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. Brad Pitt's tribal hand art in Ocean's Eleven? Fake. Jason Momoa's superhero markings? As real as Aquaman himself. Rooney Mara's all-important body art for Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Totally temporary.
So how the heck does on-screen ink look so authentic? To find out we went straight to Christien Tinsley, makeup artist and character designer behind his eponymous studio, which is responsible for the sci-fi beauty in season one of Westworld and the faux bloody flesh in Santa Clarita Diet. We asked him for the secrets behind faux ink, what makes it any different from the real thing, and how body art can impact the plot of a film or show. His answers, ahead.
Exactly what does Tinsley Studios do in the film and TV industry?
"In a nutshell, it's a makeup effects studio providing prosthetics, tattoos, fake bodies, creature suits, and also traditional makeup. I've been a makeup artist for over 20 years and Tinsley Studios is a one-stop shop for design. For example, I was hired on the first season of Westworld to design everything from the beauty makeup to the effects of the show. That's a pretty common practice for character design, in general."
What's the difference between creating a real tattoo and designing a fake one?
"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. Then once on set, a makeup artist would hand paint all the lines and retrace the design."
Photo: Andrew Cooper/Touchstone/Jerry Bruckheimer Inc/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
How has that process changed?
"When I did the film Pearl Harbor, most of the work we were doing was a lot of wounds. In an effort to create continuity between the actors' wounds, I created these 'cuts' that were essentially tattoo transfers. That started this wave in the industry for people to want to purchase cuts and bruises from me for their films. Eventually I started getting asked to do regular tattoos for projects, too."
Tattoos play a huge role in TV and film. Was that always the case?
"There weren't a lot of tattoos in film 20 years ago, then came this turning point where little tattoos began popping up here and there, starting out small, like Brad Pitt's hand tattoo in Ocean's Eleven. The word kept spreading that I'd developed this tattoo system that created tattoos from the bruise and wound concept that were colored, waterproof, and could look realistic, even aged, on someone's skin. It blew up and, for a long time, we were the only company producing tattoos in this way. About 10 years later, other makeup artists found out they can do their own artwork and print it on a laser printer, too."
How has the tattoo creation process changed since then?
"We currently produce and design temporary tattoos with a computer. There we have control over how thick the lines should be, the shading, opacity, and the coloring. We also have certain techniques we've created that make the tattoos look aged, like someone has actually had it for 40 years. When the adhesive goes on the skin, it looks finished — you don't have to do anything else once it's applied. Time in the chair with the actors is something that costs the studios money. If the tattoo takes hours, that doesn't even include hair and makeup, people are not happy. The more we can avoid that, the better."
How long does designing a tattoo take?
"I'd love to say that for every decapitated head we need eight weeks, or for every tattoo design we need two, but it just doesn't work that way. You might get eight weeks on one show, but for the next one they want it in a week and a half. We only had two weeks for the tattoos for the show Blindspot, which isn't a lot when it's so important to the plot."
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
How does a tattoo go from design to reality?
"Simple measurements work if it's just putting one tattoo on someone's arm, but when you're covering a full body, like Jason Momoa's Aquaman, you're essentially taking a 3D person who has movement and a silhouette with curves and wrapping 2D graphics around them. So we take a 3D duplication of their body that's like a thin plastic wrap, which can show the key details that are necessary to map out, like nipples, the spine, and elbows. Then we take that human figure, filet it to a flat surface, design the tattoos within those perimeters, and then fit it back together like a puzzle piece. That way it looks like it was meant to be on that person's body. That's the biggest hurdle we face — designing is one aspect of the job, but figuring out how that design can be engineered for that body is a whole other process.
"The next phase is producing, testing, and tweaking the design. It's all about evaluating the end product and hopefully being able to produce a better looking product on time. It's always circumstantial. Every client has a different physical build or skin tone, the crew could be shooting with a different camera in different scenes, and the wardrobe and environment can change, so it's always different."
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest.
What are fake tattoos made of?
"At first, I was using waxes to create the inks and they were fantastic. Not only were they waterproof, but the adhesives would stick to it so ink could stick to the skin. Now we've evolved into different resin inks that are impervious to solvents and waters. Before our biggest issue was trying to make the inks last, now it's about getting it off after a shooting. It all depends on body chemistry, but the average wear is up to three to four days while still seeing a good result."
Who applies these tattoos once they're on set?
"With something like Sons of Anarchy, where we had worked with the team before, we could trust the artists on set to apply the designs correctly to the actors' bodies. But the tattoos in something like Aquaman are so involved and complicated that we'll put in the contract that we have to be present for testing and the first days of shooting to train the makeup team to apply the tattoos until they're comfortable to do it on their own."
What are your favorite tattoo designs created by Tinsley Studio?
"That's tough, but one of the most creative ones, where we also had a lot of freedom, was working on John Carter, which was very different from what we'd done before. For once, the tattoos went beyond the world of traditional standards. There was nothing really to compare it to and they were all full-bodied, on both men and women, militant and civilian. It was definitely creative and fun to do."

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