Friday, December 2, 2011

Art imitating Art. Tattoo transfers that look like real Ink.

I was working on a film called Albino Alligator around 1995. Matt Dillon wanted his character to have a tattoo. He couldn't decide what he wanted so I took him to a tattoo parlor on Sunset Blvd. I asked him to look at all the walls covered in tattoo designs and choose one from his characters point of view. It was actually alot of fun and helped him decide.
The only transfer techniques we had available to us back then were a bit of a process. Some tattoo parlors would make you sheets of tattoo designs on carbon paper or you would draw your design directly on the actor's skin. Either way was extremely time consuming if he/she worked everyday for months or even years in the case of television.
You can still get carbon tattoos or make them yourself if you want. It's a good technique to know and I still use it on occasion. It's also a good idea for "trying out" a tattoo design that you may want to get on yourself permanently.
To make your own, place a sheet of carbon paper (carbon side facing down) on top of a piece of tracing paper. Draw your design on a sheet of white paper and place on top of the carbon paper. Trace over your design firmly and it will transfer through the carbon paper to the tracing paper.
Cut around the design and after rubbing a glycerine based deoderant on the skin (I always use Mennen Speed Stick), place the design face down and press firmly.
Go ahead and use some 70 proof alcohol and lightly erase the purple toned carbon ink away. It will leave a light tracing on the skin. Be careful not to erase it too much. Then using a tattoo pen or alcohol based makeup, paint over the purple with whatever color you want it to be. To make it look aged, use an orange toned powder (like Ben Nye's Coco Tan Powder) lightly over top.

Carbon paper tattoo example, KD 151 tattoo pen, Skin Illustrator Classics tattoo color pots, Reel Color tattoo palette
The funny thing is that after the camera test, Matt realized that the process of applying a tattoo this way everyday was going to take way too long and he decided that his character had gotten a tattoo but it would never be visible. 
Which brings us to modern times and Tinsley Transfers.
Christian Tinsley developed a technique that really did revolutionize the way film and tv artists apply tattoos. 
I love working with the people at Tinsley Transfers. It's great that I can either design a tattoo myself, pull reference from the internet or use their stock tattoo designs. Be sure to get permission to use a tattoo design you find on the internet. They can make the tattoo look any age or color. Sky's the limit really. The process to apply it is so simple and fast it always feels like cheating! But in the film world its all about time and money, so it's the way to go. I'll explain how to apply at the end of the blog.
Example of a pre-made "Stock" Tinsley Transfer that you can buy individually. 
First, I'll give you a few examples of some Tinsley Transfers I've used over the years. I'm really proud of this first one and it has special meaning for me because my dad and I designed it together.In the film Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle the script called for a facial tattoo on a Mongolian man in a bar. That's all it said. After researching Mongolian culture, my Key, Tammy Ashmore and I found some great reference to Mongolian dragon lore. I had an idea in my mind that the Mongolian would be bald and this dragon would be perched on his head, wrapping around to the front of his face. The man would be smoking and a puff of smoke would look like it was coming out of the dragon's mouth. I made some preliminary drawings and then asked my dad, Richard Greene, who is an amazing artist, to take a stab at it. It was really a treat to get to collaborate with him! Next I sent the actor to get a full face cast over at Tinsley's and have the design turned into a transfer. I absolutly loved how it worked out.
Dragon tattoo design and after application
Next is a simple tattoo on Minka Kelly. The story called for a key from a gang she belonged to as a young girl. The initials of the gang started with 3 C's. I designed the key so the handle would look like 3 interconnected "C's" in an old world style. I emailed the design to Tamlyn at Tinsley Transfers and I asked her to age it 7- 10 years by fading the color and blurring the edges a bit. I think it worked out really well. 
Minka Kelly Key tattoo
Most people realize that when a scene calls for an actor to jump off a building or do a back flip while karate chopping the opponent that it is usually a stunt man doing the action.  What I don't think people realize is that if the actor has either his own real tattoos, or transfers, that his or her double has to have them too. 
This was true for the leading man Justin Theroux and half the Henchmen on "Full Throttle". Justin and I came up with 10 or so tats for his arms, chest and back that related to his character. He only had one real tat at that time. I love collaborating actors, helping them create a character. It's one of my favorite parts of my job.
Anyway, his stunt double had to have matching tats applied everyday in case he was needed. Most of the actors playing Henchmen had their own real tats and we had to photograph each of them and have transfers made for their stunt doubles. 
Justin Theroux and his stunt double with matching tattoo transfers preparing for a scene with Drew Barrymore
There are other folks that make tattoo transfers now and they all apply basically the same way. 
With a pair of small scissors you cut the transfer out from the sheet, peel off the plastic cover and place face down on the skin. Then you simply add water on a puff or paper towel for 30 seconds and the image will slide off and adhere to the skin. Powder with no color powder and seal with a sealing spray. It takes about 3 minutes per transfer unless it's really large, like the dragon tattoo, which by the way was one large piece. Still, it only took about 20 minutes to apply and came out looking amazing.

For more information on custom or stock tattoos from Tinsley Transfers please go to their web site. Christien has a full team of experts including Tamlyn Berry and Mike Mekash who have helped me out many times over the years.
Christien also won the technical achievement Oscar award for his prosthetic appliance transfers for "The Passion of the Christ". (I'll go into prosthetic transfers in a future blog.)
Me applying the dragon tat


  1. Thanks so much for this post - I recently asked the great and very talented people at Tinsley to make some tats for me for a corporate client. They came out amazing - so Tinsley makes affordable transfers for every makeup artist client (not just those really famous ones)!

    Also, did you shave the actor completely before applying? I am sure you did and what type of razor do you use for first time shave and then maintenance?


  2. Melissa, We were able in this instance to request a bald man from casting since he was a day player and only worked in this scene. Have you tried the Headblade Sport Ultimate Head Shave Razor? Its really good.

  3. Thank you Kim for sharing this process. I'm new to the "tattoo" applying world and I've been working on the color correcting & cover up process. How great that you were able to work with your dad. I didn't know about Tinsley only Temptu, so thank you again for shedding some light in that area. I'm now following your blog!

  4. Very cool I would love to have that!!!

  5. What is the cost for a custom transfer?