Linked in ink: why tattoos and gangster films are brothers in arms
The ever-growing popularity of tattoos means they could now be seen as almost ubiquitous but they can, of course, be deadly serious – life stories, prison markers, badges representing a life of crime and affinity to one particular gang.
The extraordinary documentary Mamma Vita Mia, which receives its UK premiere during London Tattoo Convention, is a deep dive into one city where this culture is rife – Naples. The title is itself a prison tattoo – ‘mother, my life’ being one worn by almost every prisoner – and features a range of former inmates, from robbers and killers to elders of the Camorra, the Neopolitan mafia. The film was made by Neapolitan tattoo artist Braian Anastasio, who has inked many Camorra men and provided invaluable contacts with the film’s subjects, and photographer Giuseppe Di Vaio. Mamma Vita Mia shows how what was an underworld subculture, a form both of identity and self-protection, developed into a worldwide signifier of style and fashion.
Collaborator Tattoo Life magazine says of the film “Through the stories of some of the most ruthless bandits of the post-war period, the film tells us about the obscure motives which led Naples to become one of the most heavily tattooed cities in the world while, at the same time, showing the evolution of the phenomenon through the eyes of two teenagers.”
Here are four other movies which illustrate the powerful links between tattoos, sub culture and crime syndicates:
Eastern Promises (2007)
Best known for its stomach-churningly bloody naked bath-house knife fight, Eastern Promises is also a remarkably authentic look at the impact of Russian prison culture on its concomitant gang life. Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai’s tattoos tell the story of his brushes with the penal system. There’s a church with two cupolas, meaning two convictions; a skull indicates one of them was for murder; he has stars on his knees to show he won’t kneel for anyone. And so on. Mortensen ensured the tattoos’ authenticity by researching their history and speaking to people “bearing tattoos similar to those we used”.
Sin Nombre (2009)
Honduran thriller Sin Nombre (Nameless) features in Lil Mago one of the most horrific gangsters ever seen on screen – which is saying something. The leader of a small chapter of the notorious – and very real – MS-13 international gang, Mago sports tattoos all over his arms and torso. But you’d be forgiven for not noticing them, so distracting are the assortment covering his face – particularly the one shaped almost like a visor, around his eyes, nose and mouth, that spells out MS, to anyone needing confirmation of exactly which gang he calls home.
Once Were Warriors (1994)
This brutal classic shows a side of Maori culture far removed from the rugby hakas. For some, it gets under the skin, examining the excessive drinking and macho violence of unemployed father Jake ‘the Muss’, and the effect this has on his wife. For his son Nig, it gets on the skin, as he looks for an escape from the violence at home, only to join the local gang, whose distinctive facial and body tattoos resemble nothing so much as crazy paving – though they are, of course, derived from ancestral customs. After enduring a savage initiation beating, Nig adopts the gang’s ‘colours’ himself.
Shôwa Zankyô-Den (1965)
Shôwa Zankyô-Den (or Brutal Tales of Chivalry, to give it its English translation) stars the legendary actor Ken Takakura, known as the Clint Eastwood of Japanese cinema, as a yakuza, just returned from the Second World War. The country is still under American occupation and all around him is desperation, people scratching a living through corruption or on the black market. The full-length tattoo on Takakura’s back – not to mention the odd one on shoulder and arms – symbolises his adherence to the old ways, of honour codes and obligations to others. Shôwa Zankyô-Den kick-started a series which ran to nine films in seven years.