Do serial killers tattoo on their arms lists of their intended victims?
January 24, 2013 12:21 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who wants to get a tattoo on his forearm, consisting of a numbered "to do" list. He can then fill in the numbers with whatever he needs to accomplish that day. However, he's heard that serial killers sometimes have "To Do" lists on their arms containing names of their future or past victims. He doesn't want to raise any suspicions that he is a serial killer, rather than an admirably efficient and conscientious person. Does anyone know if this is true or not? A Google search wasn't helpful. Thank you.
posted by Mayree to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard of the serial-killer thing, but there are other reasons not to get numbers tattooed on your forearm.
posted by supercres at 12:22 PM on January 24, 2013 [54 favorites]

I don't think there is enough of a "serial killer community" such that they have their own tropes and styles regarding things like tattoos, although maybe one serial killer did it once.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:23 PM on January 24, 2013 [19 favorites]

I went through a bit of a serial killer kick in my late teens, and read about a whole bunch of (real, actual, not in make believe books or movies) serial killers. Not once did I come across a to-do list like this.

Suggest that he trot out something like this for a while to see how it goes.
posted by phunniemee at 12:24 PM on January 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

This appears to be a myth. Since part of being a serial killer is not getting caught, writing a list of victims on one's person seems like a bad idea. I cannot find one named example of it.

Maybe your friend could use a PDA instead? I might not think your friend a serial killer, but I would have my opinions about a person with a "to-do" list on his arm. (e.g. "do not hire" rather than "how efficient!")
posted by Tanizaki at 12:25 PM on January 24, 2013 [12 favorites]

Never heard of this either, and I assume it's unlikely because "serial killers" is a pretty heterogeneous group, but how about just an unnumbered series of empty squares that he can write stuff next to and check off?
posted by oinopaponton at 12:26 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

My whole family is kinda fascinated by true-crime stuff - I remember watching serial killer movies on TV on summer vacation as a wee one - and I have NEVER, EVER heard of such a thing. Bear in mind that serial killers are, you know, crazy... it's more of a psychotic obsession than, I dunno, a hobby or affiliation or something. Which is to say, not primo tattoo material.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:30 PM on January 24, 2013

A "people to kill" list tattooed on your arm would be an excellent way to get caught. I can't imagine an actual serial killer wanting to broadcast their intentions so clearly.
posted by sarcasticah at 12:30 PM on January 24, 2013

Jeez, what are his lists going to look like?

1. Derek
2. Mary
3. That guy down the hall who plays music too loud

Or even worse!

1. Kill Derek
2. Buy coffee
3. Kill Mary

Tell your friend he doesn't need to worry about this as long as he's making ordinary lists.
posted by rtha at 12:34 PM on January 24, 2013 [29 favorites]

supercres is referring to tattoos that concentration camp prisioners got at Auschwitz. I'd skip the numbers; he can use letters if he needs to.

I am a person who will occasionally write stuff to do on my hand. I think a big blank space on his arm would be more useful than a bunch of lines. Maybe he could try his idea entirely in ballpoint for a few weeks and see how it plays out.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:37 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know 3 people with tattoo to-do lists, and this has never come up.

All three have claimed the system to be wildly inefficient however.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:38 PM on January 24, 2013 [15 favorites]

However, he's heard that serial killers sometimes have "To Do" lists on their arms containing names of their future or past victims.

This is something that only happens in movies.

Now, to be fair, I would not completely rule out the possibility that someone out there could get a serial-killer vibe from it, given that lots of people think things actually happen that only happen in movies. But I can't see that being a big enough factor that it should dissuade him from doing it.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:38 PM on January 24, 2013

The serial killer worry is not grounded in reality.

