- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In preparation to star as Mötley Crüe rocker Tommy Lee in Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, Sebastian Stan needed tattoos — lots of them. Thirty-five, to be exact. To pull it off, he went to special effects house Autonomous FX before shooting and had his body scanned and measured; he was then covered in plastic wrap as tattoo designers sketched onto his arms, back and torso. The artists then cut out the images, fully designed them in Photoshop, printed them onto decal paper and, after two hours in the makeup trailer, Stan, tattoo-less in real life, was transformed into a sleeved rocker.
The actor’s Lee makeover is the latest in Hollywood productions’ approach to showing tattoos, which has seen a surge in recent years as body art has become more mainstream. That means there is a greater call for tattoos onscreen to reflect contemporary culture and a greater chance actors will come in with their own tattoos. All of which places demands on makeup teams to put on ink — or cover it up.
When it comes to application, think a high-end version of “the tattoos when you’re a kid and you got them with a lollipop,” says makeup artist Heba Thorisdottir, who applied tattoo designs to Margot Robbie for The Suicide Squad and David Dastmalchian for Ant-Man. 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. Autonomous FX owner Jason Collins, who handled Stan’s Lee tattoos, would occasionally apply his art the night before so that the actor’s 12-hour shooting day wouldn’t become a 15-hour day (removing the tattoos took about 45 minutes). Stan’s near-three-hour process is even on the shorter side; applying full-body art for some actors can take up to six hours. And as each tattoo on Stan’s arm was an individual decal, rather than one large piece, Collins’ team created maps using stencils and numbering systems to make sure they were applied identically every day: “We call it the Bible,” he says.
The biggest hurdle of all when it comes to onscreen tattoos, though, has proved to be legal issues, ever since 2011, when S. Victor Whitmill — a tattoo artist who gave Mike Tyson his famous face tattoo — sued Warner Bros. for similar-looking ink on Ed Helms in The Hangover: Part II. The studio settled with Whitmill, and in the decade since, the industry has become extremely strict about signing off on every tattoo that will appear onscreen, whether real or fake. For a production to give clearance, makeup artists and effects studios must come up with either original designs or imagery from the public domain. If an actor’s real tattoo is going to be shown, their personal tattoo artist has to give approval.
“Actors and their agents and managers are getting pretty smart about it now because they want to showcase their ink,” says Collins. “They’re going to artists that are world-renowned or high-end or famous and they’re getting clearances from those people when they get the work done, so that’s sort of a changing landscape for us.” Of course, this is much easier if the tattoo in question was recently applied.
“Some people have relationships with tattoo artists, but sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t even remember where I got that, I was like 19,'” says makeup artist Arielle Toelke, who designed fake ink for actor Dylan O’Brien for the upcoming film Not Okay. “So in my experience, even if the character has tattoos, I’ve always covered the existing tattoos that they’ve had and put my own on.”
Christien Tinsley, who operates special effects house Tinsley Studio and has been behind memorable film tattoos seen in Mad Max: Fury Road and Jason Momoa’s full-body Aquaman ink, says he and his team — production supervisor Robin Hatcher and key artist Dick Cherry — design images from scratch as a way to deal with those legal issues, doing extensive research on a character, time period and talent’s and directors’ needs.
“A lot of times we’ll be given images to reproduce the concept, so we’ll redraw them with our take on it and change a lot of things so it’s no longer that design, it’s our design. That way, we can give clearance to the studios,” says Tinsley. “Occasionally, the studios will design their own tattoo so they own the rights to those images. Otherwise, we have a combination of stock tattoos, thousands and thousands of tattoos that we’ve illustrated over the years that we just license out. [For example,] somebody is doing a big scene with a bunch of prisoners, here’s 300 tattoos you can put on anybody you want.”
On Pam & Tommy, clearance issues meant that Collins couldn’t exactly replicate Lee’s ink, with the general rule of thumb being a 20 percent to 30 percent change is needed to the original piece. For Lee’s “Mayhem” stomach tattoo, for instance, Collins tweaked the font and the design’s curls: “As long as you have the color, the composition, the arch, that kind of thing, generally you can get away with a lot,” Collins says. “There’s a lot of things that we changed on his arm for clearance purposes, but they’re the same color and they’re in the right place. If you’re looking and you’re an avid Mötley Crüe or Tommy Lee fan, you’re going to see things that you’re like, ‘Oh, wait a minute.'”
