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Monday, April 11, 2016

Tattoos as a Literary Device

post by Michelle Griep

When I was growing up, the only tattoos my peers sported were stupid little X's or poorly drawn hearts on their knuckles or the back of their hands. A needle, some ink, semi-clean hands. Yeah, this flings the door wide open for life-threatening infections, but if you're engaging in risky behavior, you're probably of the mindset that you're invincible (aka an idiot).

And lest you die of suspense, no, I don't have a tatt.

Even so, nowadays tattoos are trendy. All the cool kids have one, or two, or fifteen. The dude that pierced my tragus (I said I didn't have any tattoos, silly rabbit, not piercings) had his entire right arm tattooed black. Even in literature, tatts are trending. Tattooing is practically a non-human character in the YA dystopian DIVERGENT, which portrays tattoos as a mark of virtue.

But just because they're popular, that doesn't make marring your body the right thing to do. Many people still frown on those doggone-hippy-dippy marks, feeling sure it's a sign that you'll burn in the nether regions for damaging what God created.

Controversial or not, there's no getting around that tattoos are relevant to today's culture. And exploring current issues (even in historicals) is a great way to connect with readers. Here are a few ways to think about using tattoos in your WIP.

Top 3 Ways to use Tattoos in Your Story

Give a character a tatt.
Generally, tattoos emit a tough connotation. The two prime characters in the running for this aura is your hero or your villain. Give your antagonist a creepy reptilian tatt. How about a symbol of honor for your antagonist? But let's not forget the heroine. That could be a surprise for both the hero and the reader.

Make a tattoo artist a character.
Think about it. Tattoo artists are interesting characters even outside of a book. Why not stick one in your story with all his/her quirks on display? Might make for an unexpected plot turn.

Birthmarks: The natural tattoo.
If you're theologically opposed to tattoos or you're writing of a culture or time period that didn't use tattoos, here's a freebie for you. Birthmarks. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be anywhere on the body, just like a tattoo.

Why should you bother with marking up the body of one of your characters? Because it can open up a whole thematic discussion about:

  • Discrimination
  • Personal body image
  • Consequences of choices
  • Outward symbol of an inward drive (either good or bad)
  • Self hatred / love

Personally, I'm not going to rush out to my nearest tattoo parlor and get "Mother" inscribed on my bicep. But, if you feel so inclined, HERE is a site that shows you the 33 perfect places on your body to get a tattoo.

And if you're interested in reading a fantastic novel that's about a man covered in tattoos, check out one of my all-time favorite Ray Bradbury books, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN.

Like what you read? There’s more. WRITER OFF THE LEASH: GROWING IN THE WRITING CRAFT is a kick in the pants for anyone who wants to write but is stymied by fear, doubt, or simply doesn’t know how to take their writing to the next level.

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. Follow her adventures and find out about upcoming new releases at her blog, Writer Off the Leash, or stop by her website. You can also find her at the usual haunts of FacebookTwitter, or Pinterest.


  1. My hero in Home to Chicory Lane has a tat. He's an artist and the Celtic cross inked on his left pec is a reminder to himself of his commitment to God after a rocky childhood. I admit I'm not a fan of tattoos, but it simply fit my character and created great conflict between him and his future father-in-law. ;)

    As I was writing the tattoo scenes, it struck me that my publisher might not be a fan of heroes with tats! So I e-mailed my editor to make sure it wasn't a problem. Her response: "Considering we just published a book called INKED, I don't think I can keep Chase from having a tattoo! :) I think it would be a great conflict, and a great topic for a couple of the discussion questions at the back."

    The sub-title of INKED is "Choosing God's Mark to Transform Your Life" and would be a great resource for anyone considering writing a tattoo into your novel!

  2. When our youngest son was 18 or 19, he decided to get a tat. He got a locomotive tattooed on his bicep. When he showed it to me, I loved it. It was a work of art. Thankfully, he didn't get some horrible thing. lol He now has added two more. One is the Mulligan family crest on his pec and the other's bon his other bicep. Funny, I forget what that one is. Oh well. I like his taste in what he's gotten. so I can't complain.

    In the end of Chapel Springs Survival, and featured again in Home to Chapel Springs (May 10th) is a young goth girl, who has quite a few tats.

  3. I have a tattoo on my right hip and don't have a problem giving one to a character. BTW: If you're writing about someone getting one, the fleshier the area, the less it hurts. Mine felt like a light scratch; I don't remember any pain. For several years now, I've considered getting a second on my ankle, but I know something like that would definitely be painful, which is why I'm hesitant. . . .

  4. Thank you for anticipating that I would not know what a tragus is.

  5. In my space opera, criminals are tattooed on the cheeks. This happens to one of my main characters. I'm pretty sure in that world, getting any form of tattoo willingly would be seen as extremely strange since tattooing is something done to criminals. It would probably be like wearing prison clothes to work.

  6. I don't care for tattoos.....the Butler has one on his wrist, his ex-wife's name, really don't care for that one. To each, his own.


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