Why We Got, and Why We Love, Our Video Game Tattoos
Gamers explain why they've been inked with characters from video gaming history.
All photographs supplied by the tattoo owners, and published with their permission
Video gaming tattoos are hardly rare – I know a good half-dozen people with a Legend of Zelda image forever inked into their skin, and have seen my share of Dark Souls, Sonic series, Halo and Nintendo-related tats at both gaming conferences and on the high street. But that doesn't mean that they're commissioned without good reason, or that a little Mario hat on the shoulder is about to become as ubiquitous as the name of a first-born, or something in Thai script brought back from summer vacation that the owner thinks means "love" but actually, when you look at it more closely, really, really doesn't.
I asked six video game fans to explain the background to their tats of choice – and in some instances, the chosen designs are but one of several games-indebted images they carry with them every day.
"This tattoo is a picture of Lilith, from The Binding of Isaac – or, rather, from the game's Afterbirth expansion. I've played the game every day for over two years. Initially it was something I'd whip out on my hour-long commute to work, because it filled the time perfectly. It wasn't until my laptop broke for a week that I realised how important the game was to setting up my day. It's also my go-to for any days that are particularly dark for me, and definitely a source of stress relief.
"I introduced Simon, the artist, to the game a few months before I got the tattoo, and he fell in love with it the same way I had. We had a back and fourth for a month before settling on Lilith for the design. Nobody has really recognised it on the street yet, due to the switch in art style and the niche appeal of the game – although, the developers really loved it and one of them told me, 'Hey, I inadvertently scarred you for life. That's pretty awesome.' That's all the recognition I need.
"The style of the tattoo is created by having the needle hit the skin at a slower pace, giving the artist greater control of where the 'dots' are placed. This is great for me because it hurts a lot less, but since the needle is slower, the whole process is slower. This tattoo took 13 hours altogether. Because my other arm is dedicated to A Song of Ice and Fire, having something this large on show wasn't initially a problem. The biggest issue I've encountered so far was taking my coat off during a funeral, because of the satanic symbolism.
"In this design, Lilith is holding a spirit heart with the 'Brimstone' symbol inside of it, and has her familiars next to her. Her hands are placed in such a way to echo the game's Satan statues, 'as above, so below'. I wanted a devil deal pool item and an angel room pool item – the sacrificial dagger and the Holy Grail.
"I suppose my (gaming) tattoos aren't very mainstream, so they could pass as 'every day' art, but I'm always proud to point out their origin, if people ask. My academic studies actually focus on consumer culture in tattoos, so I might be a little biased here, but I think we're over the stigma of gaming being for 'geeks', somewhat. Most people who are indifferent to tattoos are generally swayed by quality and design over context. It also lends to the argument that video games are a form of art. If a game touches me again in a meaningful way, I'd absolutely consider getting a tattoo based on it."
"This tattoo is from Deadly Premonition. I played it soon after it came out in the UK, and it immediately clicked with me. It's not perfect, but the characters, setting and sense of humour really had an impact on me. Long after I'd finished it I was still thinking about it. It's a highly polarising game – you kind of love it or you hate it – and although I play a lot of games it's rare for me to fall so deeply in love with one. I spent a lot of time with Deadly Premonition, from a messy break-up to big life changes, like moving a long way from home for a job. I knew for a long time that I wanted to have some representation of it on my skin, but it took years to settle on exactly what to get.
"I got this tattoo about a year ago, in August of 2015. My artist had never heard of the game, but he did some research and ended up really excited about the piece, even though it's small and simple. He was pushing me to make it more elaborate, maybe use some characters, but I wasn't quite prepared to have Francis York Morgan on my leg in all his glory – maybe one day.
"Nobody, apart from my friends who know and love Deadly Premonition like I do, has recognised the tattoo. The symbol is taken from the game, but I worked with my artist on the design, so it's a little subtle and maybe not immediately recognisable as being from it. I wear clothes that display it as often as possible – it's on my left calf – so I live in hope that someone will recognise it.
