decade ago):

“Tattooing has been viewed as an act of self-mutilation (Raspa & Cusack, 1990), the latter being a characteristic of borderline personality disorder. The noteworthy aspect of this case is that tattooing initially represented an act of self-mutilation in consonance with the underlying personality disorder. However, later it became repetitive and had a ‘compulsive’ quality to it, though not a true compulsion by definition. There are rare reports of self-mutilation taking on a compulsive pattern but this mostly occurs with cutting and burning acts”.

This leaves me wondering how heavily tattooed celebrities like David Beckham, Johnny Depp, Robbie Williams, and Angelina Jolie would feel if they read how their behaviour might be pathologized by psychologists and psychiatrists alike?

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Duggal, H.S. & Fisher, B. (2002). Repetitive tattooing in borderline personality and obsessive- compulsive disorder. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 190–192.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). ‘Pop’ psychology. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 455-457.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Pop psychology and “aca-media”: A reply to Mitchell. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 537-538.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Media literature as a teaching aid for psychology: Some comments. Psychology Teaching Review, 5(2), 90.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Raspa, R.F. & Cusack, J. (1990) Psychiatric implications of tattoos. American Family Physician, 41,1481-1486.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 15, 2012, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Fame, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychology, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. crazyface the killer clown

    my name is crazyface i think i should be put in some of these projects as i am covering my full body my face head and throat are done already crazyface the killer clown on you tube ,please look me up contact me i will do something

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