Unpacking the Surprisingly Meaningful Tattoos of 'John Wick'

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished May 23, 2019

Promotional consideration provided by eOne.
With John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, director Chad Stahelski has once again delivered a visual feast of action. Though it's easy to simply tune in and let your jaw drop as Keanu Reeves lays a smack down on a small arsenal of bad guys, however, the films also work thanks to Stahelski's painstaking attention to detail. From the highbrow art direction through the obsessively accurate gunplay, every detail of the Wick franchise has been considered. Yes, that also applies to John Wick's tattoos.
Ever since Wick stood in the shower with his back to the camera in the franchise's beloved first film, audiences have obsessed over their action hero's tattoos and what they may mean. Here, we attempt to unpack Wick's ink and how it plays into his status as an assassin and icon.
Wick's large back tattoo, which reads "Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat" is particularly fascinating. "How many people are trying to figure out what the tattoo on his back means?" Stahelski commented in an interview with Exclaim!, noting just how much painstaking detail has gone into the franchise.
Below, we dig into some possible explanations for this strangely compelling piece of ink.

Military service
A large number of people interpret the Latin phrase "Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat" to mean something similar to "fortune favours the bold" in English. That saying has been a favourite among American military personnel. It's used on the crest of the 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
This could very well be a nod to Keanu's background as a native Hawaiian, though it could also suggest that Wick himself once served in the Marines. Variations of the phrase have also appeared on numerous U.S. Navy ships, patches belonging to members of the United States Air Force and patches worn by the Seattle Police Department's S.W.A.T. unit. While the phrase appears here in its Latin origin rather than the more commonly used English iteration, it could still suggest Wick had a history in military or police service.
Elsewhere in pop culture
Variations on "fortune favours the bold" have appeared throughout pop culture in myriad forms. While its use in Wick likely does not mean it's a reference to another pop culture property, it does solidify the franchise's place in the history of genre filmmaking. After all, the phrase was used in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine literally called "Favors the Bold." Soon after, a different iteration of the phrase popped up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Buffy herself was quoted as saying "Fortune favors the brave." That same phrase was uttered by Newton Geiszler in the cult classic 2013 film Pacific Rim, while "Audentes fortuna juvat" ("Fortune favours the bold") also showed up in Star Trek Enterprise. Since the first Wick movie, variations of the phrase also appeared in Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and the videogame The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Consider the statement a calling card for nerdy, heady pop culture properties.
Religious meaning
Wick has a cross on his left shoulder, and the Latin phrase is perched atop the classic praying hands iconography associated with Catholicism. As such, context clues may suggest that the phrase has some root in early Christianity or Christian teachings. That's a misconception, however. The phrase does not have anything to do with biblical teaching, nor does its message really tie in with Christian themes of humility and meekness. Plus, considering John Wick's literal body count, it's safe to say he's probably not a born-again Christian.
Goddess of fate
While it's tempting to simplify "Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat" as "fortune favours the bold," however, many argue that the translation is simply inaccurate. In a detailed post from The Skull and Sword, author Mike Smith breaks down the Latin to really dig into its possible meaning. "Fortuna," he establishes, is a reference to both fortune and also the Roman goddess Fortuna, who controlled fate via both good and bad luck. Whereas "fortune favours the bold" utilizes the term "audentis," Wick's tattoo says "fortis." Smith argues that this word is a neutral plural noun that roughly translates to "the strong ones." Finally, the word "adiuvat" includes the prefix "ad-" over the word "iuvat." While "iuvat" could be interpreted to mean "favour," the added prefix gives it a different meaning — "to come and save." As such, the tattoo can more accurately be interpreted as meaning, "Fortune will come save the strong ones."
What does that mean for John Wick as a whole? That poetic phrasing could be interpreted in myriad ways as we watch our hero face off against an enormous international network of paid assassins. But considering the use of Latin and its deep, historically rooted meaning, one thing is for sure — this is some highbrow action.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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