We have rated everything from hairdos to skimpy costumes lately, so we figured we would explore the world’s most popular body art in this list. Since tattoos have gone from rebellious to the everyday norm, they now adorn a wide range of heroes and villains alike in comic books. While ink used to be reserved for sailors, pirates, bikers and gang-bangers, the practice is now fashionable and accepted at every level of society.
We tried to pick characters whose tattoos are a big part of their look, or even better, the source of their powers. So, you will find current favorites like Suicide Squad members Harley Quinn and El Diablo, rogues whose tattoos come to life like The Tattooed Men, as well as newer iterations of classic characters like Mr. Terrific and The Joker.
15 PSYLOCKE (5 RONIN)
In 2011, Marvel published a five-issue miniseries titled “5 Ronin” that saw some of their most popular characters reimagined in feudal Japan. Wolverine is a hard-to-kill ronin, Hulk is a warrior monk, The Punisher is a betrayed samurai, Deadpool is a deformed madman and Psylocke (aka Betsy Braddock) is a deadly oiran. Each issue covered the story of one hero/anti-hero and by the fifth issue, the plot threads had all intertwined.
In “5 Ronin” #4, Braddock gets the spotlight and we find out how she is sold into prostitution as a child. She goes by the nickname Butterfly and has a huge tattoo of a blue monarch on her back. Those familiar with the character will know that when the classic version uses her mental abilities a flare of pink energy that resembles a butterfly appears around her eyes. So, her back tattoo was a cool nod to this distinctive visual.
14 HARLEY QUINN
While the original version of Harley Quinn created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for "Batman: The Animated Series" definitely did not have tattoos, the Harley of a new generation does. Ever since her appearance in the "Batman: Arkham Asylum" video game (2009) and its sequel "Arkham City" (2011), Harley has taken on a punkier look and edgier personality. When she first appeared in DC’s New 52 universe, she was decked out in a choker, leather corset, short shorts and knee-high boots. Then came the unveiling of her live action look for the "Suicide Squad" film in the Spring of 2015. The filmmakers had adapted her New 52 look and added a bunch of tattoos. Since Margot Robbie’s take on this anti-hero was the most popular element of the film, Harley started to have tattoos in the comics. Strange thing is, she mostly has them on covers and they are never consistent.
Harleen is a magnet for the tattooed these days. Two of the members of her Gang of Harleys sport her trademark black diamonds as tattoos. Also, many of her rogues created during Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s run are tatted up, including Madame Macabre, Hipster Mafia and Purple Satin.
13 CAPTAIN STRONG
Popeye would have been a good choice for this list because his twin anchor tattoos are as distinctive as his disproportionately large biceps. However, we thought it would be more fun to highlight DC’s Popeye homage, Cap’n Strong instead. This Superman baddie first shows up in “Action Comics” #421 (1973) and he initially planned to be a hero himself. However, the extraterrestrial seaweed he eats to get his super strength also drives him mad. Supes, as usual, has to swoop in and save the day.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Strong’s tattoos are relatively small but clearly visible whenever he makes an appearance. When he makes his debut in the New 52, the anchors are so big that they run the length of his forearms. He was re-introduced in “Harley Quinn” #17 (2015), in which he caused all kinds of trouble for Quinn and her Gang of Harleys when his “sauncha” seaweed had him tripping hard.
12 CALENDAR MAN
Julian Day, aka Calendar Man, is a villain from Batman’s rogue gallery who initially based his crimes and costumes on the four seasons, as well as Indian monsoon (or rainy season). He first appeared in “Detective Comics” #259 (1958) and was created by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff. While he wasn’t known for tattoos during his early days, when Julian was reintroduced by dynamic duo Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale in their highly acclaimed “Batman: The Long Halloween” (1996) storyline, he was an Arkham Asylum patient whose only distinguishing feature was the abbreviations of the months tattooed around his bald head. Day helped and hindered Batman in his pursuit of a serial killer called Holiday in this arc.
In DC’s New 52 relaunch, Day showed up as a reporter for the Channel 52 news team and had the same crown of tats. However, the recent Rebirth revamp has presented Calendar Man with Roman numerals circling his dome, rather than the standard month abbreviations.
11 MISTER TERRIFIC (NEW 52)
The classic version of Michael Holt, aka Mister Terrific (II), is a pretty straight-laced hero and is not the type that would sport a tattoo. He is an Olympic-level athlete like his predecessor, Terry Sloane, and they both live by the “Fair Play” motto. Holt's Mister Terrific costume even includes a leather jacket with the words “Fair Play” on both arms.