I will also suggest that it is also not grounded in reality to expect that people will think "how admirably efficient and conscientious!" when they see him scribbling and reading his arm.
posted by Drastic at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2013 [25 favorites]

I used to run a serial killer blog and have researched this stuff my entire life. Never heard of this. The closet thing that rang a bell was in the news, so maybe that is where this stemmed from? To-do list tattoos, however, are not that uncommon.
posted by haplesschild at 12:55 PM on January 24, 2013

There are temporary tattoos for this - I was going to buy my old boss some one year for Christmas, she was forever writing things on her hand and then smudging them. I don't remember where I saw them, but he could always get one of those and see how he likes it / how people react to it.

I've never heard of the serial killer thing, but at some point when I was joking about getting my library card number tattooed on my hand, someone pointed out the concentration camp thing and...yeah. That idea got a lot less funny, really quickly, and I'm pretty horrified I hadn't thought of that in the first place. A numbered list is not the same thing, but it's just something to consider, if he'd be bothered by numbers on his arm potentially bothering others who would make that connection.
posted by Stacey at 1:00 PM on January 24, 2013

I'm far more likely to conclude garden variety psych patient than serial killer if I had to make the call.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 1:00 PM on January 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Is this a serious question? I've never heard of a serial killer who kept his to-do list on his arm for everybody to read. Not even one. Nor have I heard of any culture in which tattooing your hit list on your arm is mythologized to be a common serial-killer custom. It's just him.

As others have said, there are other reasons why tattooing numbers on your arm could be seen as tasteless, most obviously the identifying numbers that were tattooed on concentration camp inmates' forearms during the Holocaust. For that reason, I wouldn't do it.

If not for the concentration camp association, I'd say that your friend was more likely to be perceived as a harmless eccentric than anything else. But yeah, numbers tattooed on forearm = tasteless, and therefore, possibly, he could be seen as a not so harmless eccentric.

The suggestion of a set of empty checkboxes, without numbers, is better.
posted by tel3path at 1:14 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I met someone with numbers tattooed on their forearm for this reason, I would wonder why they weren't capable of using a pen and paper or any one of the gazillion electronic/mobile solutions to this problem.

I'd also expect him to have one that says "DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES"
posted by DWRoelands at 1:29 PM on January 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

Or the knuckles of one hand tattoed with SORT and the other FILE.

I do not think this will give the impression he's looking for.
posted by canine epigram at 1:36 PM on January 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

I wouldn't make the concentration camp association, and I also would not think of serial killers. I would think he was generically crazy if he actually used this as a todo list. I might think of him as just eccentric if he had a todo list tattoo that was not being actually used.
posted by jacalata at 1:43 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of any serial killer (real or imagined and I watch a lot of Criminal Minds) doing this. I also would never make the concentration camp connection (one is a serial number the other is a list of sequential numbers).

But I would still think it was an incredibly stupid idea.
posted by magnetsphere at 1:51 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know tattoos have entered the realm of the mundane when something like this pops up.

I've never heard of a serial killer having a To Do list, either on an arm, or anywhere else.

But this strikes me as a total waste of an artists time and of skin space.

Really? Nothing better to ink on his arm? No Smartphone?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:00 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I saw an episode of Criminal Minds where the guy tattooed the people's names on his body AFTER he killed them, like a brag list (ew). The guy killed himself or something and they knew the last woman he had taken was still alive and being held somewhere since he didn't have her name tattooed.

This is just to say that this whole serial killer association is just a TV/movie thing not grounded in real life. But I agree with all above that this isn't admirably efficient or conscientious but rather strange.
posted by sweetkid at 2:01 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Serial Killers really do some crazy, programmatic stuff, though. I remember reading about the Gainesville Killer that he had staged the murder scenes to provide maximum shock value to the people who found the bodies. Then the story of the killer who buried his victims' heads in the garden gazing toward his mother's bedroom window "because she wanted people looking up to her" convinced me that nothing is beyond these creeps.

So I'm using programmatic in the sense of "you can't make this stuff up" and saying, it would be a mistake to dismiss a purported behavior of a serial killer as "too out there." However, it does seem a bit of a stretch to think someone would *suspect* one of being a serial killer for doing this.
posted by Infinity_8 at 2:11 PM on January 24, 2013

I agree. I've never heard of it being actually used by a serial killer.

