A carnival in Wisconsin.
William Philippus Phelps - The Illustrated Man of the title.
Lisabeth - Phelps' wife of one year, intensely dissatisfied with her husband.
Old woman - A blind woman who gives Phelps his tattoo.
Carnival Boss - Runs the carnival.
Skin Man - Tries to remove Phelps' tattoos.
Various Freaks - Performers at the carnival.
William Philippus Phelps, who is given tattoos by a strange old woman who claims to see the future.
Lisabeth, Phelps' wife who has grown to hate him for being fat, dumb, and - after getting the tattoos --freakish.
Phelps kills his wife Lisabeth, fulfilling the prophecy of one of his special tattoos.
Phelps is killed by the circus freaks in revenge, fulfilling the prophecy of his other special tattoo.
The main theme is the dangerous nature of the creative imagination. The tattoos are works of art but also able to predict --or perhaps mold - the future. Thus, they both hold a great attraction but also instill fear in those who view it. Related to this theme is the issue of destiny: did the tattoos actually predict Lisabeth's death or did they merely encourage Phelps to do something that he had secretly wanted to do? That is, was the tattoo the cause or a mere symptom?
A worker at the carnival, William Philippus Phelps is now the Illustrated Man, but a year Earlier when he married Lisabeth he had no tattoos at all. However, by that summer the newlyweds were arguing and after eleven months of marriage Lisabeth was disgusted with Phelps, who had grown fat and useless. Phelps is fired by the carnival boss, who was no longer useful as a tent man and wasn't needed as a Fat Man. Phelps then heard of an old woman in the Wisconsin countryside, a tattoo artist, and he went to visit her. She had her eyes and nose stitched tight, sitting alone in her shack: she knew he was coming, as a tattoo on her palm showed his arrival. Phelps is surprised and she tells him the tattoo is fifty years old. She also tells him he's only one of many people whose tattoos tell her to expect them in the next one hundred years. He asks how she can tell since she's blind but she claims to feel him. She promises to make him the only real Illustrated Man and proceeds to work on him.
That night he returns to the carnival, his body now covered in tattoos. Lisabeth is shocked and now declares her husband a freak. He has two special tattoos, one on his chest and another on his back, both covered by bandages; the old woman tells him the Future is in these pictures and that he can unveil the picture on his chest next Saturday night and save the tattoo on his back for the following week. The night of the Big Unveiling of the chest tattoo, a crowd gathers for the event. The crowd is awed by his tattoos but when he rips the adhesive off his chest, they grow scared: the tattoo depicts Phelps killing his wife. Lisabeth is in the audience, crying and the carnival boss castigates Phelps for scaring everyone, himself included. For his part, Phelps is also scared as he has no wish to kill his wife... but now wonders if he does. Phelps tries to remove the tattoos with the help of a skin man, but it doesn't work. Sunday night, there's another huge crowd. The boss has the chest tattoo covered up and out of curiosity removes the adhesive on the back tattoo, despite the old woman's instructions. However, there is no tattoo underneath.
That night, at three in the morning, Phelps hears Lisabeth return, drunk from a night on the town. She accuses him of planning the tattoo on his chest and an argument ensues. He reaches out to Lisabeth to reconcile with her but she's disgusted by him. Overwhelmed , he strangles Lisabeth. Outside their wagon, the other freaks were waiting for him. He walks away from the carnival and they give chase, attacking him with tent stakes. As he dies, they tear off the adhesive on his back and see a tattoo now emblazoned there: it depicts a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man, with a tattoo on this fat man's back of the same image, and so on.
The closing image is a mise-en-abyme: a picture that endlessly repeats within itself, such as a box in a box in a box. It is unclear - purposefully so, one assumes - if the Illustrated Man in this story is the same as the one in the Epilogue and Prologue. The Illustrated Man in the short story is apparently about to die, very soon after he first receives his tattoos. If that is so, the Illustrated Man in the framing sequence - despite sharing the same origin - could not be the same person. Different theories may explain this: the most obvious is that the Illustrated Man in the story survived his own foretold death (and thus gives the narrator of the framing sequence some hope for escaping his own death sentence in the epilogue), but it could also be the old woman has given numerous men these tattoos, or even that this story is merely a fabrication of the Illustrated Man in the framing sequences - that is, it's "just" a story. If anything, the inability to determine how this story relates factually to the man whose body this story is etched upon only emphasizes the metafictive nature of this short story collection.