Now, the New 52 redesign of this Justice Society of America mainstay has “Fair” tattooed on one arm and “Play” on the other. The tattoos are simple, clean and quite reserved. In “New 52: Futures End" (2014), DC presented us with a version of Holt from five years in the future who had survived a large-scale war that ravaged humanity. The half decade had changed the hero’s outlook drastically and his appearance as well. He wore a black suit, ditched the mask for sunglasses and on the cover of “Futures End” #3, his sizeable new “Fair Play” back tattoo was revealed. The tat was immediately controversial, as many thought that the ink, plus the fact he was lifting weights, stripped him down to a bad African-American stereotype.
Wayne Gifford, the Basilisk, was thought up by writer Len Kaminski for his “Morbius: The Living Vampire” run in the early '90s. Gifford was sexually abused by his own father as a child, which led to an evil growing inside him. He committed his first grisly murder as a teen and by that point the entity within him had manifested itself as a dragon tattoo that covered nearly his entire body.
As an adult, Gifford performs a ritual in which he sits in a pentacle on the floor and slits his own throat. The arterial blood and his tattoo blend and become a massive humanoid dragon calling itself Basilisk. All that is left of Gifford is a pile of skin with not a trace of tattoo ink on it. He battles Morbius twice and is vanquished on both occasions. Although, as the Basilisk basically amounts to an evil spirit, he is nigh impossible to kill completely.
Daken is the son of Wolverine and a Japanese woman named Itsu, reportedly born in 1946. Well, “born” may not be the right word, as he was actually cut from the womb of his mother by the villainous Romulus. He only survived due to the healing factor he inherited from his father. He was raised by a traditional Japanese couple, but accidentally killed his adoptive mother when his mutant powers emerged. In response, his adoptive father committed suicide.
Romulus again came for him and took him to be trained by the same drill sergeant Logan had suffered under, Silas Burr. It is unknown when Daken got his large Polynesian tribal tattoo, but he has had it since his first appearance in “Wolverine: Origins” #5 (2006). Interestingly, his healing factor doesn't only repair his tissue, it also seems to “mend” his tattoo if it is hacked or slashed.
8 EL DIABLO
There have been three characters that have held the El Diablo mantle: cowboy Lazarus Lane, politician Rafael Sandoval and ex-criminal Chato Santana. The Diablo we are concerned with here is the most recent one, Santana. He was created by writer Jai Nitz and artist Phil Hester, and first appeared in his own miniseries “El Diablo” #1 in 2008. This version of the anti-hero had pyrokinesis that was directly tied to his extensive tattooing. The ink somehow fuelled his fire control and he got new tats when the old ones burned out.
In the New 52, there is definitely a connection between Santana’s tattoos and his fire powers, but it is not as clearly stated as in Nitz and Hester’s run. Also, the New 52 version of the character has a wider range of fire manipulation abilities. He was able to avoid certain death by absorbing an explosion with his tattoos, and he was shown to have such a fine control of fire that he could burn the toxins from another’s blood without injuring them.
Lucas Bishop is a mutant from 50 years in the future, albeit the future of an alternate timeline (Earth-1191). He and his sister, Shard, were born into a mutant prison camp. In these camps, captives were tattooed with an “M” over their right eye to mark them as mutants. This, of course, recalls the all-too-real identification tattoos from the Holocaust. Much like the “Days of Future Past” timeline, this future was controlled by Sentinels, until humans and mutants bande together to bring the mutant-hunting robots down.
The XSE (Xavier Security Enforcers) were established after the uprising so mutants could police themselves. Both Bishop and his sister became XSE officers, with Shard even becoming the organization’s youngest ever Commander. It is when Bishop and his partners Malcolm and Randall are chasing down a dangerous criminal named Fitzroy that they time-travel to the present. And by “present,” we mean the one in “Uncanny X-Men” #282 (1991), in which Bishop makes his debut.
Frank Simpson was kidnapped as a child by Wolverine for a clandestine government agency to be a subject in their "living weapon" experiments. He was conditioned, trained and then sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Frank was captured by Logan again, who was undercover with the Viet Cong. He tortured Simpson until he broke and then reprogrammed him to be an emotionless killing machine. Part of that torture was carving the American flag into Frank’s face! After being allowed to escape, he slaughtered a whole village.
