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Designing Temporary Tattoos

Temporary tattoos

This post is about designing temporary tattoos for photoshoots, film, theatre, and television. The design and creation ultimately fall to the head of makeup, with input from the director, actor and script. We look at where to get tattoo design ideas and what to consider when designing a tattoo for a character.

The head of the makeup department is responsible for the design and, ultimately, overseeing the implementation of the tattoo. 

To help inspire the design, they will take a lot of information from the script, including when and where the story is set, as well as character traits. Likewise, they will liaise with the director and actor for their ideas and wishes. Some good old fashioned research into tattoos relevant to the time and place of the story never hurts either.

Creating temporary tattoos for a character is not just about picking a design that looks nice. You need to consider how a tattoo helps to define that character and their backstory, as well as how it fits into the overall story. 

By exploring the following aspects, the design options are narrowed and, hopefully, the right path to take is revealed.

Why Does This Person Have a Tattoo?

A big part of designing a tattoo for a character is understanding just who the person is. That is, there are often personal or cultural reasons behind tattoos, as well as foolish and trivial ones. For example:

  • Being part of an organisation. For instance, the military, Merchant Navy, biker clubs, the Freemasons, a music group and criminal gangs. Each organisation may have tattoos to show solidarity or involvement. In the same way, some tell a specific story or career path. For example, traditional sailor tattoos can have a specific meaning, like a dragon showing they’d been to China, or a King Neptune tattoo showed they’d crossed the Equator. Thus a sailor’s tattoos told of where he’d been and what he’d done.
  • Prison tattoos can be a coded language depicting a prisoner’s history. For example, in Russian prisons, a cat tattoo signified a pickpocket. In contrast, tattoos have been used as identification marks on the unwilling, like slaves, war prisoners, or criminals.
  • Sentimental tattoos include images of family, lovers, pets, and friends.
  • As a tribute, for example, to a football club, a famous person or to mark an event.
  • Cultural and spiritual tattoos, like tribal markings and religious emblems. Some cultures have a tradition of tattooing, like the Maori of New Zealand or the Berber women in Morocco, with their tradition of facial tattooing.
  • Other reasons like trends of the day or because they simply like tattoos. Perhaps they got drunk on holiday and thought it would be hilarious.
(L to R): Traditional Maori facial tattooing; A traditional tattoo method using bamboo; Berber girl's cultural facial tattoos; And one version of a popular tribute tattoo esp. among American military.

When & Where is the Story Set?

When designing a tattoo for a production, consider where and when the story is set. For instance, there is no point in doing a modern design if the production is set in the 1940s.

Also, at various times in history, tattoos were taboo in some cultures or countries or even illegal. For example, tattoos were outlawed in Japan from the start of the Meiji period until after WWII. During this time tattooing went underground – even today tattoos still have a negative image in Japan in many parts or aspects of the country.

In summary, think about what was available during the time and place of the story.

(Left) Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, 1944. Photo by Charles Fenno Jacobs, from the National Archives. (Right) A Russian prisoner's tattoos tell a story. Taken from Danzig Baldayev's "Russian Criminal Tattoo" book series; a record of tattoos seen during his career as a prison guard.

Where is the Tattoo to be Placed?

Placement of a tattoo is key and certain tattoos are meant to be done in certain places. However, there is no point in doing a great tattoo if the costume covers it up the whole time.

The script may tell you certain information about its placement. For example, it may state where the tattoo is and who sees it. Or, conversely, the tattoo may be required to be kept secret from the general view until such time when it gets revealed.

Tattoo location on the body has the following terminology:

  • A sleeve is where the arm is tattooed from shoulder to wrist.
  • A shirt is just like a shirt or jacket! Arms, back and front torso.
  • A full bodysuit is an extensive tattoo that covers the entire torso or the entire body. It is usually of a similar pattern, style, or theme.

How Old is the Tattoo?

Consider how long ago the tattoo was done, as real tattoos fade over a long time. As a result, the image and its edges become blurry and the colours become dull, merging into each other. This leaves a flat, fuzzy and faded tattoo.

Freshly done tattoos are slightly red around the edges. After which some scabbing will develop. “Onion skin” is where the colours look cloudy until the skin has fully healed for a few days, after which the colours should be clear and sharp.

How & Where was it Done?

  • The different tattooing techniques are all designed to simply get ink under the skin. Bamboo sticks are a traditional implement, while tattoo guns use a more modern approach.
  • Different countries and cultures can have a different look and feel to the styling of tattoos, as well as the use of (or lack of use) certain colours.
  • Established tattoo artists can have a recognisable style. For example, Sailor Jerry’s tattoo designs were found on the skin of many a sailor.

Tattoo Design Ideas

You could doodle something yourself, should you be artistically blessed, as there is art inspiration all around. However, should you need a guiding hand, here are some places to help you find the right design.

Online Design Websites

Many online tattoo design websites have thousands of tattoo designs in all sorts of categories. Some are free, some charge a small fee to download a design, and others offer annual membership with unlimited downloading.

For those really getting inked, the image offered should be a full colour, high-resolution download. This means that the design can be printed clearly and with great detail, ready to be taken to the tattoo studio for reference.

Some sites also provide a stencil with the image, which is used to apply the image outline and main details accurately to your skin. For those creating for a production, you can use the download to print off your own transfers.

Books & Internet

While you won’t get a handy high-resolution printout or stencil from a book, they can provide lots of inspiration. You also get to see the tattoos on people, rather than just as a flat template. 

Furthermore, the internet has a wealth of tattoo images to inspire and it’s easy enough to download images for reference.

Ready-to-use Tattoo Transfers

If you’re not looking for anything really specific or custom designed, you can use ready-printed transfers. These come in a huge variety of designs, styles, colours, and sizes. As a result, there are temporary tattoos for all parts of the body in a vast array of design options.

Ready-to-use temporary tattoos are good for filming continuity, as well as creating a quick or last-minute tattoo.

Where to buy: Tinsley Transfers | Temptu

Hire a Designer

If you haven’t the time or the art skills needed, you can always hire a professional. Some prosthetic studios or freelancers offer tattoo services, from the design all the way to on-set application. This is particularly useful for large tattoos, as well as those that need a unique design.

Finally... the Design!

Thinking about all the above will let you know what the design options are, as well as the limitations. Once you have your design confirmed and agreed by the director, you just have to create it. Here’s our guide to creating a temporary tattoo.

The beauty of temporary tattoos is being able to experiment with ideas and having a trial run during pre-production. Sometimes seeing a tattoo in situ is the best way to gauge what works and what doesn’t.

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Temporary tattoos