How Tattoos Are Designed For Movies & TV (2023)

Hi, I'm Christien Tinsley

And I'm Dick Cherry.

[Christien] And we're here with Vanity Fair

to talk to you about tattoo design.

One of the things that we specialize in

is creating tattoos for film and television.

It sort of started back on a film called Pearl Harbor.

We decided to create tattoos

that looked like scratches and bruises and wounds.

And so on that film, we created burns and scratches

that could be applied to the actors every single day

that looked the same.

And from there, the company progressed

into doing more graphical artwork

that you've seen in XXX, Prison Break,

Bullet Train, and Aquaman.

We've specialized in coming up with methods

of covering people's bodies with tattoos.

I never knew fake tattoos would be a job.

So when I was originally contacted to do this,

I was floored by the fact

that you could make a living doing it.

I have no tattoos,

but I'm a huge fan of the tattoo culture.

So being able to emulate that in any way

is something that I'm really excited about doing.

[mellow music]

We usually start with backstory.

The script can explain a little bit

about the character,

where they are presently,

but not necessarily give you a backstory,

from where they came from and who they are.

Tattoos are a process.

They're usually gathered over time.

They're adding to 'em constantly.

Different experiences in life

dictate the type of tattoo.

Different places you got them

will dictate what the tattoos look like.

'Cause it's not just about drawing a design.

It's about supporting that character

and explaining to the audience, in a very brief moment,

who this person is.

You wanna work in broad strokes

with what we're creating,

because it's that mass of imagery

that's really gonna read most on camera.

It's not so much these finite details

that are never really the shot.

And a lot of times, we don't have as much time

as people do in their lifetime

to think about what kind of tattoo they want.

We're doing what people will take years to decide on,

and we're trying to put that into two weeks.

Yeah. If we're lucky. If we're lucky.

[mellow music]

[camera clicking]

So the next phase, really, would be the design process.

We'll start with sketches.

We'll start with inspiration boards.

We start with photographs of the actor.

We'll do some broad stroke imagery.

[Dick] And that also gives us an idea

on how we're gonna chop up this tattoo in the long run,

'cause we're always thinking

that he's gotta apply it,

when it comes down to it. Process.

Yeah. So it's like, you've gotta make this functional.

You know, the best way we've described it over the years

is it's taking a flat 2D image

and wrapping it around a basketball.

How do you do that?

If you're a muscular fella or woman,

(Video) How Tattoos Are Designed For Movies & TV | Vanity Fair

and you've got a lot of bumps in your arms,

it's gonna make it difficult for that paper

to start to hug that.

We like soft people.

Yeah. We definitely...

Soft, shapeless Doughy.

human beings are the best.


[Christien laughs]

And once we finalize that,

we can decide on how this is going to be applied

on a daily basis.

We usually start that with getting the actor in

and doing what we call a pattern cast,

which is a three-dimensional wrap of the actor

so we can create our two dimensional imagery from that,

knowing that it'll wrap back around that individual's body.

Of course, with technology,

we've been doing a lot more scanning of actors.

I love that.

[Christien] Behind us is Aquaman.

This is Jason Momoa's body.

And that becomes a lot easier for us to work with,

because we have the actor at our availability

at all times.

Exactly. And we were able to dial it in

and really take the time

to get it to work the way it should work.

If it's applied any different

than the way I've designed it,

that will change where it lands on the body.

So you always have to put in some kind of negative space

that allows for that little gap

that may change when it's applied.

Let's say you have some smoke that's rising.


[Christien] Or flames are a good one.

[Dick] That's a great one.

[Christien] There's space in between those flames

or in between those smokes,

where the skin's gonna come through.


We call that negative space,

and those are great places where we can cut

without actually interfering with the image.


[Christien] You know, the other thing

that we talk about internally

that we don't normally share

is the fact that actors adjust

in size and weight before a film starts.

So by the time we get them,

weeks, maybe even months prior to shooting,

they're still going through either special diets,

exercise routines, or they're gaining weight.

This makes adjustments to our designs

that we've already started,

that we have to now compensate for,

usually, very last minute.

It does make it for a difficulty

at four in the morning.

It'll make us twitch.


[both laugh]

[camera clicking]

After we are done designing the tattoos,

we've created groups of aging tones

that we can apply to the tattoos.

So if a director says,

This tattoo should feel 30 years old,

we have presets in the software

that we can apply to that artwork

that then gives it an aged quality.

Things like the ink looks

(Video) How Do Film and TV Tattoos Look So Real? Are The Tattoos in Film and TV Fake?

like it's bleeding a little bit more into the skin,

scarring during the process of the tattooing.

Love that, because tattooing now is so dense,

and it's almost impossible to get out of your skin.

But if you think of Sailor Jerry era tattoo ink,

that stuff broke down and changed color.

My uncle had a panther

that was just a blob after a while.

So they take on their own life in that skin.

And depending on where you got the tattoo, as well.


You know, if you're in prison,

your ink may be a different color completely.

You're not gonna have just...

And they're using tools

that aren't as professional.

