If you browse the romance section at your favorite bookstore, you’ll likely see quite a few covers in every romantic subgenre featuring tattooed heroes and heroines. All these inked stories reflect their appeal among romance authors and readers in particular and the broader fascination the public has with tattoos in general. In 2013, 45 million Americans reported having at least one tattoo, and tattoo enthusiasts spent $1.65 billion on their ink. Forty percent of Americans aged 26 report having at least one tattoo, an interesting overlap with romance readers, 41% of whom are aged 25–44.

I am definitely among those who have always been fascinated by tattoos (and, yes, I have some myself!). Among my 13 novels to date, the vast majority of my heroes and a few of my heroines, too, have been marked with this most permanent type of body art. So it was only natural that, eventually, I’d set an entire story in and around a tattoo parlor. My romantic suspense Hard Ink series (Hard As It Gets, Hard As You Can) features the surviving members of a group of ex-Special Forces soldiers as they investigate the conspiracy that led to their discharge and fight to regain their stolen honor. The first book’s hero is the half owner of Baltimore’s fictional Hard Ink Tattoo, which becomes the home base out of which the team runs its covert operation.

In writing this series and other stories featuring inked characters, I’ve come to appreciate tattoos for their ability to play several different roles in fiction.

Tattoos and Character

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Tattoos are great for building character. The hero’s reason for getting a tattoo, what it means to him, and whether he hides it or displays it proudly are all methods by which to build the backstory and personality of a character. In a book or series with multiple characters, tattoos can also provide traits by which to distinguish one character from another. In the case where a character gets ink in scene—or has one removed—the tattoo serves to illustrate part of the character’s arc. Tattoos can further be used to connect character with world-building, for example, in a story in which markings reveal a character’s rank, status, affiliations or powers. All of these make tattoos more than just sexy, intriguing body art, though in romance establishing the sex appeal of the characters is of course a key goal.

Tattoos and Plot

The symbolism and meaning behind tattoos can also relate to the building of plot. Tattooed marks telling of prophecy or identifying a character as an eligible mate, for example, serve purposes related to the broader story. Authors can also use stereotypes about tattoos—for example, that the kinds of men who get them are bad boys or troublemakers or otherwise rough around the edges—to establish conflict.

Tattoos and ThemeKaye_Cover

Not only do tattooed characters help establish a gritty, sexy, edgy and possibly even dangerous tone to a story, but recently there have been numerous romance books and series where tattoos are thematically central to the characters or settings. My Hard Ink series is not only set in a tattoo parlor, the first hero is a tattoo artist and he’s shown in a scene inking someone. Other books in the series will show main characters getting new tattoos. Similarly, Jay Crownover’s Marked Men novels, Laura Wright’s Wicked Ink Chronicles, Ranae Rose’s Inked in the Steel City series, and the multi-author Midnight Ink box set, in which all eight stories are connected by their incorporation of a fictional New Orleans tattoo shop, all feature tattoos, tattooing, tattoo shops, or tattoo artists as the main story elements.

Tattoos as Fantasy

Though 45 million Americans have gotten at least one tattoo, that number represents only a small proportion of the overall American population. Fiction allows readers who are fascinated by ink but who for personal, professional, belief, health or aesthetic reasons would never get one themselves to engage in the fantasy of tattoos and sexy, tattooed characters. No encounter with a tattoo needle required!

Do you have tattoos? Do you enjoy reading about them? If so, do you have a favorite tattooed character you’d recommend?

Laura Kaye is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over a dozen books in contemporary and paranormal romance and romantic suspense. Laura grew up amid family lore involving angels, ghosts, and evil-eye curses, cementing her life-long fascination with storytelling and the supernatural. Laura lives in Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and cute-but-bad dog and appreciates her view of the Chesapeake Bay every day.