Tattoos and the Importance of Character Aesthetic

Tattoos and the Importance of Character Aesthetic

March 13, 2017

The aesthetic of a character in a film is a rather important aspect in the process of crafting a role which, when coupled with the performance of the actor, breathes life between the lines of text in a screenplay to create an individual who feels as real as the viewer themselves. From wardrobe design to makeup and hairstyle, each subtle nuance in a character’s portrayal builds upon the nature of the created individual. Actors and directors will sometimes go to great lengths in their approach towards crafting a role, and sometimes they can make a decision as simple as giving a character tattoos to enhance or add to the depth of a character. The application of tattoos can greatly alter not only the appearance of a character, but aid in the suspension of disbelief for a viewer when watching a familiar actor perform.

Robert De Niro // Cape Fear

An example of such aid in the suspension of disbelief is the effect of altering or masking a viewer’s perception of an actor who is typically type cast or who carries a certain stereotype. For example, Justin Timberlake being given tattoos in his portrayal of Frankie Ballenbacher in Alpha Dog (2006) may have erased any images of Timberlake as a young pop artist in the group N’Sync in the mind of a viewer. Similarly, though he has since moved on to often performing in much darker or violent roles, the same can be said about Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines (2012).

Justin Timberlake // Alpha Dog

Often, one will see doctored tattoo work in films, ranging from something as simple (but not subtle) as the tribal work on George Clooney’s Seth Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) to the highly detailed full body work on Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon (2002), and the tattoos will either not be mentioned by other characters on screen at all or it will simply come up in passing through brief dialogue. This does not detract from the importance of the character’s aesthetic, but contributes to the notion that it is simply a part of the character and their personality or artistic portrayal and not necessarily important to their identity itself.

Ralph Fiennes // Red Dragon

Other times, the tattoos of a character will play an integral part in either the story itself, like with the character of Leonard (played by Guy Pearce) in Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000), or for the character and the perceived lives they’ve led before the viewer has been introduced to them.  While the tattoos on Robert De Niro in Cape Fear (1991) were not a necessity to the story, as seen with Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of the same character in the original 1962 version of the film without tattoos, it is now hard to imagine the character Max Cady without the iconic scales of truth and justice tattooed across his back.

Guy Pearce // Memento

And then contrary to the artistic choice to give a character tattoos as a simple addition to their look or a tattoo’s importance in the whole of a film’s story,  there are also instances where it is absolutely necessary that a character has tattoos, even if they have no real importance or significance on the whole. There is not a focus on the specific tattoos placed on John Malkovich or Viggo Mortensen in the Eastern European themed thrillers Deadly Code (2013) and Eastern Promises (2007), but the fact that the characters these actors are portraying are members of different crime syndicates known for their affiliation with certain tattoos and tattoo styles makes their being tattooed seem almost imperative, even if it is not an anchor point or plot device in the telling of the story.

John Malkovich // Deadly Code

The application of fake tattoos in films is often the result of simple glues and dyes applied on set that can be washed off each day after filming, but there are also instances of method approach like with Robert De Niro having vegetable dyes applied to his body for the tattoos in Cape Fear which stayed on his body for several months (perhaps as a part of his process to mentally prepare for his assimilation with the character he portrayed in the film). Stories like these are some of the many impressive routes actors and directors have taken towards bringing a character to life through means other than the script and the actor’s performance and it contributes to the notion that a character’s aesthetic sometimes has to be just as believable or finely developed.

Who are some of your favorite tattooed characters played by non-tattooed actors or what is an impressive instance of doctored tattoo work in a film that you enjoy?

Article By NICK HOLLAND

InkAddict does not own the rights to any imagery used in the above article.


Originally Published: Thu, 28 May 2015 03:35:57



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