And as much work goes into putting on tattoos, it can also be an ordeal to cover up actors’ real tattoos. The process is generally done by applying an orange layer of concealer to neutralize the ink color, and then body paint and makeup to return the actor’s natural skin tone. Tattoos can also be strategically covered with the right costumes (“She can wear long sleeves, I don’t have to cover the tattoo today!” jokes Prodigal Son makeup artist Marsha Page), while some prove too hard to ignore.
Thorisdottir, the makeup head on Harry Styles’ upcoming film Don’t Worry Darling, says his large chest and stomach tattoos could be seen through his shirts under the set lights, “so even though [Styles] was fully clothed, we always had to cover that tattoo.” Or sometimes ink is not right for a character, which is why Torsten Witte says he covered Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s small arm tattoos in La La Land. Other times, areas that actors think are safe to get body art end up being a focal point on camera. As Thorisdottir notes, she’s heard from several stars who got tattoos on their feet “because they think they will never be seen, and then they’re in a Quentin Tarantino movie.” (The director has a penchant for showing actors’ feet onscreen.)
On sets, where every second counts, a cover-up can take just minutes for a small spot or an hour for larger pieces, prompting some talent to look into tattoo removal. Pete Davidson has said he is in the process of removing many of his tattoos rather than sit endlessly in makeup; Ruby Rose has made similar comments. Makeup artists are split on that idea, as some think it would save time, while others warn against scarring and discoloration that can make a cover-up even more difficult.
“Your skin will never ever look like it did before you had a tattoo,” says Toelke, who covered up Davidson’s ink as the makeup head on 2018’s Set It Up. “Maybe Pete Davidson can find the best laser and he can go as many times as possible, but it’s not something that happens right away.”
As productions continue to evolve, tattoo technology is changing as well. NYC-based company Ephemeral has pioneered biodegradable, designed-to-fade black ink. Customers get the design via a real tattoo needle, but it will vanish within a year. Co-founder Josh Sakhai sees it as the next wave of tattooing on set, as it takes just one session, can last for the duration of a shoot and can provide a realistic experience, especially for method actors. “If you really want to embody the role, this is a phenomenal way to embrace it,” Sakhai says. Some Hollywood makeup artists who spoke with THR, however, said they have concerns about fading of Ephemeral tattoos affecting continuity as well as the lack of color options. CGI also may eventually play a role, but presently it’s far too expensive for adding or removing tattoos in post.
For now, one thing is clear: tattoos are much more than just casual self-expression when it comes to on-camera talent. “Whenever actors sit in my chair, they’re like, ‘I really think I want another tattoo.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you?'” says Toelke. “You [already] don’t like getting up and having to be at work at 7 in the morning — you’re really not going to like to get up and be at work at 5 or 6 in the morning because we have to cover all your tattoos.”
Hollywood’s In-Demand Tattoo Artists
These top ink designers have loyal star followings:
Keith “Bang Bang” McCurdy — a favorite of Katy Perry, LeBron James and Rihanna — operates from two NYC studios (62 Grand St. and 328 Broome St.).
Known for his minimal microtattoos on Halsey, Hailey Bieber and Kendall Jenner, he has a shop inside NYC’s Moxy Times Square hotel (485 Seventh Ave.).
Owner of North Hollywood’s The California Dream shop (13131 Sherman Way), Lacoste has tatted Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Kendrick Lamar. His YouTube channel has more than 800,000 subscribers.
Operating his famed Shamrock Social Club in West Hollywood (9026 Sunset Blvd.) for 45 years, Mahoney has cemented himself as a tattooing legend. He’s done work for Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Adele, Lady Gaga and Jared Leto (who in 2013 posted about “the legendary Mark Mahoney” inking him in his kitchen) in his signature black and gray single-needle style.
L.A. artist Brian Woo has become a star in his own right, launching skin care line ProjectWoo in 2020 and amassing 1.8 million Instagram followers. He’s inked Miley Cyrus, Drake and Emilia Clarke, the latter with Game of Thrones-inspired dragons. “Dr. Woo made sure this mamma ain’t never forgetting her babies,” she posted in 2018. His Hideway at Suite X studio is inside the Hollywood Roosevelt (7000 Hollywood Blvd.). — K.C.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power