Not too long ago, I saw a production of a classic Greek tragedy and noticed that whenever one particular actor raised his right forearm, he showed off a prominent tattoo. Although the costumer had put him and other cast members in desert camouflage, the play wasn't necessarily meant to be set in modern times -- and the tattoo, which looked something like a sunburst from where I sat, was distracting.

I wondered: Would a Greek warrior have been tattooed? And if so, is this the kind of image he would have gone in for rather than, for instance, a Greek key design? My point is that the tattoo repeatedly threw me out of the play. While ruminating on the phenomenon, I asked myself why actors, whose bodies are their instruments, would jeopardize their availability for roles by adorning themselves with tattoos? All the cogitating over ink that I was doing meant, of course, that I was concentrating that much less on the performance. Suddenly, the play wasn't the thing; the tattoo was. Not good.

"Tattoo" comes from the Tahitian word "tatu," meaning "marking." Although obtaining statistics on the current popularity of tattoos in the U.S. is difficult, it's safe to say that their number has grown. A 1995 study speculated that between 12 and 20 million Americans had tattoos; a decade later, that estimate would likely be dramatically hiked. Actors are as prone to a tattoo's attraction as anyone working in other fields, but is it smart for them to give in to the urge when such indulgence could compromise their earning power? I decided to ask around, and what I found out surprised me: Although I expected that the prevalence of tattoos would be a prickly issue, it seems that it isn't.

Director David Warren, who recently opened Fiction and seems rarely to have a free day between assignments, says, "The actors I know have little stars in secret places -- never a skull on their forearm. Most actors think before they get ink. That would be a good slogan: 'Think before you ink.' Tattoos would be a problem in any but the most contemporary play." But Warren observes that, with all the plays he's guided over the past years, the issue has "never come up."

The casting masters I queried report more or less the same thing. Jim Carnahan, who heads the Roundabout casting department, says, "It's never come up for me. In a show like Cabaret, tattoos were an advantage." Bernard Telsey, who co-heads MCC and has overseen the myriad actors who've gone in and out of Rent, remarks that if a tattoo poses a problem, "we'll cover it with make-up." Or sometimes the creators might agree about a character that he or she "could have tattoos." There have been times -- he points to Cary Shields in Taboo -- when a performer's tattoos have been played up.

One actor among the myriad Rent boys that Telsey has lined up says that he got his tattoo while he was in the Jonathan Larson musical. Insisting that he gave acquiring such decoration four years of thought, the thesp notes that, "even if I wear a really, really short-sleeved shirt, you can't see it. I have yet to regret it." Now filling a recurring role on a soap where "they've accentuated" his tattoo, he confides that he's discussed the matter with other actors and declares that if they admit to thinking twice about their tattoo(s), it's "never because of the job. For the most part, any regret is because they didn't like what they got." On the other hand, this actor's request for anonymity may indicate some concern about tattoos as a potential detriment to landing roles.

Christian Campbell at the opening nightparty for Dracula, The Musical(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Christian Campbell at the opening night
party for Dracula, The Musical
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Melissa Silver, for whom theatrical make-up has been a long-time occupation, gives one good reason why tattoos pose so little problem: "It's easy to cover them up, and it's easy to take the make-up right off." Silver notes that the most popular cover-up is a product called Derma Color, which actors themselves buy and apply. (While actors in movies are almost always tended to by make-up staff, only leads in stage shows generally receive such pampering; the others see to themselves.) Recently at work on The Frogs because she's cemented a professional association with director-choreographer Susan Stroman, Silver says that, in the Nathan Lane-driven vehicle, there is "a lot of skin showing" and "it's no problem."

A make-up maven to whom many local actors turn is Louis Braun, who works out of Alcone N.Y.C., a small and cluttered Chelsea cosmetics emporium. Talk about the tattoo topic to Braun, who also regularly sees to the make-up needs of Charles Busch and John "Lypsinka" Epperson, and he'll fill you in on "concealers," "concentrated pigments," and "illustrator palettes" -- the last of which are activated with alcohol and last for several days. The popular Derma Color, he notes, has to be applied on a more regular basis and costs $25 an ounce for one color. Braun throws in the information that "there are also palettes for creating tattoos."

Costume designers get into the act, too, since they can offer another kind of cover-up. Martha Bromelmeier, who toils industriously in William Ivey Long's atelier, says of tattooed actors: "For the most part, it's their problem, and they have to put make-up on their tattoos. But one of our guys in the Cabaret tour was covered in tattoos, and that was good for the show." Has Bromelmeier discussed the situation with colleagues? "Oh, definitely," she says, "but what's worse are dreadlocks. Fortunately, actors' contracts says we get to do what we want with their hair."

So, to tattoo or not to tattoo? That's up to the individual performer, of course. But, according to the people charged with thinking about such things, the situation seems to be well in hand.