Steve McQueen is a reference we as a brand keep coming back to. Whilst watching the back catalogue of his most epic movies we were drawn to the classic 1973 caper Papillon, a film that garnered its nickname due to the butterfly tattooed in the centre of the lead character's chest. ⁠The new Admiral butterfly t-shirt pays homage to this film and the tattoo that adorns the chest of Steve McQueen.⁠

Papillon released at a time where Steve McQueen was still at the peak of his powers, though its historical context goes deeper than that. Penned by the infamously blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, it's a prison escape epic that spans French Guiana, Honduras, and the oh-so-endearing Devil's Island. McQueen plays the eponymous Papillon, one of the world's most renowned safecrackers convicted of the murder of a pimp.


Sent to the French penal colony of Guiana, his is then a ceaseless quest to escape and retain his freedom. Fortunately he has the loyalty of a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), ensuring he never has to go it alone. Cue attempts ranging from full-fledged outbreaks, smuggling away on boats, and even diving into the murky shores beneath, as Papillon never gives up the hope of rediscovering his freedom.

It's an enduring tale of perseverance, penal injustice, and the classic loveable rogue archetype made famous by the likes of James Dean and McQueen himself. But perhaps the most iconic takeaway from Papillon is the eponymous hero's butterfly tattoo, emblazoned on his chest. It isn't the only etching across his chest - see also a skull and crossbones and the four suits in a deck of cards - but scrawled just across his heart, it takes on a new significance.


Papillon is a film that shows so much of what is wrong with the world, poisoning our societal institutions. From illicit pimps to murder, heinous prisons to brutality from the lawless guards, it's almost entirely devoid of natural life and hope. That solitary butterfly on Papillon's chest is one of the few reminders of natural beauty and the sheer innocence of the outside world - something that seems so far away from their reality, and a concept Papillon yearns to return to. It serves not only to denote Papillon as a man incongruous to his surroundings, but as his motivation to flee this purgatory.

On top of that, it's another reminder of just how ahead of its time the work of Steve McQueen is. In an age before tattooed anti-heroes such as Ryan Gosling's Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, McQueen was creating iconography that embodied his rebellious, trailblazing spirit. Let's not forget that in the 1970s, tattoos as visible as Papillon's were still seen as taboo, something to keep hidden, not to emblazon across your chest. Few movie stars exist today with that same sway over audiences and style, hence why Steve McQueen will forever be remembered as the king of cool.

As such, the butterfly across Papillon's chest stands for so much more than just a one-off tattoo. It embodies the film's message of freedom and purity, as well as the singular style and iconic swagger of its leading man. Who wouldn't want to express that with their own t-shirt tribute?


Words by Luke Hinton at thatfilmbloguk