However, enough people *think* that serial killers do this that your friend will be perceived as being a serial killer by a number of people.
posted by gjc at 2:19 PM on January 24, 2013

The only place I've seen a serial killer do the to-kill list Tattoo was on Family Guy. I don't think being perceived as a serial killer is really going to be an issue for an average joe, regardless. Tattoo away!
posted by Autumn at 2:44 PM on January 24, 2013

It would bring up a lot of questions for me if I was on someone's tattooed to-kill list. Like, I'm #3 now--is there an implied sequence here? Am I ok until you get Steve and Cheryl? Or is it more of an unordered list, where you can kill #3 BEFORE #s 1 and 2? Because hey, if you have to go in order, I can relax for a while.

Seriously, I would not think of it as a serial killer thing.

As many have mentioned before, I'd think of it as...regrettable? The only sort of "to-do" list tattoo that I can think of that would not be regrettable would be a list of things you are going to have to do throughout your life. Or goals/places to see that you could have crossed out as you accomplish/visit them. Or if you are into the really mundane level of things, some task that you always have to repeat like "buy tomatoes", which--let's face it--we all have to do at a set interval.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:50 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I will forward your responses to the young potential tattoo-ee.
posted by Mayree at 3:19 PM on January 24, 2013

He could get a re-inking stamp with lines and checkboxes, perhaps? There's plenty of other places to order one from, that's just the first one that came up.
posted by fiercecupcake at 4:46 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of getting a row of squares or circles, not necessarily numbers. Still a to-do list, but less obvious when it's not filled out.
posted by redsparkler at 6:03 PM on January 24, 2013

I spent several months doing paid research on serial killers for my job. I do not recall ever running into this, though I'll grant that most of the serial killers I had to research were from before tattoos were common among middle class white people (and definitely before ironic/clever tattoos were a thing).

I do not think your friend needs to be concerned about numbers in sequence oriented horizontally as a list being associated with holocaust tattoos. Also, frankly, some people will associate anything with holocaust tattoos, and there's nothing you can really do about it. Especially people who enjoy being sanctimonious about how Tattoos Are Bad.

I've seen photos of tattoos like your friend wants. It seems gimmicky/affected to me, but then some people probably think my ink is stupid, so who cares?
posted by Sara C. at 6:07 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

He could write out a to-do list on his arm and look like an admirably efficient and conscientious person whenever he needs to but permanent numbers will just make it look like he wants to be asked what the numbers are for.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:56 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe he's getting confused with Steve Buscemi's hit list in Billy Madison.

Serial killer tattoo lists are definitely not a real thing.
posted by murfed13 at 7:04 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

So...either he knocks out every item on the list, or it is a constant reminder of failing to do so. Fail is a bit strong because priorities just change over time. Nevertheless, there it is for all (of his) time.

Some of them may be tough to explain down the road. "Honey," asks the new woman in his life, "what does '3. Do Mary' mean?"

Personally, either I'm working on a goal, and therefore don't need a forever reminder, or I'm not working on it, and I really don't want a permanent reminder.
posted by trinity8-director at 9:42 PM on January 24, 2013

From how I read it, it's not that he's tattooing an entire to do list. He's tattooing:


or maybe just:


And then each day, he's writing on it (with pen, presumably) that day's tasks and showering it off for the next day's tasks.
posted by vegartanipla at 3:25 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your comments. The tattoo has been completed. The header is a beautifully-rendered dogwood blossom. Instead of numbers there aresilhouetted leaves of his three favorite tree species. He writes down his daily goals with erasable pen.
To him, the tattoo represents looking forward, and a daily self-affirmation of responsibility.

So, no numbers, just images that have great meaning for him (degree in forestry) in a format that resonates with him.
posted by Mayree at 2:14 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

OK that is a really neat idea.
posted by sweetkid at 2:26 PM on February 19, 2013

That sounds kind of awesome!
posted by rtha at 2:30 PM on February 19, 2013

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