"I don't think that getting a game tattoo is any different to getting one of something from a book or a film, but people have tended to view them very differently. I'm seeing a lot more gaming tattoos lately, and I think it's a really good thing. Tattoos are taken very seriously but I don't see them that way. I try to have fun with mine. If I see someone else with a gaming tattoo, it makes me feel like I have something in common with them, even if it's related to a game that I'm not a fan of. I definitely see people in a different light if I see that they have a game tattoo – it's a pretty good icebreaker.
"I have another games tattoo – a Dragon Age design – and I would like others. There's a handful of games that have stuck with me as much as Deadly Premonition, so it's just a matter of time."
"I chose to get Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII tattooed because I think she's a very cool character, and one that I found myself very attached to. I got it done in September 2014, just after my 18th birthday. I'd just completed Final Fantasy XIII, and had got a good way into XIII-2 at the time, and I really liked her design.
"My tattoo artist actually had pictures of Lightning in his studio, which was pretty cool; I think he may have also had a figurine. But to be honest the tattoo didn't have any greater significance for me, other than her being a character I really liked, until May last year, when I got to meet Ali Hillis – she's the voice actor for Lightning, and she signed my arm. It's since become a cool anecdote that I can tell people, when they ask about the tattoo. I get a few people asking about it at conventions and stuff, and the comments are very complimentary.
"I've seen people with tattoos of the l'Cie designs from Final Fantasy before, but nobody with another Lightning tattoo. In addition to this one, I also have a tattoo of Big Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3. I got that in February 2015, because I looked up to him, as well as thinking of him as a well-written and designed character.
"I think that, over the past two decades, gaming's become more mainstream, and more artistic. People like to show that off through body art, and I know that I have a few more in my head that need to be done."
"This is a tattoo of Chester – full name, Otto von Chesterfield, Esquire. It's on my left arm, just above the wrist. He's an adorable NPC/object in the game Don't Starve, and is super useful. You find him in game by picking up the eye bone – my long-time friend Lucy had that tattooed at the same time as I had this one – and that summons him to you. If he dies, the eye on the eye bone closes until he respawns again.
"I got really into Don't Starve around the time it came out of early access, and have been playing it ever since. When Don't Starve Together – its multiplayer mode – came out, my friend Lucy and I started playing it on our Wednesday Twitch stream, as a monthly community play – we create a server and people in the chat can join and hang out/survive in-game with us while watching. There are a few jokes around Chester on the stream, and one of our regular viewers always tries to set him on fire for some reason.
"He's called Chester because he's basically a chest – you put items in his mouth and he follows you around, carrying them. Depending on what you put inside him, he can change fur, too. For instance, there's Shadow Chester, if you fill him with nightmare fuel at full moon time, which means his fur is dark grey and he can carry more items; then there's Snow Chester, activated by storing blue gems at full moon, which means he has white fur and he's better at preserving food, and any ice you store inside him melts slower.
"I can see that to someone who doesn't know the game, it just looks like a cute little monster, and I guess that's alright. But it also marks that fact that Lucy and I had this cool thing going on, at this moment in time. If someone doesn't know what it is, I'm always happy to tell them; and if they do, if nothing else then it's a conversation starter. I have other tattoos that reference pop culture, and they're all personal to me; they all represent when something changed about me, or a turning point, or something I want to remember."
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ALICE, 26 (and three quarters)
"I've got this companion cube, from Portal 2, on my leg. I got it done a couple of years after the game came out. I tend to sympathise with NPCs and characters in video games a lot – possibly more than actual people IRL – and even more so with robots and AI, for some reason. That new Overwatch short about Bastion was very emotional for me. Thinking about it, a companion cube is the purest form of that: it has no arms or legs, or any way to express itself, and yet it has feelings and you're supposed to look after it.
"The text ribbon says 'ad lunam', which means 'to the moon', which I got as a reference to the end of Portal 2, but I thought it sounds like the kind of stupid inspirational stuff people get on tattoos, and it made me laugh.
"Because of where the tattoo is, it's only fully visible if I'm wearing shorts or a skirt, so people don't often ask me about it – although I think it's more to do with people thinking it's weird to accost strangers to compliment them, especially in the UK. I was on holiday in the USA recently, though, and I got more comments there. I bought a bottle of water in the airport and the woman behind the counter went, 'Girl, you are tatted up,' and asked me about them, because I have several others. If I'm in an actual conversation with someone, especially in a setting where we all know we're nerds, people might ask about it. Like in Loading Bar (London gaming bar), or something. And people with tattoos sometimes like comparing them, asking about artists and so on.
