Tattoos on Film: How Makeup Artists Hide Existing Tattoos and Create Body Art for Movies

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Tattoos in Film

Tattoos have long played an important role in the film industry, helping to shape characters and tell their stories.

Whether it's an intricate piece that reveals a character's history or small design that hints at an important personality trait, tattoos have found a special place in cinema. However, did you ever wonder how makeup artists deal with a cast's existing tattoos - or even create new ones specifically for the film?

This article is going to explore these two very different, yet equally important aspects of movie makeup artistry.

Understanding Tattoos in the Film Industry

In movies, every little detail matters, and tattoos are no exception. They can add depth to a character or drive the story forward. Think about Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Her tattoos aren't just for show, they're a part of her, showing her strength and spirit. Or consider Leonard Shelby in Memento, whose tattoos are his memory in his quest for truth.

Sometimes, tattoos just show a character's group or rebel attitude. Like in Suicide Squad or Sons of Anarchy, tattoos mark them as part of a gang or as outsiders.

Of course, not all on-screen tattoos are real. Whether they hide existing tattoos or create new pieces of temporary, art, it’s the job of the movie makeup artist to blend storytelling, character building, and aesthetics.

The Art of Hiding Tattoos

You might be surprised how often actors' real tattoos need to be hidden for movies. Usually, tattoos are hidden because they don't fit the character, or it could distract the viewers. Here's how movie makeup artists pull off this tattoo magic trick:

Color Correction

Artists use special makeup to neutralize the tattoo color. If the tattoo is dark, they use a color that's opposite on the color wheel, like orange or red.

Heavy-Duty Concealer

This is a thick makeup that matches the actor's skin tone and hides the color-corrected tattoo. Sometimes they have to apply multiple layers to fully cover it.


For bigger or darker tattoos, they might use airbrushing. This technique uses a small spray gun to evenly apply makeup. It gives a natural finish and lasts longer.


Sometimes, artists use silicone cover-ups. These are like a second skin that goes over the tattoo. They're made to match the actor's skin and look very realistic.

Each of these methods can take time and skill, but the end result is an actor who fits their character perfectly, with no tattoos in sight, unless, of course, the script calls for them!

How Makeup Artists Create Tattoos for Film

Creating fake tattoos for movies is an entirely different ballgame. Here's how artists bring these movie tattoos to life.


First, the artist designs the tattoo. This could be anything from a small symbol to a large piece of body art. They have to think about the character, the story, and what the tattoo should mean - then choose a tattoo style to match.


Next, they decide where to put the tattoo. They consider things like the character's job, lifestyle, and how often the tattoo needs to be seen in the movie.


Then, they apply the temporary tattoo. This usually involves a transfer paper with the tattoo design. The artist puts the paper on the skin, applies water, and the design transfers onto the skin.


Finally, they make sure the tattoo lasts. Movie shoots can take a long time, so they seal the tattoo with a special spray or powder. This keeps the tattoo looking fresh and real for as long as needed.

Creating tattoos for films takes creativity and precision, but the result is a character that looks just right for the story being told.

Iconic Movie Tattoos

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander: The large dragon tattoo on her back symbolizes Lisbeth's strength and resilience, playing a crucial role in defining her fierce, defiant character.


Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby: Shelby's body is covered in tattoos that serve as reminders for his short-term memory loss, acting as a unique narrative device in the film's complex storytelling.

Suicide Squad

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn: Quinn's bold tattoos reflect her chaotic personality and emphasize the difference between her original persona (psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel) and the anarchic rebel she becomes, Harley Quinn.

The Hangover Part II

Ed Helms as Stu Price: Stu wakes up with Mike Tyson's face tattoo, a comedic homage to Tyson's cameo in the first film and a visual cue for the group's wild night in Bangkok.

Eastern Promises

Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin: Luzhin's Russian prison tattoos hint at his past and his rank in the Russian mafia, adding a layer of authenticity to his character's backstory.

The Illustrated Man

Rod Steiger as Carl: Carl's body is covered in animated tattoos, each one launching into a different science fiction story, acting as the central narrative device of the film.

Red Dragon

Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde: Dolarhyde's massive red dragon tattoo is a physical manifestation of his transformation into a serial killer, reflecting his internal struggles and obsession with William Blake's painting.


Shailene Woodley as Tris Prior: Tris's three-raven tattoo represents her family members and serves as a symbol of her loyalty and love for them despite choosing to join a different faction.


Dwayne Johnson as Maui: Maui's animated tattoos serve as a visual narrative, representing his past deeds and adventures, and even interacting with him throughout the movie.

John Wick

Keanu Reeves as John Wick: Wick's back tattoo, translating to "Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat" or "Fortune favors the bold", emphasizes his fearless nature and hints at his past in the underworld.

The Evolution of Tattoos in Film

Tattoos in movies have come a long way. In the past, they were often used to show that a character was a rebel or a bad guy. But society's view of tattoos has changed.

More people have tattoos now, so they're more common in movies. They're not just for tough guys or rebels anymore. We see them on all sorts of characters, from heroic leads to supportive side characters.

Final Thoughts

From hiding real tattoos to creating new ones for movies, it's clear that there's a lot more to movie tattoos than meets the eye. It's not just about the cool designs we see on screen. It's about storytelling, building characters, and a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

Next time you watch a movie, pay attention to the tattoos. Remember the skill and creativity of the artists who made them. Whether they're covering up a real tattoo or designing a new one for the film, they're helping to tell the story and bring the characters to life.