They're literally using pen tips and electric razors

to get the needles to go in.

And I've always told Dick,

I'm really good at doing those designs,

because I'm not as clean of an illustrator as Dick.

So it's like, if it needs to look like a bad tattoo,

That's the guy. I got this one.

I'll make it look blurry.

[camera clicking]

[mellow music]

After we treat the tattoos,

then we go to a printing process

with a special kind of ink

that allows it to be water resistant,


Adhesives that we use are a medical grade

that allows it to hold very well to the skin.

Sometimes these tattoos, when they're applied,

can last days, depending on the chemistry

of the actor's skin,

the type of environment they're in.

If you're working 20 days in a row,


but you are in the winter in New York,

they're gonna be different

than if you are in 110 degrees in Florida.

What kind of wardrobe they're gonna be wearing.

Are they gonna be having suits of armor

versus T-shirts and jeans

or no clothing at all?

I think location of the tattoo

is also something to consider,

because if you are putting a neck tattoo on

or hand tattoos,

those are high traffic areas

is what we like to call 'em,

and they're gonna break down faster.

It's one of the most common questions I get

from other makeup artists,

when they call and say,

The tattoos are falling off the hands constantly.

I'm replacing them twice a day.

Well, you gotta tell the actor

stop putting their hands in their pocket,

stop putting on jackets five times a day, right?

Stop using your hands.

Just stop using your hands.

The neck is a tricky one,

because people are usually in collars.

The oils work differently here,

kind of like your T-zone on your face.

So those are, like you said,

high traffic areas, that need a little bit more attention

as opposed to something flat on the back

or the arm.

We've had situations where a tattoo is so elaborate

and it takes so long to apply

that we kind of take extra special care with that actor,

(Video) How Tattoos Are Covered For Film And TV | Beauty Transformations

because production, of course,

doesn't want to go through

another three- or four-hour application

the next morning.

Shows like Prison Break, Blindspot,

where they're fully covered in tattoos.

You know, these types of tattoo applications

can take a very long time.

We take extra special care in sealing them

and protecting them

so the actor can go home and sleep in them,

still shower,

come back the next day, and get right back into work.

[camera clicking]

[mellow music]

Removal is another big aspect of what we do.

It's something you gotta be really, really careful with.

You can really hurt somebody

if you don't do it properly.

Because the tattoos hold so well.


[Christien] And by the end of the day,

of course, the actor just wants to go home.

It's been 14 hours already.

And so it's common human nature

to want to rub and scrub

and think that, somehow,

that exfoliation is gonna get it done faster.

And the truth of it is, we essentially soak them.

You let it sit for about five minutes

and then it all just sort of falls off.


[Christien] One of the big challenges

for both production's finances

as well as our job,

is to create tattoos for stunt people.

And it's not just stunt people

emulating the actor's fake tattoos.

It's sometimes emulating the actor's real tattoos

to be put onto stunt people.

For example, in Bullet Train,

Brad Pitt's tattoos in that film are all his own.

And so we had to recreate all his tattoos

to go onto the stunt double,

as opposed to somebody like Tangerine or White Death,

where we just had to create duplicates of those tattoos

that fit the stunt actor.

And another place that we use duplicating tattoos a lot

are in commercials.

Something that you think is LeBron James,

but it's not.

When you just see an arm coming into frame,

or like you said, LeBron James,

and you just need that shot

of the lower half of the body.

This is really where it plays into.



The stunt tattoos,

and the recreating also comes into the idea

that we've done shirts and things like that.

So this all started back on a show years and years ago,

it was a film called Torque.

And I remember the producer coming to me

and talking to me about the cost

of all these tattoo appliques

for the actors, for the stunt people.

And that's kind of where the idea came from.

Well, what if we could take a mesh type material

and then slip it over the body

to look inherently like their own skin

and the tattoos?

You go from a two-hour application

to a 30-second application.

(Video) Tattoo Historian Rates 15 Iconic Movie And TV Tattoos | How Real Is It?

It's magic.

In fact, I've got an example right here.

So this is an Aquaman tattoo.

It's much more tan than I am,

but you can see, when it goes on,

it just represents the tattoo and the skin tone.

And as we progressed over the years,

we ended up doing 250 of these suits

on John Carter from Mars.

[Dick] Yeah. An instant army of tattooed Martians,

and same with Mad Max: Fury Road,

all the War Boys.

War Boys, yes.

As an example, we have a lot of tattoos

over here on the wall.

We have Blindspot.

We have some tattoos from Westworld.

Then these red designs,

those are actually scarification tattoos

for Fury Road.

So these would go onto the actor's body.

Layers of makeup and white mud

would then kind of go over that.

And you would have this believable

three-dimensional scarification look

for a lot of the background,

where they didn't have to put prosthetics on every day.

[camera clicking]

Part of the idea of wounds,

differently than graphic designs,

is you have to treat the tattoo more like makeup.

One of the tricks with wound tattoos

is to understand how color translates onto skin

through transparency.

So there are certain wounds that look better

on different skin types.

It becomes a whole trick in itself.

It's an illusion. It's a magic trick, essentially.