"The artist for this one was Lou Hopper, who is pretty well known now because she was on the first season of Tattoo Fixers, but left. The show has been getting a lot of shit from tattoo artists for being terrible, but Lou is a fantastic artist and I would recommend her to anyone. I don't know for sure, but would imagine she left because the show was terrible. She didn't know what the design was, but she's done a few pop culture things in the past, and she'd done a lot of stuff in this style before. She's proficient in a bunch of different styles, to be honest.
"I love tattoos. I'll be covered, eventually. Every time I get one I immediately want another one – the only thing holding me back is the expense. But with tattoos it's better to pay more, because you really do get bang for your buck. It doesn't help that every time I get a tattoo I meet more cool artists. The last one I got was by Keely Rutherford – she did this on my leg. One of the artists working at the same time was Matt Difa. He turned out to be well into World of Warcraft, and we talked about our character specs and the new film. He does a lot of geek stuff – games, comics, films and so forth – so I really want one from him now. I've wanted a Dragon Age one for a while, at least a year, but I'm knocking around what to get. Generally I get an idea and think about it until I have enough money to approach an artist. Tattoo artists themselves are usually great at interpreting idiot customer's ideas. This companion cube I was probably thinking about for eight months or so.
"I think tattoos can be lovely pieces of art. One of the artists who worked on my feet says she thinks of them like living in a house and putting some nice pictures on the walls, rather than leaving them blank."
"I got this done in 2011, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Legend of Zelda series. It's on my upper right arm. To be honest, there's no special reason as to why it's positioned there – it just fits in well with another tattoo I have.
"This design is based on the end scene from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which was the first Zelda game I ever finished. I was quite late to the series, but this game opened my eyes to all the other games in the series. It's my absolute favourite of all of them, though.
"I felt a great sense of achievement on finishing A Link to the Past. It was around the time I started making friends through sharing a common interest in video games, and I discovered so many, then, that I'd not heard of before. I guess this was when video games became a big part of my life.
"I like it that a lot of people know what series it's from. Because of its style, people tend to associate it with any 'retro' game, but I love it when people know it's from Zelda. It just immediately shows that I'm a massive fan of video games, and Nintendo in particular. People talk about games with me after they've seen it, so I guess it breaks the ice for what can still be seen as a niche topic at times.
"Other than my girlfriend's grandmother, nobody's ever said anything negative about the tattoo. Most people are actually really positive about it. The tattoo artist who did it, though, he didn't have a clue what it was, which I can understand. But he tried to remove the Triforce from the design – I had to explain why it was so important."
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"This is a Leshen, from The Witcher 3. It was my first experience of the series, and the lore surrounding it hit me like a brick. The way the monsters and your choices affected everything in the game had me immersed for far longer than I'd like to admit. The most important thing about a tattoo is that it is a piece of artwork you love, and I think the Witcher series has no shortage of stunning designs for its monsters.
"The idea to get the tattoo came as soon as I started the hunt for a Leshen. Walking through a dense forest destroying totems certainly set the scene. Then a forest spirit wearing antlers rises up for the undergrowth with a piercing groan, and all I could think was: 'Well, that's my next tattoo.' The decision was made maybe a little too quickly – I did the usual questioning as to whether this is something I would like on my body permanently but was never deterred.
"Not many people know what it is, but I always receive compliments for the detail of it. I've not yet seen anyone else with a Witcher tattoo, and nobody in my family had any idea what it was. Nor did the tattooist, actually, which I thought was surprising as we have very similar interests. He'd certainly never done a Leshen before, so I think he had a bit of fun with it.
"Games are packed with really cool ideas, so why not have a games-related tattoo? Why have some stars, or a rose, when you could have some Fallout power armour, or some grotesque beast? Personally, I'll always appreciate something original over something taken from the tattoo parlour wall. And I might well have more gaming tattoos in the future – I still have plenty of blank skin."