A woman emerges naked from a bag in Times Square, covered from head to toe in tattoos. An amnesiac, she has no idea who she is, or how she got all of the tattoos. That's the irresistible premise of the new series Blindspot. Almost as great a mystery as the tattoos on the show offer is the question of how they are created for the show.
Star Jaimie Alexander is transformed into a walking work of art in each episode as Blindspot’s enigmatic Jane Doe. Her body art is ornate, for sure, but the tattoos aren’t mere decoration. Each one offers a clue to a crime that the FBI must solve, making them vital to the narrative of the series executive produced by Martin Gero and Greg Berlanti and premiering on NBC September 21.
Creating the intricate web of tattoos would have been a challenge under any circumstances, but then there's this: Makeup and special effects artist Christien Tinsley and his team at Sun Valley, California’s Tinsley Studio had only 10 days to create the tattoos before the pilot for the series went into production earlier this year.
"I think that was the most challenging thing," Tinsley says. "The fact that we didn’t have hardly any time at all to design, create, produce, and then deliver this. But that was also great because we didn’t have time to overthink anything."
While Tinsley Studio does all manner of makeup and special effects work for television and film productions, the company has also made a name for itself over the years as the place to go for temporary tattoos, inking up actors including Vin Diesel for XXX, Wentworth Miller for Prison Break, and Gary Oldman for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
But Tinsley never set out to be "the tattoo guy" as he is widely known in Hollywood. It happened by accident, he says, explaining that when he was working on the film Pearl Harbor, he created a proprietary decal-style prosthetic makeup technique to create wounds that looked realistic and could be easily applied and removed, and he soon started using the technique to create the temporary tattoos that are so in demand in television and film. He dubbed his invention Tinsley Transfers and was honored with a Technical Achievement Award for the innovation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 80th Scientific and Technical Awards in 2008.
Custom Tinsley Transfers have become big business for Tinsley Studio. "We probably do somewhere close to a million dollars worth of tattoos for all kinds of productions around the world," Tinsley says. A line of Tinsley Transfers is also available to the general public.
With everyone so fascinated by his most recent work for Blindspot, which NBC has promoted heavily with promos and posters of Alexander’s tattooed body, Tinsley recently talked to Co.Create about the process of creating, applying and removing the tattoos.
The producers of Blindspot had a few ideas for tattoos they wanted to see incorporated into the mix, including FBI agent Kurt Weller's name and a barcode. Otherwise, Tinsley and his team had free rein. "Before we presented anything [to the producers] we spent six days researching and designing. The first three days was just research. We researched everything under the sun that we could think of that had to do with conspiracy theories, Old World America, poems and phrases that could somehow be used or were cryptic enough that you could create a story around the tattoo," he says, noting, "Please remember, we were creating images for storylines that hadn’t been created yet. Only the pilot had been written."
Ultimately, Tinsley and his team came up with more than 200 designs applied in layers. While Tinsley's favorite tattoos is a spiral placed on Alexander’s left hip, you will also spot outlines of hands in different formations, a bird, Chinese lettering and mathematical equations, including the Mandelbrot set, on other parts of Alexander’s body.
As for the color palette, the tattoos on Alexander’s body appear in blacks, greens and reds. "Probably the best thing to compare the color palette to would be a dollar bill," Tinsley says. "A dollar bill—even though it’s fairly monochromatic with the green and cream color—it’s muted."
Given that the producers hadn’t plotted the entire series at the time Tinsley and his team created the initial tattoos, it was important to build fluidity into the overall design. "Part of the trick that we had to use in designing the original tattoo for the pilot was creating layers upon layers of imagery," Tinsley explains, "and one of the reasons for doing that was not just to make something comprehensive and cool beyond a flat image that is easily recognizable but to also allow us the freedom to add images for storylines that weren’t conceived of right then."
It would be too time-consuming to apply over 200 tattoos individually, so the tattoos are applied to Alexander’s body in sheets—there are a total of 18, according to Tinsley, with three for her back alone.
Even with the tattoos being applied in sheets, it still takes a long time. If Alexander is getting her entire body done, it takes about four hours, Tinsley says. If she is wearing a tank top in a scene and only partial sets of tattoos are required that day, the process can cut down to about 45 minutes.
Alexander usually wears the tattoos for two to three days.
Tinsley points out that while he and his crew were on hand to apply the tattoos when the pilot was shot and for various promotions, the production took over the application duties from that point on. "They shoot in New York, and having us there all the time is an expense that's just impractical to spare." Tinsley says.
It takes about an hour to remove all of the tattoos from Alexander’s body when she has them all on. The tattoos are coated with a remover called Betasol, which is allowed to react with the adhesives and inks for a few minutes, making it possible to then wipe them off the body. While it sounds simple, the removal of the temporary tattoos can be taxing on the skin, Tinsley says.
Thankfully, Alexander is a good sport about sitting still for hours at a time and dealing with the after-effects of the removal of the tattoos. "Our job becomes exceedingly difficult as well as nearly impossible to achieve properly if we don’t have an actor who is willing to participate and help us. It comes down to the actor being patient, holding still and enjoying the process even when it isn’t enjoyable," Tinsley says. "There are some actors who don’t like the process, and if they don’t have the tattoos, it’s not going to affect the storyline too much. But in a case like this, they are critical."
He continues: "I don’t know where they’re going to go in season two, three, four, five, but the point is: It’s season one, and the marketing and everything that goes along with this, it’s a huge part of what she has to do, and I think she has embraced that idea better than almost any actor I’ve known to be honest with you. She enjoys being able to look in the mirror and feel like she’s somebody else. That, actually, is a huge motivation for an actor becoming a character as opposed to pretending to be a character, and there is a difference."