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Angelus's Tattoo

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The tattoo on Angel’s back is one of the features that allowed Giles to identify him as Angelus (Angel). This obviously means that he must have had it done before he received the curse. But also, since Giles stated that he had found the only information available on Angelus in the diary of a former Watcher, means that at some stage in the past a Watcher or Slayer had got close enough to Angelus to see his naked back…

A tattoo as such is not quite as surprising as you might think, since there was a brief fad for having them, amongst the upper-classes, in the late nineteenth century. However, we know from Angel that he in fact got it earlier than that.

There’s nothing about Angel in the texts, but it suddenly occurred to me that it’s been ages since I’ve read the diaries of any of the watchers before me. … There’s mention some two hundred years ago in Ireland of Angelus, the one with the angelic face. … Does this Angel have a tattoo behind his right shoulder?


This is about the earliest time he could have had it since tattooing was reintroduced to Europe in the late 18th century by sailors who had seen the art form amongst the Polynesians. It is perhaps apt that Angelus should have a religious tattoo since tattooing was banned by the Christian Church (You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you - Leviticus 19:28).

Here are a couple of photgraphs of Angel’s back. This not only allows us gratuitous study of it, permits Buffy to actually make a token appearance, and leaves us wondering who the voyeur in the background is, but also allows us to see the Tattoo.

A rather dark screen capture from 'Angel' showing Angel with his shirt off after being injured by 'The Three'. The tattoo is visible as a winged creature above the letter A.Another shot of Angel's back, this time probably from the scene in 'Graduation Day' when Angel feeds from Buffy. A man, presumably a crew member, seems to be watching in the background. The tattoo is slightly clearer although its exact nature is still unapparent. It is noticably higher up his back than in the first picture.

The first observation is that this is a black tattoo, which is odd because most tattoos in the nineteenth century would have appeared bluish, due to the dye used, but we will pass this off as some unique feature of vampire skin. We will also be charitable and assume its flexible location is due to the effect of rippling muscle. There remain some conclusions that can be drawn from the design itself.

Here is a close-up sketch of the tattoo – imagine yourself within inches of his skin…

The tattoo in all its glory. A creature with elegantly crossed front legs, paws with rather long claws, a wing covering where most of its body should be, and its blunt-nosed head turned back to look along the wing. The overall style is highly decorated with numerous curls and flourishes.

So, despite various descriptions of it as a bird or gryphon, it is in fact a winged demi-lion perched on the letter A. The design of the lion has even been tracked down, by an enterprising soul (Zenkitty – whose webpage sadly no longer seems to be available) as a slight variant of an illustration in the Book of Kells. Where it is one of the four traditional winged figures representing the Evangelists. It is of course the symbol for St Mark; with the ox representing St Luke; the eagle, St John; and the man, St Mathew.

In British heraldry a gryphon (also spelt griffin or griffon) has the body, hind-legs and tail of a lion, with the head, ears, wings and foreclaws of an eagle. A mythical creature with the body and head of a lion and the wings of an eagle is strictly speaking known as a winged lion, but some people mistakenly call it a gryphon. Further eccentric souls, presumably unaware that they are all just variant spellings for the same creature, try to make spurious distinctions between Gryphons, Griffins and Griffons according to exactly what body parts from each beast each one has. None of which had any basis in heraldry and all of which annoys pedants such as me no end.

Detail of a page from the Book of Kells.Detail of a page from the Book of Kells. The original for the tattoo is clearly the winged demi-lion, which is not just the same shape but has numerous decorative details in common. For example the crossed paws and a large semi-circular curl on the wing.

The Book of Kells is a Latin text of the Gospels, and some other religious material, believed to have been made by Irish monks on the Scottish island of Iona in around AD 800. From the ninth century until 1541 it was kept at the Abbey of Kells in the Irish Midlands, where it is possible some further pages were added. There are at least four different hands visible in the book and at least one of them was familiar with Southern styles, while others were Celtic. The whole thing is very beautiful and justifiably famous, and it was a sacred work of art, kept to appear on the altar on very special occasions rather than be used every day. Trinity College Dublin has owned it since 1661, where it has been on display in the Old Library since the nineteenth century.

The A presumably stands for either Angelus or Aurelius (discounting the theory that Liam’s surname was Adare or something).

The symbolism of the winged lion of St Mark is more complex. As one of the Tetramorphs it represents one fourth of the nature of Christ. The man being the human nature of Christ, the lion, the royal dignity; the ox, the sacrifice, atonement and priesthood; and the eagle, the ascension and divine nature. The lion is traditionally supposed to be roaring in the desert and preparing the way. The four Cherubim guarding the throne of God and the Four Corners of Paradise, are sometimes shown with four heads: human, lion, ox, and eagle. And it is all to do with the four elements being combined.

The winged lion can also represent, in its own right, the union of two natures or the androgyne, and hence the ultimate goal of alchemy. The sun. And, like all composite beasts, it suggests primordial chaos and the fearsome and terrifying powers of nature; and the evil and chaotic forces in the world. While in Christian symbolism a lion is considered to represent (as well as the majesty of Christ) the Devil, the solitary hermit, and watchfulness and fortitude.

All of which is fascinating, and some of it is very apt for Angelus and even more so for Angel, but how and why did such a thing get to be copied onto his back? Here are some theories:

  • Angelus himself chose the design, and it was done in Ireland, by a tattooist who had caught a glimpse of the Book of Kells when it first went on display in the nineteenth century and who had it in his repertoire.
  • It is an ancient symbol of the Order of Aurelius, handed down over many centuries, and was copied from them by the artist who drew it in the Book of Kells.
  • That crabby old bat the Master caught sight of the Book of Kells in his travels, and liked the design. So he had it put on the back of ‘the most vicious creature I ever met,’ the vampire who was intended to sit at his right hand ‘come the day.’
  • Drusilla saw it in a vision, sketched it, and insisted Angelus have it there.
  • The man who rebound the book, causing a great deal of damage, in the nineteenth century, was subsequently caught and tortured by the vampires. And during their games he showed them a copy of the design. Then Angelus had the tattoo done as a memento of a pleasant interlude.

But in all likelihood,

  • Angelus woke up after a drinking binge and it was just there.