Some time, later Frank went through the final stage of the experimental program, which included body modification and a strict regiment of drugs. He was outfitted with a sub-dermal mesh and a second heart, as well as being given three different types of pills (red, white and blue) to control his adrenaline. At this point, he also received a tattoo over his facial scars. Fun fact: For the Amalgam Comics line that mashes up Marvel and DC characters, Nuke is spliced with Bane to create Bane Simpson. The villain has Bane’s mask, so instead of Nuke’s face tattoo, he sports a red Hydra tat on his chest.
Nezhno Abidemi is a mutant with a Russian father and Wakandan mother. He was born in Wakanda but was an outcast because he was mixed race and a mutant. He first appeared in “New X-Men” #23 (2006) written by Craig Kyle and Chris Yost and drawn by Mark Brooks. Nezhno was raised in the Wakandan Royal Court and on the suggestion of Storm, who was queen at the time, he was sent to Xavier’s Institute For Higher Learning to hone his mutant powers.
The X-gene grants him the ability to increase his muscle mass, which causes a surge in strength and makes him exponentially more durable. Problem is, when he grows in size and might, it puts great stress on his body. So much so, that he was given vibranium tattoos to help keep his powers in check. The process was an ancient technique traditionally used to alleviate seizures and tremors but when the tattoos were applied to Gentle, they bonded to his flesh and muscle.
4 SPIDER JERUSALEM
In the Fall of 1997, comic industry icon Warren Ellis gifted readers something new and different in the form of “Transmetropolitan.” The antagonist of this dystopian future tale is a gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem. It’s unclear, even to the denizens of this world, what year it is, but it is obvious human beings have continued down the same path we are on now and it hasn’t turned out well. Media and law enforcement are so corrupt, that Spider and his assistants are basically the last defenders of truth and justice.
Spider’s most identifying feature other than his green and red-lensed glasses are his many tattoos. He has them on both arms, legs, his chest, back and even an arachnid on his bald head. The artist behind Jerusalem, Darick Robertson, has stated that he was resistant at first to the tattooing because it is such a pain to draw, but it was decided the tats were the best way to distinguish the character from King Mob of “The Invisibles.”
Eric Gitter, aka Ink, is a teenager who is tricked by mutant-hater Donald Pierce into thinking he is part of a squad of Young X-Men put together by Cyclops. He made his debut in “Young X-Men” #1 (2008) and was dreamt up by scribe Marc Guggenheim and artist Yanick Paquette. His powers come from his tattoos and include flight, telepathy, super strength, the ability to make others ill and the capability to induce explosions.
It is eventually revealed that he is not actually a mutant himself but instead had been tattooed by a powerful mutant named Leon Nunez. Ink got a second set of tats that let him heal others, as well as access energies similar to the Phoenix Force. Nunez also gave tattoos to a group of low level criminals calling themselves Y-Men to pay off a debt. However, Ink uses his Phoenix Force tattoo to de-power the group.
2 THE TATTOOED MAN / THE TATTOOED MAN III
The most obvious name to have on this list is The Tattooed Man. There have been three different villains that have gone by that title: the original Abel Tarrant, his student John Oakes and Mark Richards, who is not connected to either. We will focus on the first man to bear the name and also the most recent as their tattoos are the most interesting.
Tarrant is a sailor who turned to crime. When various chemicals are accidentally combined during a botched robbery, Abel discovers the mixture can animate anything he draws with it. So, in all actuality, his body art isn’t even truly tattooing… more like henna. Regardless, he can call upon various weapons, vehicles and beasts he has depicted on his skin. The Tattooed Man III, Mark Richards, is an ex-Marine who became a hitman. The former jarhead gets his tattoos from a process called “sin-grafting,” wherein he is marked by the sins of people he kills. He can then animate these "sin tattoos" and control them.
1 THE JOKER
While other characters on this list may be more known for their ink, the most infamous and controversial tattoo is The Joker’s back tat from the cover of “Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder” #8 (2008). The immense tattoo is of a Chinese dragon and it covers the majority of The Joker’s back, as well as most of his right arm. The body art fits veteran writer Frank Miller’s dark interpretation of Batman’s archenemy and considering how detailed the tattoo is, superstar artist Jim Lee does an amazing job of staying consistent panel to panel. Further, this Joker was not part of the DCU proper but instead simply part of Miller’s All-Star Batman universe. Regardless, a lot fans just did not like the drastic visual change.
You can imagine many fans were even more furious in the Spring 2015 when "Suicide Squad" director David Ayer revealed an image of Jared Leo’s Joker and he was covered in tattoos. While each and every tat was a cool reference to the comics, traditionalists could not handle that the Clown Prince of Crime had been relegated to a run-of-the-mill street thug.
What's your favorite example of comic book ink? Chat it up and tat it up in the comments!