How are tattoos created on Movie and TV

Posted by jonee cocchia on

They have to stay on for the duration of shooting, look real, and remain consistent.

How are they created and maintained?

How do they come off once filming is complete?
3 Answers
Rich Williamson
Rich Williamson, I have worked on a few sets.
There are several products that are used for this process.

There are two main ways to do this.
1.  Using inks to paint the skin.
2.  Applying pre-made temporary tattoos.

It all depends on if you want a unique tattoo, or are happy with a pre-made tattoo.

If you are OK with a pre-made tattoo, then it is really simple to do.  you simply apply the temporary tattoo just like the kiddie ones.  You put water on top of the paper, apply pressure, and slowly remove. 

The key to these products being different, is that they are made by professional makeup companies, who make the pigments and styles very believable.  They will make sure they look faded, and make the styles believable.  There are thousands of styles out there, so going this route is not all that limiting.

The other thing is that the movie and stage tattoos will be oversized so they are more easily seen.  There is nothing worse than a tattoo that is not seen on stage.  You don't want the audience to think you have a dirty smudge on your arm.

If you want a "one-of-a-kind" tattoo, you will need to use alcohol based pigments.  You can "free-hand" them if you desire, but honestly, the easier way to do this, is to create a piece of tattoo flash, just like real tattoo artists use.  I will give you some sources for them at the end of this piece.

Ink based free hand tattoos are what you often see when an actor is covered in tattoos, that are specific to the character.

To create flash, what you will do, is draw the artwork on a plain piece of paper.  You can use pencil at this point.  Once you are happy with the design, you will need to ink the design to make it stand out.  Make sure the lines are clear, and are connected at all joints.

Get an old school thermal fax machine, and run your paper design through the fax machine on "copy"  This will transfer the line drawing to the thermal fax paper.

If you don't have an old fax machine, you can try drawing your design on fax paper first.  Pencil wont transfer, only ink.

To transfer the flash:  either wet the skin with alcohol, or rub clear anti persipirant.  Apply the flash / fax paper to the skin and rub gently.
Once you remove it, there will be a black / blue outline of the tattoo you are going to create.

Two major companies that I know of create inks for fake tattoos.  One is Reel Creations.  He provides inks that you apply with a brush, and even has some markers that work too.

The other company I know of is Tinsley Tattoos.  They actually sell both the rub on ones, as well as the ink style ones.  Their rub on ones are REALLY realistic.They were created by Christian Tinsley who is a Hollywood makeup artist.  he needed to apply wounds to the cast of thousands for a war scene.  he came up with a really fast way to do this, and still being realistic. 

If you see the Tinsley tattoos shown on the card, you will not believe that they will look real.  however once on your skin, they are really realistic.

Tinsley also sells pre-made flash too.  if you are going to need hundreds or thousands, they can also custom make your design.

Essentially hand work requires a steady hand, and a good mind for nice realistic designs.

You can also get extra large rub on tattoos from Kryolan, who is a professional makeup company.  they are really good for stage, and can even fool people up close to you.

Here are some sources (note, I am not sure that the manufacturers will sell to end-users.  They will however point you in the direction of your local distributor):

Reel Creations:

Tinsley Transfers:

Here is a great picture of Ryan Gosling wearing Tinsley tattoos:

Here is a great example of the Vampire bite tattoos (Tinsley) looking OK on the sheet, but when you see them on the performer, they look really realistic.

Here is a Kryolan product that is oversized, and realistic (rub on):

Some people will even use a product called Kryolan Aquacolor.  It is no good for film work, but is OK for stage.  You use this makeup like a water based product on the skin.  it is the exact product that the Sports Illustrated models wore on the shoot where their bikinis were "painted on".

It is often used for body paint, so the detail of the tattoo you create is limited by the artist's ability.

You can see some great examples of body paint, and get an idea of what you could create at the bottom of this page:

If you have any other wig, makeup or costume questions, I am happy to answer them.  We have been in the costume, makeup and wigs business for almost 70 years.  Most of my staff have extensive experience and would be happy to answer questions.

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