Ink on Film


“Warriors,” says makeup artist Naomi Donne, who has created temporary tattoo art for numerous movies. “That film was a revolutionary concept for makeup, it turned all of us in the industry around,” says Donne. “And it set that whole fashion trend of very linear work in tattoos.”

Once Were Warriors, released in 1994, was based on the novel of the same name by New Zealand author Alan Duff. It followed an indigenous Maori family trying to make their way in urban Auckland; and various moko—traditional Maori tribal tattoos—appear throughout the film. Although the movie may have heavily influenced tattoo design, it certainly wasn’t the first time ink was significantly featured on screen.

In 1969, the movie version of Ray Bradbury’s book The Illustrated Man was released. For that film, actor Rod Steiger had to sit through hours of makeup each day to transform into the title character, who was covered in tattoos. It’s rumored the film even holds a Guinness World Record for the film with the longest makeup application process each day, at 20 hours. Obviously, not many directors were up for the challenge of portraying tattoos extensively on film for some time after the movie came out.
That all changed with Tattoo, a 1981 film by Bob Brooks. Brooks came up with the story of a troubled tattoo artist who is obsessed with a model he meets on a job. In order to make the main character’s tattoos realistic—and to decrease the amount of time needed for makeup—Brooks knew he would have to figure out another way to create temporary tattoos. So he approached famed chemist Dr. Samuel Zuckerman, who was best known for putting the stripe in Aquafresh toothpaste. Zuckerman developed a process using a wetink transfer that, when dry, became an extremely realistic sweat- and waterresistant design.

The process was a big step forward, but it only marked the beginning of innovation in the industry—there was still a long way to go. Donne remembers she was still using rubber stamps to create tattoos for films in the ’80s. “We would design the artwork then make a rubber stamp out of it,” she says. “I remember I did a snake dripping venom on Vanessa Redgrave years ago. I just had a stamp of the outline, and then I did all the work by hand.” In those days, that would have meant painting with Aquacolor, a type of glycerin- and waterbased compact makeup. The tattoos looked decent on film, but the colors of the Aquacolor makeup were very intense, so it was hard to create the faded look of real ink under skin.

Luckily, Zuckerman hadn’t stopped working on his temporary tattoos, and he eventually came up with a non-toxic cosmetic ink that could be used to print full-color transfers onto specially treated paper. The chemist’s son, Roy Zuckerman, saw commercial potential for the technique and started the company Temptu to market and distribute the product to consumers and movie makeup artists.One of the many makeup artists who have since used Temptu’s transfers is Ilona Herman, who served as Robert De Niro’s makeup artist for the 1991 film Cape Fear. To help turn De Niro into psychotic ex-convict Max Cady, Herman worked with Temptu to create a number of tattoos, many of which had a scrawled quality that somehow made the character seem even more crazy. De Niro’s bulked-up physique probably had something to do with that psychotic

look, too. In fact, he put on so much muscle from the time he was first “fitted” for Temptu tattoos to the beginning of filming, that the company actually had to increase the size of the transfers 10 percent so they’d be more visible.


Viggo Mortensen in “Eastern Promises.”

Around the same time Cape Fear came out, directors began turning to real tattoo artists for help creating authentic-looking ink. Special effects makeup artist Rick Stratton remembers the first time he created tattoos for a movie he was working side by side with tattoo artists: “It was a film called Blood in Blood Out [released in 1993], and I was working with makeup artist Ken Diaz. There was a prison scene, and we were using a mix of real prisoners and extras, so Ken sent me up to San Quentin [State Prison] to put fake tattoos on the extras so they would look more like the prisoners. Since he wanted the tattoos to look aged, just like real tattoos, we enlisted the help of tattoo artists. I remember looking around the trailer and it was half makeup artists, half tattoo artists.”

Stratton thinks the tattoo artists were able to bring something to the process. “We had to do the shading by hand, so I kept referring to the pictures we had. … But those guys only looked at the picture once. They were so used to shading and working on the human body.”
Eventually, real tattoo artists became even more involved in the making of movie tattoos. One of those artists is Tom Berg, who works out of So Cal Tattoo, in San Pedro, CA. Around 2000, Berg tattooed a guy who turned out to be the husband of the production manager on Red Dragon. She asked Berg to meet with the director about creating a tattoo design for the serial killer portrayed in the movie. “I was hesitant at first because I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about working with Hollywood, but it ended up being an awesome experience,” Berg says. “The idea, from the book, is that the character wants to become this demon from a painting. So I just treated it like it was a project for a customer. I came up with this really intricate tattoo that even had horns for his head.” Ultimately, a streamlined version of the tattoo was chosen, since it wasn’t feasible to have actor Ralph Fiennes shave his head to have the horns tattooed on.

Although that degree of transformation might have been out of the question for Fiennes, actor Viggo Mortensen went all out for his recent portrayal of Russian gangster Nikolai Luzhin in the film Eastern Promises. Apparently, once Mortensen found out he would be playing the role he began researching Russian prison tattoos and sent books about their meanings to director David Cronenberg. Cronenberg then sent the books to screenwriter Steve Knight, who incorporated the tattoos and their symbolism into the final script. In fact the tattoos are so ingrained in the story line, that Mortensen’s character actually gets a tattoo on screen. For that scene, production designer Carol Spier created a fake tattoo tool that wasn’t able to pierce skin, and Mortensesn’s actual Russian dialogue coach plays the tattoo artist who inks him.

It’s rumored Mortensen’s movie ink was so realistic that when he visited a Russian restaurant in costume, several of the diners got scared and left; apparently some of his temporary tattoos looked the same as the real tattoos given to top members of the Vory V Zakone Russian criminal brotherhood.The fact that fake tattoos can instill fear in real life is a testament of how far temporary tattooing has come. But are the current fakes on film the best the industry can do? Not likely, according to Michael Benjamin, Temptu’s current CEO. “Now we have airbrush paints, we have sealants, and a tattoo artist could actually use our products to freehand a tattoo in his own style,” he says. And some of Temptu’s best work has not even hit the big screen yet. Makeup artist Donne worked with the company to develop the tattoos for Charlie Kaufman’s upcoming film Synecdoche, which really pushes the limits of temporary tattooing.

“We did a full body tattoo of this intricate rose on a woman for the film. It took two days to do and it is the most stunning thing,” Donne says. “The tattoos in this film are a really integral part of the story. There’s one on a character played by Catherine Keener, and a full back tattoo on a character played by Michelle Williams. … It’s going to be amazing.”

The movie isn’t set to be released until next year, but if you were lucky, you might have seen some of the movie’s tattoos already: “The actor who got the full body rose tattoo went on holiday right after filming, and she kept the entire thing on because she liked it so much,” Donne says.

If that actor eventually decides to get the tattoo design from the movie permanently inked on her body, she won’t be alone. Stratton says he’s heard of people getting the “xXx” tattoo Vin Diesel sported in the movie of the same name. And Berg says he’s actually replicating the Red Dragon tattoo on a client: “I’ve probably done 30 hours so far. It was kind of cool to see the whole thing with all the detail I intended, because I had to simplify the design a lot to get it to work in the movie.”

But even though many people have gotten real replicas of the ink they see on screen, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Berg, who also created the intricate full-body tattoo actor Wentworth Miller wears for the television show Prison Break, isn’t so sure it would translate in real life. “I don’t know, it’s kind of lame. I mean, do you really want to be a TV character your whole life? Do you really want to look like Michael Scofield forever?” So perhaps take that as a warning: No matter how good temporary tattoos look on film and in television, maybe you’re better off with the real thing—and original artwork, of course.

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