In recent decades tattoos have become more visible, whether that means seeing more ink in the workplace or the latest instagram post from a celebrity with a new piece of work to show off. They've been around, of course, for much much longer: the earliest traces found (so far) date back to the ancient Egyptians. Researchers discovered two 5,000-year old mummies with “illustrations of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep” alongside “S-shaped motifs” on both of the bodies.
These days tattoo culture is mainstream, as shown by the surprising estimate that one in five UK residents has one (a figure that apparently rises to one in three among young people). As part of this, fans of video games have shown their devotion to the medium by inking their favourite games, characters, levels, items, and pretty much every pixelated thing you can think of under the sun. I'm one of them: in summer 2017 my first tattoo was dedicated to the extraordinary adventures of Nathan Drake.
It made me wonder about the reasons why people choose video game tattoos, and the community of ink addicts I found across social media and numerous individual groups was only too happy to expand on why. There was a wealth of excitement and enthusiasm about the topic, and there's something undeniably endearing about seeing how each person gleefully posted their art before launching into deep conversations with others about how its origins and details.
A regular reason behind why someone might get a gaming tattoo is, like almost everything else in life, linked to our childhood memories. Chris Moore, a 29-year-old technician from Norwich, inherited his Game Boy from his mother, and with it his first game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
“The handheld was originally my mum’s but once I got the hang of everything I was away,” says Moore. He has half a heart from Zelda tattooed on his left hand as both a tribute to the title, and to how his mother gently guided his first steps in gaming. “She thought it was a very sweet memory as, when I only had half a heart of life left, I would always give it back to my mum to progress through the difficult parts.”
Image: Chris Moore
Another Zelda emblem that many choose to show their appreciation for the series is the Triforce. 26-year-old digital advertiser Austin Voigt is one of those people who, thanks to her uncle, was hooked from the tender age of two years old.
Image: Austin Voigt
“He was only 13 years older than me, so he’s always been more of a big brother than an uncle. He’d often play with me or babysit me growing up, and he had a SNES — so he’d show me how to play A Link to the Past, Super Mario World, and Super Mario Kart (those were the three games I remember most distinctly). I loved Zelda because I was always fascinated by fantasy novels and movies as a kid, and this was like a fantasy novel come to life.”
Image: Austin Voigt
Final Fantasy VII was monumental for gamers across the globe. For Jeremy Winslow, it opened his eyes to “cinematic storytelling”, giving him a “deep connection to FFVII.”
“I never actually played the game as a kid because my sister would play it (that changed as I grew older). But whenever she hopped on the PS1, I told her to wait so I could get my makeshift Cloud outfit: a purple sweater, purple sweatpants, and a stick I used to mimic Cloud’s attacks."
Jeremy now possesses the summoning meteor from the game on his arm although, he sadly informs me, doesn’t dress up as Cloud anymore.
Image: Jeremy Winslow
Zelda and Final Fantasy were one of the most frequent choices that came up while researching for this piece. Other popular games included Pokémon, Dark Souls and Overwatch. But no matter how widely liked a particular character or series might be, how each is interpreted through their own individual art-style is what makes it special. Generating something wholly original, when restricted by the fact that your favoured subject is loved by millions, can bring restrictions – that is, if you are looking to stand out from the crowd. The tattoo community embraces this challenge, and produces plenty of creative endeavours that burst with life.
Those that have especial enthusiasm for an IP sometimes go that extra mile in decorating their bodies with gaming’s greats. Matt Phillips is a video game developer from Sheffield who has been tattooing a sleeve of iconic levels from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. A “Mega Drive nut”, Phillips developed a brand new game for the system in 2018 to showcase his love. The tattoo sounds like it was equally as long in the making.
“I was planning for a very long time, probably five years or so," says Phillips. "I’ve been a long-time Sonic fan since childhood so I knew what I wanted already. I was still careful, though. I planned it properly, taking many screenshots of the game to get the composition right, then I set them as wallpapers on my computers and phone so that I’d have to see them all day, every day, to make sure I didn’t get sick of them.”
Image: Matt Phillips
Artist – The Crystal Ship, Walsall
Still not content, Matt intends to add more to his sleeve: “It’s not finished, I have the Sonic 2 special stage in progress (the outline is done), but currently short of time and funds so it will have to wait.”
Carrying similar feelings for Kingdom Hearts, Jay Turner, a 19-year-old student from Bournemouth got his tattoo at the start of this year. Turner sees the design as incorporating both his strong affection for the series and the value he places on friendship, and felt the then-imminent release of Kingdom Hearts III made it the right time to proceed.
