The Girl with the Smurf Tattoo

It’s hard to avoid reading into someone’s appearance, especially when they’re intended to intimidate.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson’s introductory book to his now famous Millennium series crime trilogy, we’re introduced to the multifaceted character of Lisbeth Salander, a deeply scarred young Swedish woman dealing with harsh psychologically trauma and sexual abuse, who also happens to be a brilliant computer hacker and investigator. The author allows his creation, an introverted nonconformist, to express some of the pain coursing through her soul via her physical appearance. Lisbeth is a skinny girl with short-cropped hair, multiple body piercings and several prominent tattoos. Foremost among them is a large dragon tattoo splayed across her back, perhaps symbolizing her pain, her need for power and revenge, or her sexuality.

Even though a dragon is an appropriate and forceful symbol for a woman as messed up as Lisbeth Salander, I can’t help but wonder what kind of message this dark heroine would have sent out to the world surrounding her … if she had chosen a Smurf instead.


Brainy Smurf, Papa Smurf, Smurfette, or any number of the blue mushroom dwellers inhabiting the Smurfy universe would have sufficed. And in place of black or silver bars and studs penetrating her ears, lips, nipples, and eyebrows, what kind of image would she have purveyed to onlookers if she’d opted for neon colored jewelry with Care Bears engraved into the metal piercing her flesh? Does this all sound a little ridiculous to you? Why should it be? Every prick and cut of the piercing and tattoo needles would have been the same. The pain Ms. Salander would have had to endure to scar her body, so indicative of the pain and scars her character suffered in life wouldn’t have altered in the slightest. Only the nature of the art covering her skin would have changed.

Naturally, a title like The Girl With The Smurf Tattoo doesn’t sound nearly as cool and menacing as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo—and that’s the point. In my life, like many of us, I’ve met people who have expressed their beliefs, insecurities, and suffering through how they have represented themselves externally. This includes men with teardrop tattoos and prison tats, gang members in South America with barbwire neck tattoos and enormous neck chains, as well as military men in foreign lands brandishing guns. I’ve also come across individuals who lacked any obvious visible sign of their beliefs and emotional wounds, but wore their anger and hate as a kind of protective uniform—men and women ready to explain their wrongheaded and racist notions about how the planet should be in an attempt to prove how dangerous they were.

It may sound like I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble over the years. I really haven’t, but on those rare occasions that I have found myself in a bit of a bind, it has often helped me to picture where these less-than-friendly people might have been coming from. Most of them were once comforted by a mother’s embrace, felt pain in their lives, and made certain choices (or were forced to act) in order to become the human beings causing me grief. I try to imagine them as small children, surrounded by loving families. Then I examine the outward symbols they’ve adorned themselves with for expression and protection, like a fierce looking tattoo, or an intimidating way of speaking or dress, and turn these symbols into something benign in my mind, like a child’s teddy bear—or a Smurf.

It’s surprising how quickly someone ceases to be a monster, even if that person doesn’t have your best interests at heart, when you look past the rough symbols he or she chooses to show the world and examine the insecure child hiding beneath. This applies to tough characters you meet on the street, as well as people in positions of power with opposing sociopolitical views. Whenever I do this, regardless if I like what I’m witnessing at that particular moment or not, I can at least see that once upon a time, perhaps, this person wasn’t so dissimilar from me. A scary or uncomfortable situation becomes a little less scary, which can make all the difference when dealing with another sentient being.


Read more of Carl Pettit’s weekly column, Root Down, on The Good Life.

Image credit: L. Marie / Flickr

About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.


  1. Absolutely – you can’t ignore, and shouldn’t, reality.
    If there’s a guy holding a gun to my head I’m not going to say, “shoot me, please.”
    I guess for me the compassion-exercise serves to clarify my mind in the face of my useless judgments & distinctions; but there’s also a world out there, and it’s not imaginary, and actions do have consequences, and black dragons are less cuddly than smurfs.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    It’s silly and unfair to come to conclusions about a person based on things that person has no control over. That just seems self-evident to me.

    But, when one’s appearance is a product of some clear, sustained choices, then I think it’s fair to come to some tentative conclusions about that person based on some limited evidence. Sure, these are stereotypes and we shouldn’t overgeneralize, but it’s not the end of the world if you start to interpret someone else based on evidence of that person’s choices. When I do this, I leave room for the possibility that I could be wrong, but I feel confident I can start to draw some conclusions.

    If you’re like one of those men in prison with a shaved head and racist words tattooed all over your face, then I feel okay in predicting that you might be something of a dangerous racist. Still a human being, of course, and I can still feel compassion for you, but you’re giving me some big clues I can’t really ignore.

    And, I think we can all agree that we’ve met some people whose appearance is clearly a product of some very bad choices in life. Some very poor judgment about things they knew would have permanent consequences. Sure, you may be in a very different place today than you were when you got that gang symbol tattooed on your forehead, but there is some evidence there of a person with a history of some very poor judgment.

    Also, my impression is that blue ink, especially something like a Smurf color, doesn’t hold up as well as some of the other colors, so it’s easier to get a tattoo of something black like a black dragon than to get a blue tattoo like that of a Smurf.

  3. There’s a semi-similar Buddhist practice in which one envisions the person as the embodiment of compassion, and visually as substanceless light. Deeply knowing or understanding these modes of perception of another human being makes it impossible to attach to him/her, to get mad at him/her; easier to release all negativity &, I’m guessing, respond (as you point out) compassionately to someone who doesn’t appear to deserve it.

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