“There’s a functional reason for the tattoo, which is covering up the bite,” Druckmann said, referring to the wound she suffered from the infected that proved her immunity to the virus on the first game. “The idea that Joel instilled in her is the bite is dangerous. So, she starts by doing a chemical burn.”
Some already guessed that, but this theory is confirmed in the game itself, when Ellie confides in Dina, her love interest, about her self-induced chemical burn underneath the tattoo and how she’s been hiding her immunity.
The tattoo was designed for the game by California-based tattoo artist Natalie Hall, who was invited to Naughty Dog’s Santa Monica studio after the team struggled to hit the right aesthetic internally. They talked her through the themes of the game, and Hall settled on a moth and fern for the design.
“[Natalie] even drew the tattoo on a dev’s arm so that we could see how the image would wrap around the form,” Ashley Swidowski, Naughty Dog’s lead character concept artist, said.
The moth intrigued the team because of its resemblance to a firefly, Druckmann explained, a nod to the rebel group of that name within the game. But the image is also a symbol of death and compulsion.
“There’s this idea of obsession and being drawn to a light and constantly pursuing this thing,” Druckmann said. “And that’s how we got the idea as well for the loading screen, which is just moths being drawn to a light, which kind of looked like the spores [on the loading screen] in the first game. So, it felt like a sister image.”
It represents “this relationship she has with Joel to her old life,” he said.
The symbol is not just on her skin, but also engraved on her guitar, a gift from Joel. The moth print on the guitar felt so significant that the team chose it as the opening and closing image of the game.
“Now this moth on her arm is a constant reminder of Joel,” Druckmann said. “And that, to me, is the best kind of symbolism you can make in a story. It’s all relevant to the story and the themes and the relationships within.”