“It’s a Wayfinder from Kingdom Hearts,” says Turner. “I chose it because it was a known symbol from the games but it wasn't necessarily something that stood out too much. As well as it being a symbol of friendship in the game (however cringy it sounds), my friends are a significant part of my life and it was two birds with one stone, if that makes sense”.
Image: Jay Turner
Though tattoos are sometimes 'only' decorative, they can also represent a notable moment in a person’s life. They can have any meaning there is: a significant event, a traumatic experience, or even the willpower to overcome an affliction. 22-year-old account executive Izzy Jagan had eating issues as a child, and recently obtained a tattoo of Spyro the Dragon as both a reminder of her condition and how she beat it.
“I got it last year in about March," says Jagan. "When I was a kid, I had some anxiety-related eating issues and my mum would always put me down in front of Spyro for hours while trying to get me to eat, and it's the only thing that worked. So honestly I've taken that positive association into my adulthood and wanted to memorialise it!”
Image: Izzy Jagan
Artist – Sabstar Tattoo
Arizona-born Amber Bailey struggled with depression – even attempting suicide at one point. Set on changing her future, Amber connected with Undertale’s “pacifist route”, hence choosing a red, pixel heart to remember what she had overcome.
“The game's pacifist route really stuck with me: the wanting to help everyone, not fight anyone, but still doing what is right. The determination to continue, to fight on. The determination to make life worthwhile. I don't want to look on my past and wonder what if, and so I've been trying to remember that I have got to stay determined. Just a glance of the red on my wrist is enough sometimes,” she said.
Now 30-years old, Amber considers it a symbol of resilience, and of love. “I’m determined to not let myself fall into depression again, and I’m determined to change my future. But it also is my love for video games and I want to share that with the world.”
Image: Amber Bailey
Video games continue to create inspirational characters that stick with us, long after we've put the pad down. Nathan Drake resonates with me because of his fearlessness in adversity, and ability to face such peril with quips and one-liners. For others, it can be seeing yourself in a personality or looking up to them as an inspiration.
With a full-shoulder portrait of Commander Shepard from Mass Effect, 25-year-old digital trader Sophie Dickey had “never played games before with that much choice.” The character also helped develop her as a person:
“At the time, I was beginning to understand myself and come to terms with being gay. Living as Commander Shepard in-game — this incredibly strong, wilful and heroic figure — helped me to shape myself in the real world. The character also helped me realise it was perfectly acceptable being gay, especially as I could pursue this in-game, in a safe environment where there'd be no judgement.”
Sophie went on to say Shepard is “everything I aspire to be”, before signing off by mentioning that she’s a “kickass strong lady” to boot.
Image: Sophie Dickey
Artist: Jack Goks, Cloak and Dagger London (Instagram)
Another theme is matching tattoos. After being friends for 21 years, Daryl, Ashlea and Nathan all chose different gaming designs, although one single element was shared.
“So the three of us have known each other since we were four, and we just wanted to get a tattoo that meant something," says Daryl. "Our first name initials spell DNA, so we each have a tattoo of something from a game, with a DNA [strand] mixed in. Mine is the Mega Drive controller to signify when I first got one in Christmas ‘1994 — which started my love of games. Ashlea has the old man from Zelda of ‘it’s dangerous to go alone, take this’, and he’s holding a DNA strand instead of a sword. Nathan has a character from Skullmonkeys, falling from the sky with a strand.”
Image: Daryl Baxter
Apart from seeing all of the incredibly diverse tattoos that are out there, I find it fascinating to hear how different everyone’s reasoning is for their choice. Everything from nostalgia to friendship to conquering past fears and illnesses, which leads us to the story behind my own tattoo.
Through a period in my life where I was working two full-time jobs, one of which I loathed, I looked forward to the day where writing was my main focus. Determined I would never give up on this dream, I chose a tattoo incorporating Nathan Drake’s motto — “SIC PARVIS MAGNA” — to act as a reminder. The phrase translates from Latin as “Greatness from Small Beginnings” and, after playing through Naughty Dog’s globe-trotting adventures, grew on me tremendously.
Looking down at the sigil and these powerful words always remind me of my aspirations, giving me greater confidence. It may seem like nonsense, or a little cheesy, but when I need one it provides that little extra boost that keeps me going. For now it does the job. That is, until my next visit to the tattoo parlour.
Artist: Matthew Foster, True Colour
Featured image: Sophie Dickey; Artist: Jack Goks, Cloak and Dagger London