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.