It’s easy to think of famous actors with tattoos: Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, and Lena Dunham come to mind. But as a working actor—rather than a bona fide celebrity—how will tattoos affect your career? We asked nine industry professionals, from acting coaches to casting directors, to weigh in on actors and tattoos, and whether ink will hurt your chances of getting cast.
Greg Apps, Sydney-based casting director
Actors with tats are very welcome in my office. I cast features so I am always looking for the actor that captures a unique character identification. And tats can deliver that—with a couple of conditions! The ink should communicate your niche, connect the casting director to your niche. For example, if you are getting prolific opportunities as a middle class mum, or a librarian, then hide your tats. The goal is make sure the tat contributes to your distinctiveness. Do tats limit the range of roles? Of course. But when applied selectively they can target your niche. They can make you the first person considered for a particular role. And that is your goal in everything you do: to be an individual not a conformist.
Paul Barry, L.A.-based acting teacher and founder of Acting 4 Camera
Tattoos obviously live on long beyond the decision you make to get one. No matter where they’re hidden, actors will almost certainly be showing them in a role eventually. Options? Hide them, remove them, or own them.“My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story,” says Johnny Depp of his body art.
Personally, I think a Catholic priest with a teardrop tattoo under his eye or a loving mother with an ink snake winding up her neck would make for interesting characters, but given society’s bias, it would (and does) make it difficult to be cast regularly in certain commercials, film, and on television shows. I know actors that would never surrender their “body journal” for anything, whilst others regret the dolphin-surfing-a-rainbow ankle tattoo they got when they turned 15 in the ’80s. It’s your body, your choice, and your consequences.
As in all areas of your life, confidence in your choices increases the second you stop asking what other people think. Do you imagine Scarlett Johansson or Jason Mamoa caring what the industry thinks of their tats?
Heidi Dean, founder of Marketing 4 Actors
Before running out to get that tattoo (or piercing or drastic new haircut), think about whether your new look will align with the roles you are most castable as. If you are just starting out you want to create as many opportunities for yourself as possible, so why give anyone a reason not to cast you?
Think about the roles you usually play? If you’re the girl next door, then a visible tattoo could keep you from working. However, if having tattoos aligns with your brand (like they did for a young Angelina Jolie) then it might not affect you. With her A-list status and an Academy Award, the studios have no problem spending the time and money to cover her tattoos. Will that apply to you in 10 or 20 years? I hope so. Ultimately it’s your brand and your career so only you can make the choice.
David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
As with most questions in life, it depends, but I do have some personal experience in the matter. The first time I was brought back to recur on a TV show, I had a newly sprouted beard. It wasn’t until I walked onto set after hair and makeup that the producers saw the beard. After thinking I was good to go, I was quickly asked by an AD if I would shave. You can’t shave a tattoo.
Successful working actors are doing something right, so tattoos or not, don’t change. For those just starting out and thinking of combining acting with tattoos, remember you want to be easy to hire. Production will see anything that looks like a hair/makeup department responsibility as a deterrent to hiring you. Producers don’t want a pre-painted canvas. Unless you are playing a biker or a hipster craft beer maker, your ink could easily cost you a role and likely will without you ever knowing it.
Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
Generally speaking, no! However, if you always play roles with tattoos, by all means...tattoo away. Otherwise, they are hard to cover up and you may lose a part because of them.
JV Mercanti, head of acting for the musical theater program at Pace University’s School of the Arts
It’s not so much a case of should or shouldn’t. Culturally, tattoos are becoming the norm nowadays. A proliferation of body art in places that cannot be hidden (forearms, hands, chest, neck, etc.) are really problematic—especially if you ever want to be cast in a period piece. If you really feel you want a tattoo, opt for smaller options that are easy to cover up, or have them inked in places that you won’t necessarily expose on stage.
Brian Patacca, founder of Actor Salon
Tattoos! Schmattoos! First and foremost, it’s important for you to be able to live the life that you want, and if tattoos are a part of that life...then get a tattoo! Now, would I advise an actor to get a tattoo on their face… Only if they want to be cast in very specific roles forevermore. (Maybe a raven tattoo?) I have a client who works all the time; he has very visible tattoos on his forearms and biceps. But to be honest, the tattoos fit his brand. If you’re cute, bubbly, blonde ingenue and you’ve got tattoos all over your arms, it might give us a weird disconnect at the casting table. So first of all, get a tattoo if you want to. Secondly, consider whether it aligns with the type(s) you go out for, and make a decision with that knowledge. (And if you don't have that knowledge, a good coach will know exactly where to start working with you!) And finally (similarly to my first point), make the decision that you want for your life—and maybe don’t get tattoos on your face.
Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach, founder of Pearlman Acting Academy
Unless it’s a face tattoo, having tattoos or not having tattoos has zero bearing on your success potential as an actor, as they can easily be masked by makeup or wardrobe. The way you present yourself, both on set and in the audition room, should always be an attempt to magnify your inner beauty and charisma, not distract from it. When auditioning, with regards to appearance, you must present a clean canvas so as not to distract from what is most important: your personality and your inspired acting choices. Ultimately, you must decide to either showcase or hide your tattoos.
For some actors like Lena Dunham, tattoos are a part of their singularity—what makes them an original and sets them apart from the crowd. Your personality is your secret weapon—your most valuable asset as an actor. Tattoos or no tattoos, your personality should always be the brightest light emanating from your work. Finally, ask yourself this: How many Oscar or Emmy-winning performances have you seen where an actor’s personal tattoos were on display? Very few.
Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
I don’t know a single successful actor who is glad they got ink. Hundreds of hours in makeup are required to conceal these tattoos on a shoot. And you can still see them by mid-day. Touchups waste time. Who needs it? An actor should look at anything that limits casting very seriously. Tattoos don’t play for most of the roles that exist in Hollywood. Fake tattoos on the other hand look very convincing if baby powder is applied. This is a no-brainer. Avoid tattoos.
The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.