For a look back at what typical American military and jail house-style tattoos of the late 1960s and early 1970s looked like the movie THE INDIAN RUNNER, directed by Sean Penn, is a great example. Penn wrote the screenplay himself, inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song "Highway Patrolman." The song details the troubled relationship between two brothers.
The character of Frank Roberts is played by actor Viggo Mortensen. Frank has always had a "restlessness" as his father describes it and even before he went into the army, he had some trouble with the law. Now home from a tour of duty fighting in Vietnam, he finds his brother has given up farming and is now a hometown police officer with a wife and child. As much as Frank tries to settle down and have a normal life, his temperament and basic nature leave him discontented with that type of life.
The tattoos they applied to Mortensen for the role are the typical piecemeal style that was characteristic of American tattooing at the time. Frank's tattoos are scattered all over this arms, hands, chest and back. The images are a broad and personal mix: a spider web around a nipple and a "screaming eagle" about to land on the other, a heart, a question mark, a horsehoe with a hand of cards, an Indian wearing a headdress, "mom" and "pop," a swastika, military emblems, a skull smoking a cigarette, a pegasus and many more. His left hand says "kill" across the knuckles and the right reads "f*ck." That pretty much summarizes Frank's attitude in life and how he often deals with things.
The designs and placement are very realistic for the time period (late 1960s) but some sharp-eyed movie watchers have commented the placement seems to shift and move around a bit during the course of the film, so if you like movie goofs, keep your eyes peeled.
If you'd like to see more of the tattoos of THE INDIAN RUNNER the movie is available on DVD. It also stars Dennis Hopper, David Morse and Patricia Arquette.