Film Theories: Tattoo culture in Hollywood

by Nathan Weinreich / Beacon Correspondent • September 30, 2015

With tattoo culture becoming more and more accepted within the mainstream, actors are facing a new problem: how to sport ink in real life while hiding it on film. Historically, this was deemed career suicide, but recently studios have become more accepting of body art on their stars. 

Tattoos used to be the mark of the smaller, more looked-down-upon groups. The beatniks of the ‘50s, the hippies of the ‘60s, and the punk rockers of the ‘70s and ‘80s made up the majority of the inked in their respective decades. At the turn of the century, however, tattooing hit a major boom that caused the art form to spread to larger and more accepted groups, including Hollywood’s finest.

In the past decade, conventional actors have sported tattoos both on and offscreen. Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, and Lena Headey all proudly wear their ink in real life, yet they are able to maintain a straight-laced, clean-skinned persona on screen because they can conceal it under clothing and makeup. This body art movement has allowed Hollywood celebrities today to boast anything ranging from small wrist tattoos to full back pieces, and everything in between. They’ve become so celebrated that Ryan Gosling even got a tattoo of a hand dropping a bloody heart on his left forearm, despite negative response from some fans and studios. 

Though parts of Hollywood still hold a negative stigma towards tattoos, a massive transition toward body art acceptance has been in motion since the early 21st century. Through social media and constant communication, body art has launched some actors into the fan favorite personas they are today. If Johnny Depp posts a picture on Twitter displaying his exposed arm tattoos, his fans can recognize and fascinate over them, giving him a whole new dimension as an artist. They can make actors more relatable to their fans, and that is something that directors are willing to compromise for. 

Movies have inspired fan ink for decades, but recently actors have begun partaking in this tradition as well. Eight of the nine members of the original fellowship in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” including Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, and even Sir Ian McKellen got matching tattoos of the Elvish script for “nine.”

Additionally, studios are beginning to accept the tattoos that their actors already have on screen. Angelina Jolie left her back ones visible for the 2008 film “Wanted.” Some movies go even further, putting extra time and effort into adding fake body art to the actors so they fit their character’s persona. Guy Pearce wore artificial tattoos all over his body for his role in “Memento,” while Tom Hardy sported both the fake and real variety on his chest and arms for his role in “Warrior.”

Nevertheless, some studios want to hide their actors’ ink. Through the use of costume design, camera positioning, and makeup, directors are fully able to remove tattoos if necessary. Dakota Johnson covered hers for her role in the 2015 movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” when she stripped down on screen. Shia LaBeouf covered the tattoos on his arm and torso for a nude scene in the 2013 movie “Nymphomaniac: Volume I.” Because of the ease of cover-ups, actors are much less restricted in their aspirations today.

There is a limit, however. While standard citizens can be decorated from head to toe if they so choose, actors’ tattoos are generally focused on places that can be easily covered by clothing, and they can only sport so many before it causes a problem in their career. Makeup can only do so much, leaving some in Hollywood significantly less tattooed than they might like. 

For example, Ryan Gosling has said that he wants many more, and has expressed that desire in the film “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Gosling, who wore several personally designed tattoos all over his body and face, said they were tattoos that he actually wanted. “I fantasize about having [them] if I wasn’t an actor,” Gosling says, “so that was my opportunity to wear them for a few months.” 

Despite a few production companies maintaining their negative outlook on tattoos, actors are becoming more inked as the years go by. As bigger stars begin wearing more, the negative stigma is moving toward a positive one, and the culture is increasingly becoming a Hollywood norm.