Army of Two Tattooers
The most true-to-life digital tattoos of all time come to video gaming this month with the release of Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel. Thousands of bits’ worth of tattoos have been in video games, but up until now they have been wholly lackluster, inaccurate, and rote. That all changes with Electronic Art’s third installment of the Army of Two series. In the new game (which has been described as Steven Seagal in a Michael Bay movie), operatives Alpha and Bravo, working for Tactical Worldwide Operations, have to meddle with a Mexican drug cartel.
“Tattoos have a lot to do with the underpinnings of the game,” says Robert Clarke, the art director for Army of Two. “Our main characters are private military contractors, and PMCs are usually former law enforcement or military, and tattoos are a big part of that culture. When you’re in that line of work and you go through trials and tribulations, your tattoos really express something that’s happened in your life that is very significant.” Part of the experience of Army of Two is the ability to customize the characters by choosing from a bank of outfits, masks, and now tattoos. “I have tattoos, a lot of us here have tattoos,” Clarke says. “It’s a beautiful art form, and so to get the most authentic look, you really have to work with professionals who could take the restrictions of the video game world and work within those bounds.”
With that in mind, about a year ago, Electronic Arts approached INKED with a bold proposal: Instead of having digital designers craft tattoos, they wanted some of the best tattoo artists in the world to create ink for in-game characters. We reached out to horror tattoo legend Paul Booth and West Coast black-and-gray wizard Steve Soto and asked them and guys at their shops, Last Rites Gallery and Goodfellas Tattoo, to outfit the Army of Two boys Alpha and Bravo.
“I am a big fan of the art in video game graph- ics that my son plays,” Soto says. “And I love the concept and graphics in Army of Two.”
“I played around with a similar idea of my own a while ago, so when the idea was presented to me I was all in,” Booth says.
Clarke was thrilled to have them on board. “This isn’t just Joe Six Pack tattoo guy down the street who’s drawing standard flash; these [artists] are one in a handful,” Clarke says. “They’ve got a look that immediately you look at, and you know that’s those guys.”
So it was off to rendering for Booth and Soto. “I draw daily; I eat, sleep, and breathe art, so this was nothing new to me,” Soto says. “The drawing process was primarily the same, maybe a bit more refined, for the final piece of art. And then the tattoos were laid out on the templates using Photoshop instead of tattooing an actual live client.”
Booth was up to the challenge as well. “Every piece I do is custom, different from any other tattoo I’ve ever done,” he says. Over the years, his style has gotten more and more intricate, but knowing how his artwork would need to appear onscreen, he reverted to a cleaner look, drawing on his old sketches for inspiration. He used his experience inking bands like Slayer, Slipknot, and Pantera to guide his decisions on the size of the tattoos. “Musicians want the guy in the middle of the crowd to be able to see what their tattoos are, so you have to make them big,” he says. “Same here, with how big the characters appear on your screen.” The finished pieces feature his signature skulls and demons—although they may not be immediately discernible. “I like my tattoos to be recognizable from afar but reveal more secrets when you get up close,” he explains. The process was time-consuming. If the tattoos were life-size, Booth thinks they would have taken as many hours as a custom tattoo. So how will he feel if his character’s arm gets blown off during the game? “I’m going to dig him up and take my skin back,” he says.
The tattooers worked on more than Alpha’s and Bravo’s guns, adorning helmets for the heroes. Booth used the opportunity to design outside of his comfort zone. “I never worked with anything Day of the Dead, and it was a challenge, so I did my research—I hope I was close to accurate—and made a Paul Booth Day of the Dead skull,” he says.
The natural styles of each of the tattooers mesh well with the characters developed for the game. “They’re both kind of evocative of that demeanor of private military contractors,” Clarke says. “Our characters have seen more of the scarier side of life than most people are exposed to.”
The final tattoos add to the story’s framework. “Since they are fighting the Mexican drug cartels I used my Chicano heritage,” Soto says. “Our Day of the Dead–themed mask, our Aztec tattoo designs, and the Aztec Warrior Skull mask were easy to get my head around because they are the roots of a lot of my art.”
And what about Booth’s demon and horror imagery? Well, “soldiers have been to hell,” he says.
Soto says, “I believe the player will take away the culture, the roots of black-and-gray tattoos in southern Californian and Mexican culture, and the South American warriors’ culture.”
Clarke is thrilled with the final product and hopes players will be as well. “We want that edge,” he says. “We want people to be like, ‘That’s a little bit more than I’m used to, but it certainly is cool,’” he says. “Maybe we’ll expose tattoos to people who don’t have them and have never really considered them as a kind of personal expression, so that they go, ‘Wow, that’s good art.’”
PHASE 1-VIRGIN SKIN: This is a screenshot of a character model in a 3-D editor. In the left inset image you can see the arm texture laid flat. The wire frame shows the coordinates that determine where the image is placed on the arm like a tattoo transfer but with a grid. When the wire frame is wrapped, the edges connect.
PHASE 2-PRELIMINARY SKETCH: The actual tattoo starts with a sketch. In this case, EA asked the artist for an octopus tattoo. After receiving a draft, EA gave design edits.
PHASE 3-CHOICES: The artist came back with a few quick thumbnail sketches to explore different ways they could treat the octopus tattoo. One was an animated octopus in its habitat, another was a nest of tentacles curling around an eye, and the last was a a mess of tentacles.
PHASE 4-EXPLORING THE TENTACLES: EA then decided to hone in on the image of tentacles. Note how the depth, created from shading, adds to the ominous feeling.
PHASE 5-BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD: After some more back-and-forth between the artist and EA, the designers decided to stick with having a full octopus graphic. Here it is with some color added and the line work cleaned up.
PHASE 6-PLACEMENT: They then applied it to an arm in 3-D and tinkered with its orientation. “This is where making game tattoo art differs a bit from the real thing,” says Robert Clarke. “We have to ‘warp’ the art in the flat version so that it will look correct on a 3-D surface.”
PHASE 7-APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE SKIN: After making the design fit, EA put the refined octopus design onto the arm texture. The difference between a tattooist looking at a transfer and this step is that the digital design can be examined in a flat state with the true skin tone as a background.
PHASE 8-MAKE IT LOOK LIKE AND OLDER TATTOO: They then blended the colors of the tattoo so that it gives the appearance of ink under skin. Additional techniques are used in the game engine to make both the skin and tattoo reflect and refract light in the same manner that a shoulder piece glistens in real life.
PHASE 9-APPLY TO THE CHARACTER: Our warrior has his ammunition and gear, but the finishing touch is the tattoo. The refined skin and tattoo texture is wrapped around his arms and pops out of his vest. The colors of this particular design double as camouflage when hiding in flora. He is finally fully kitted out and battle-ready.
PHASE 10-TATTOO SHOP: Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is all about customization. In the game’s Armory you can browse through different tattoos, trying each on (you can even rotate the arms to see how the image looks from different angles), so you can wear the tattoos that best connote your fighting style.
PHASE 11-INTO THE BREACH: After a trip to The Armory, you go to war—and your last easy day was yesterday. Our solider roams the battlefield with an assault rifle, octopus tattoo, and Steve Soto mask. He looks like a man not to be fucked with.