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Why Takeshi's Tattoo In Altered Carbon Means More Than You Think

In Altered Carbon, the cyberpunk science fiction series on Netflix based on the book series by Richard Morgan, the main character Takeshi Kovacs, played by both Joel Kinnaman and Anthony Mackie, is a warrior brought back to life to solve a murder. With this world's advanced technology, people can switch "sleeves," or bodies, and essentially live forever, their life maintained in a small piece of technology called a "stack."

At the beginning of season 1, the character is given a new sleeve. In an effort to feel more like himself, he goes to a local tattoo parlor and gets a tattoo applied that he had on his previous body, of a dragon eating its own tail in the shape of an infinity sign. It's the show's main imagery, the focus of the title sequence played before every episode. The show later reveals that it's a tattoo he shares with his sister, Reileen (Dichen Lachman), and is also the symbol on a necklace she wears from their mother.

The symbol of a dragon or a snake eating its tail, known as ouroboros, is old and well-known, a key part of many different cultures throughout history. But there's a unique aspect to the show's symbol, as the dragon moves in an infinity symbol instead of a circle. This change has been seen before, but there's actually a very specific meaning behind the Altered Carbon design.

The ouroboros is prevalent through history and many cultures

The original ouroboros symbol is a circular image that's been seen as far back as ancient Egypt, first illustrated in the tomb of Tutankhamun in 14th century BC, referencing the underworld and Egyptian deities. The snake is supposedly in reference to the Egyptian god Mehen — meaning "coiled one" — a snake-god who protected the sun god, Ra.

Later on, the symbol was adopted by the Greeks, with the Greek word ouroboros meaning "tail-devourer." The symbol is also utilized in alchemy and Gnosticism, and is connected to the legendary philosopher's stone, believed by many to be the "elixir of life." The ouroboros symbol has many meanings, though the main ones are reincarnation and the natural cycle of life. Along with that, it can be a symbol of fertility. This imagery is featured in almost all cultures in some form of another, like in Norse mythology as Jörmungandr and the yin yang in Chinese philosophy.

Though the symbolism of soul rebirth and immortality is clearly a big theme in Altered Carbon, there's another history of the ouroboros symbol that reveals a deeper connection to the show.

The ouroboros symbol came to August Kekule in a dream

Reddit user soxcer explained their theory about the show's main symbol, and how it connects to German organic chemist August Kekulé. Kekulé lived in the 18th century and is remembered as one of the leaders in his field, mainly because he is credited with discovering the chemical structure of benzene: A ring of carbon and hydrogen atoms, or an aromatic ring.

Kekulé claims that the answer came to him in a dream. He wrote about the experience, saying that he dozed off and began to see, "Long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes." According to Kekulé, he woke up from the revelatory dream and worked the rest of the night to put his hypothesis together.

The scientist discovered the important carbon ring structure that is a key part of our DNA and RNA, as well as other very important biological necessities. While the mythological ouroboros symbol deals with the beliefs about souls and reincarnation, Kekulé's discovery connects the symbol directly with the physical mechanisms of life.

The symbol of Altered Carbon is literally altered carbon

In Netflix's Altered Carbon, the ouroboros symbol is changed, with the dragon now twisted into an infinity sign, also known as a lemniscate. It is literally altered carbon. For the show, this symbol represents the main concept of what it's trying to explore. By twisting the image that throughout history has been associated with the natural circle of life – life, death, repeat – into this version that goes on forever, the tattoo illustrates how the world of Altered Carbon has manipulated technology to overcome the natural limitations of life, changing it into something else entirely. 

As /u/soxcar points out, the tattoo also highlights the philosophy of Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and why she fights against stacks and re-sleeving. Many people have lost all that makes them human in their pursuit of immortality. Just look at Takeshi Kovacs' sister, Rei. After the Battle at Stronghold, she becomes victim to this need to overcome nature. Her desperation to be reunited with her brother long after their natural lifetime leads her to do many horrible things, changing her into a person he doesn't want to know. 

Knowing now how deeply Altered Carbon's symbol is connected with alchemy, biology, and the science of life, the themes of the show make even more sense. Altered Carbon explores the lengths people will go to avoid death and pain, and the possibilities of our own future if we cross a line, destroying everything that makes us human.