Well, what I also like about them

is that you can get a wound tattoo to look raised

using negative space.

It creates the highlight.

So the scab could look

like it's butting up against something.

[Christien] And we can show you some examples

of the tattoos.

There's some scabs.

So these are...

These are some of my favorites, the pimples.

Right? Yeah.

If you have to do acne.

You get some little highlights in the middle there.

Some of the skin irritation.

Even with scab,

this is a little bit fresher of a scab.

You know, another great thing that we can always do

is we can create aging with these wounds.

So we'll create a scab that's more fresh.

And then we'll start to diminish that scab

and make it look more brown and yellow

as it starts to heal.

Always kind of fun and fascinating.

You know, it's so funny that you mentioned

not being tattooed,

'cause that's probably one of the questions

that I get asked all the time.

Well, how many tattoos do you have?


I'm like, Zero.

I make 'em, so I can put 'em on

and dress with 'em if I need to.

It's kind of fun that way.

Yeah, no. Not doing it.

Not doing it.

(Video) Tattoos Of Your Favorite Movies and TV Shows

[mellow music]


How are tattoos applied for films? ›

A piece of paper is printed out, wet, stuck on the skin, then peeled off. This leaves a transparent design on the flesh. Then once on set, a makeup artist would hand paint all the lines and retrace the design."

Do actors cover up their tattoos for movies? ›

Truth be told though, nine times out of ten the producers are going to cover visible actor's tattoos with make-up or clothing because 1) they don't want to deal with the risk in any way and/or 2) the tattoo will likely be distracting in the scene.

Do actors have to cover their tattoos? ›

Generally speaking, no! However, if you always play roles with tattoos, by all means... tattoo away. Otherwise, they are hard to cover up and you may lose a part because of them.

Are tattoos on actors real? ›

Exactly How Your Favorite Actors Get Those Fake Tattoos On Screen. Photo: Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock. Sorry to break it to you, but the majority of tattoos you see in films are not real.

How do they do tattoos for TV? ›

Called tattoo transfers, they are stuck to the skin and removed from decal paper with just water, then sealed for protection. Most tattoos are applied and removed each day of shooting, though some can last overnight and just be touched up the following day.

How do TV shows do fake tattoos? ›

"Two decades ago fake tattoos were put on actors the same way a tattoo artist in a parlor would apply a stencil before the real one — it's called a thermal ink transfer. A piece of paper is printed out, wet, stuck on the skin, then peeled off. This leaves a transparent design on the flesh.

How do professionals cover tattoos? ›

How To Cover and Conceal Tattoos | Quick and Detailed Makeup Routine

How do you cover a tattoo in Theatre? ›

The key is to use opposing colors to neutralize the ink. If your tattoo is black or blue, dab coral or red make-up over it. Consult a color wheel to literally check with colors are opposite. When the colors “mix”, they nuetralize.

What does Johnny Depp neck tattoo say? ›

The “Betty Sue” tattoo was inked by artist Jonathan Shaw in 1988. Depp once had body art that reflected his relationship with actress Winona Ryder. It read, “Winona Forever,” but after the couple parted ways, Depp had the tattoo changed to read, “Wino Forever.”

How are fake tattoos made? ›

Most temporary tattoos are novelty items made with a special type of decal. A process known as screen printing is used to create the tattoo image on paper coated with a transfer film. The transfer film allows the image to "slide" off the backing paper and onto the skin when moisture is applied.

What happens to actors with tattoos? ›

Your tattoos might not fit the character breakdown, and a project may not have the time or budget required to hide your tattoos with makeup. In short, without the prestige of a successful acting career, having visible tattoos is not a deal breaker, but it could limit the roles for which you will be considered.

Which actress has a lot of tattoos? ›

Angelina Jolie has more than 20 tattoos, and is known for having her ink covered when she enters a new phase in her life. For instance, she has a large cross tattoo near her hip to cover her previous 'dragon with blue tongue' tattoo which she got while on a trip to Amsterdam.

Can you be an actor with sleeve tattoos? ›

Yes, actors can have tattoos, but having tattoos can make them more suitable for some roles than for others. Some roles might ask for no visible tattoos, while others might actually ask for visible tattoos! To find out what the role requires, look at the casting breakdown (brief role description).

What does Johnny Depp neck tattoo say? ›

The “Betty Sue” tattoo was inked by artist Jonathan Shaw in 1988. Depp once had body art that reflected his relationship with actress Winona Ryder. It read, “Winona Forever,” but after the couple parted ways, Depp had the tattoo changed to read, “Wino Forever.”

Can you have tattoos and be on Broadway? ›

The tattoo is a work of art under copyright so you will need their permission to show it on screen. If they do not give that permission make sure you let the crew know so that yet again, makeup and wardrobe can work around it. You can always cover up a tattoo.

What is Angelina Jolie tattoo? ›

Angelina Jolie's Roman Numeral Tattoo

On the left, it reads “XIII V MCMXL,” which is 13/5/1940. It is a tribute to Winston Churchill in remembrance of the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech that he delivered on the same day.


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