DIY: Is That Tat Real?!

I’ve always been a big fan of tattoos, so when I had the opportunity to give someone a fake tattoo for a short film I worked on, I was THRILLED. It was for a 48-hour project, meaning we had only 48 hours to write, produce, shoot and edit the short film, so time was of the essence. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to research how-to’s, so instead, I flew by the seat of my pants and pulled from what I did know, which was little. It turned out pretty cool, but I wanted to try my hand at it again.

Let me tell you, creating a tattoo for film is a lot easier than you think. The hardest part will come from how complicated the tattoo is to draw.

I decided to pull on my nerdy side and go with a Star Wars theme. One of my guilty pleasure shows is Ink Master. When I asked my friend, Connor, if she’d let me put a fake tattoo on her, all I could hear was Dave Navarro and the other judges from the show critique my work. Let’s just say, I’ve got a lot to learn, but it was a fun experiment.

Before we start I am a firm believer in using what you’ve got. Sure you can go out and buy a bunch of expensive stuff, but if simple things like foundation and an eye-liner can get the job done, and done well, then why waste your money?

What you’ll need:

    • A canvas (the actor, or in my case, my friend Connor, who I like to call Sarah-Connor cuz she’s BA)
    • A makeup eye-liner (Pick any colour you like, for this, I picked classic black)
    • Powder foundation (make sure this matches your canvas’ skin tone)
    • Setting spray (this is to set the tattoo for long days of shooting)
    • Pencil sharpener * not pictured
    • Tissue* not pictured

Step One – Figure out what you’re drawing and practice!

I was really excited to write this article, but then immediately started to freak out. I like to draw, but I’m not the most talented artist either, so I needed to pick something fun and challenging, but it also needed to be something I could still do and do well.

I started off by doing an internet search for tattoos. I knew my canvas was going to be my friend Sarah-Connor, so I decided to look for generic tattoos for women. There were the arrows and diamonds and flowers, but the more I looked the more I realized I needed something a little less generic.

That’s when I found the Star Wars one. I knew it was perfect. There was enough of a challenge to draw it, but it was still simple enough that I knew I could do it.

For you: The tattoo you’re creating will be specific to the character in your story. If you’ve been given creative control on what the actual tattoo is, have fun, but do your homework. Put yourself in the characters shoes and think of what would be important to them. Every part of a film tells a story, so aid that story with the tattoo you choose.

Step Two – Decide where to put the tattoo

The magic of tattoos is they can be anywhere on a person’s body. For my Star Wars experiment, I decided to go with Sarah Connor’s wrist.

One of the reasons for this is because I could hear Dave Navarro in my head telling me to make the canvas feel comfortable. Depending on the complexity of the tattoo, your canvas could be sitting for hours. I didn’t know how long mine would take – especially as I hadn’t done this before – so I wanted Sarah-Connor to be comfortable while I played.

For you: Depending on where you decide to put the tattoo, keep in mind that some areas are going to be harder to draw on than others. When I did the tattoo for the 48-hour project it was for a Rock Star character and the tattoo ran from his neck to his waist. Every curve of the actor’s body presented a problem, forcing me to find a solution.

Step Three – Drawing time

This is the fun part. Make sure your canvas is clean from any lotions or other products that might interfere by wiping the area with a damp cloth and then start drawing!

During my pencil practices, I’d discovered that the hardest part to draw was the X on the X-Wing. Again, I could hear Dave Navarro telling me my lines weren’t proportionate, so I was determined to get it right.

My first attempt on my canvas failed epically. The wings were way off. So I had to start over. Which brings up a good reminder – make sure you have tissue and water or makeup remover to clean the surface so you can start fresh.

Another thing I learned during this, is to make sure I have a pencil sharpener with me. The black eyeliner dulled quickly, so my tiny star looked more like a blob than a star, at first. The soft makeup crumpled in the sharpener too, so I learned by trial and error to carefully shave only the tip of the black makeup.

In retrospect, if I’d picked a larger tattoo this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue.

For you: Keep in mind the amount of detail you have in your tattoo. Make conversation with your canvas while you work, so they feel more relaxed. Also, keep in mind the amount of pressure you apply to their skin. The sharper the pencil eyeliner is, the sharper it will feel on certain areas of your canvas.

Step Four – Set with Foundation

It’s actually a bit surprising how well this works. Initially, when I messed up on the X-Wing, I tried to hide the old mark under foundation, which actually set the mark instead of covering it.

I would recommend making sure you tap any loose foundation from the brush before applying the foundation. To avoid smudging the pencil I dabbed the brush against the surface instead of applying it in brush strokes.

One thing I noticed is that applying too much foundation can dim the black too much. Once I was sure that the eyeliner was set with foundation, I ran my hand across the tattoo to brush away any residue.

For you: Remember to use a foundation that matches your canvas.

Step Five: Use that setting spray

I love setting sprays. Especially the one we use in our office by Motive. Any time I do makeup for our films, I like to “demonstrate” to the actor what I will do with it by closing my eyes and spraying my face three times. It’s quite refreshing.

To set my Star Wars themed tattoo, I knew the surface wouldn’t need as much setting spray as I normally use because it is a smaller surface. (For someone’s face I spray three times.) I held the bottle about 10cm away from my canvas’ arm and sprayed twice. Doing this, I noticed that some of it was too heavy in places, so I dabbed at it with the brush I used earlier for the foundation.

For you: If you find yourself doing makeup on set, be sure to yell “Spraying” when spraying any liquids around the camera. I’ve gotten so in the habit of saying this, that even for this experiment – in the quiet of my office – I still said it. It’s a good habit to create because it helps aid communication with those around you.

Step Six – Enjoy your final product

Congrats. We did it! With the aid of the foundation and setting spray, your creation should last several hours.

Sarah-Connor is one of the techs of our office, she makes all our equipment go and as such, I was curious to see how long our little experiment would hold out to the normal wear and tear of her day. It’s been just a little over three hours and it’s still looking great. There have only been slight areas that smudge (namely the back of the moon because of where it sits on her wrist).

For you: This last little hiccup in my experiment brings up another great point. Your canvas (a.k.a. actor) is going to put a log of wear and tear on their tattoo. Be sure to stick around and be ready to touch up any bits that smear and when needed add a bit more foundation and setting spray to keep it in place.

Last Thoughts and Notes

One final thing to keep in mind is that the process is going to be messy, so be prepared with towels and cleaning supplies. When I was cleaning up, I somehow managed to get eyeliner everywhere. Even on the shade of my lamp. So, be warned, it’s a messy job, but man alive is it fun! I learned a lot along the way and I hope the lessons I’ve learned will help you too.

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  • Charis Joy Jackson

    Producer, Director, Writer, Actress

    Charis Joy Jackson is a writer, director, producer and teacher working with The Initiative Production Company. During the day she makes movies and in her spare time is writing a novel. She's a self-proclaimed nerd who wishes she could live in Hobbiton. You can follow her on Instagram @charisjoyjackson

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