By: Gregg LaGambina
When Lee Gren was growing up in Chicago and daydreaming of superheroes and pin-up girls, he never thought he would actually mingle with these mythical creatures in real life, let alone as a career. After attending art school, Gren moved out West, adopted the nom de plume Dick Cherry, and got his start designing concert posters and fliers for the Cat Club in Hollywood – the infamous haunt once owned and operated by former Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom.
Cherry hasn’t entirely abandoned his childhood fantasies. He still churns out pin-up art, posters, and paintings to indulge the skate-punk kid he once was – and still is, in spirit. But it was a call from Robin Hatcher – the production coordinator from Tinsley Studio – that opened up an entire new world of possibilities for Cherry. Since that first job (on the film John Carter), he has worked in special effects tattoo design and application for films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice, plus the television series’ Sons of Anarchy and Blindspot.
CreativeFuture met with Dick Cherry at Tinsley Studio to discuss how he managed to navigate his way from concert poster designer to working on major Hollywood films and TV shows – and why getting a human head in the mail is just part of a normal day at the office.
Gregg LaGambina: A “special effects tattoo designer” is not the kind of job many career counselors would recommend pursuing.
Dick Cherry: [Laughs] No! Not at all.
GL: So, how did you end up working on tattoo designs for film and television shows at Tinsley Studio?
DC: My first seven years in Los Angeles, I worked a day job to pay the bills, then went home and worked an additional five to eight hours painting or sketching. On my days off, I drew or painted for 12 to 16 hours. My process was old school for many years, just putting pen to paper for sketches. My former schoolmate and graphic design buddy, Mike Mack, gave me crap about not using Photoshop for sketching out my ideas. Mike gave me an old copy of the program and said, “Just try it.” After bucking it for months with a mouse, I purchased a Wacom tablet, which made the whole process of drawing in Photoshop feel more organic. It was the perfect combination for me. I could efficiently extract images out of my head 10 times faster than I ever could with a pencil. So, I taught myself the ins and outs of Photoshop and mastered my tablet technique for about two years.
Then, one cold-ass day in December of 2009, Robin Hatcher [Tinsley Studio Production Coordinator] called me about a film called, John Carter. She said, “We need artists to create designs and patterns for the tattoos in the movie. Is that something you would be interested in?” Without hesitation, “Of course! I’ll give it a shot!” And I started the next day. As the project progressed, Christien Tinsley and I hit it off really well. When John Carter started to wrap, Christien called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to work at here full time. It was like a dream come true. Hard work really does pay off.
GL: You started here by designing tattoos for Tinsley Transfers, Christien’s retail temporary tattoo business?
DC: I designed retail tattoos for Tinsley Transfers for the first couple of years and my colleague, Mike Mekash, designed tattoos for films and television. In the beginning, Mike occasionally worked on set as a makeup FX artist. When he was out of the office, I would get to work on a TV show or commercial order. I enjoyed the challenge of creating, at a rapid pace, an original tattoo for a show. It pushed my skill set and advanced my abilities for the company. Eventually, Mike was booked so much on set, that he and Christien said, “Well, now we’re going to make you part of the inner circle.” I had earned their trust and was given insight into what makes a Tinsley Tattoo – from design to application. Little by little, Christien and Mike molded my skills for the position of Graphic Designer for Tinsley Studio.
GL: What kind of art school did you attend and what did you study?
DC: I went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago. I really took a shine to anatomy class, because I wanted to create pinup art, primarily. To do that, I needed to have a solid grasp on muscle and bone structure – what they do, how they connect and move, and how it looks when you draw it. I mainly focused on the human figure, but also how artists like Lichtenstein, Robert Williams and Warhol created their works. As I moved forward, I developed my own style from a compilation of school, life experience, music, and lowbrow art.
GL: What kind of work did you find when you got out here to California?
DC: Aside from the shit jobs to pay the bills? [Laughs] When my wife and I first moved out to L.A., I met a guy who was a club promoter. He needed a rock poster for a charity event in Beverly Hills. I really didn’t know much about the event, but it turned out that my first commissioned gig was alongside some legendary musicians – C.C. Deville the lead guitarist from Poison, Dizzy Reed from Guns N Roses and Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden. It was insane working with the guys who I rocked out to in high school. So, I continued to do rock posters and promotional art for Slim Jim Phantom’s Cat Club and a handful for The Joint over in Hollywood. Bands started contacting me from New York and Chicago, as well as L.A. I went global when the Caravans, a rockabilly band from England, hired me to create their album cover and gig posters.
GL: Let’s talk about the work you did for Blindspot. Tattoos play a prominent role in the show, not just visually, but as part of the story too.
DC: When Christien originally showed me the design ideas and what the producers wanted to do with her [lead actress, Jaimie Alexander], I thought, “Um, OK. Let’s figure out how to cover a five-foot-nine woman with tattoos!”
GL: When you were approached with this challenge to create the tattoo “story” for Blindspot, where did you begin? You were given ideas, but were you also given sketches and visuals, or did you create them all from scratch?
DC: In the beginning of the project, the creator of Blindspot – Martin Gero – had basic ideas that he wanted. Inspired by his ideas – and determined not to use just your standard tattoo imagery – we had to come up with something that flowed together. It was a challenge to say the least. I started with sketches on a digital female form, drawing in some rough images. Literally, as vague as, “There will something here, something there…” I applied loose shapes to show how we were going to start to fill the body. Christien and I would review the sketch, and say, “Let’s take this away and put this here” and suddenly it all made sense and the tattoos fit together and bled into one another interestingly. Then, as we got further along, my starting point idea became this is hip piece. You can’t really see it in the picture [gestures to Blindspot poster in his office]. I knew I really wanted this gorgeous hip piece, almost like she was wearing chaps. That’s the way I looked at it. I wanted it to have that sexy kind of feel to it, but still stick with the ideas they had for their script. So, I used the Liberty coin. It was one of the first coins issued in the United States. That was my inspiration for the center of the hip design. Then, I could sketch off of the coin and build from it. Once I had that first design built, Christien was like, “Yes. This is where we should go.” Climbing off from the hip piece – once we had that to work with, now we could go in any direction. It was a lot easier from that point on. It was a lot of fun to create. It was a lot of work, and wasn’t easy to do, but we’re really proud of how it came out.
GL: During the course of the show, would you have to revisit your designs and figure out how to integrate new ones as the story developed?
DC: Oh, for sure. Martin had images he wanted me to drop in because of the plot points in the show. We had to find a way to sneak in a plane tattoo, or an eagle tattoo, here and there, to fit the storyline. As they evolved with their storyline, we helped the tattoos evolve as well. Throughout the season the writers would focus on different parts of her tattoos. As an example, the original design that was on her arm, later on in the series, it had to include a building in New York. When you’re watching the show, you wouldn’t notice the difference right away, until they focused on that body part.
GL: Did you make these designs right on her body, or did you use computer imaging to make sure they would fit properly?
DC: Have you seen the full body cast of her back there in the workshop?
GL: I have. It was kind of creepy.
DC: [Laughs] Yeah, we made a full pattern cast of Jaimie, and then production sent me a life-sized ridged foam body of her. So, for six months of my life, I had Jaimie Alexander standing in my office, which isn’t a bad thing [laughs]. Once the initial designs for the tattoos were locked in, we used the body form to reconfigure how we were going to divide the design into pieces for application. So when the onset makeup artist received the individual tattoo pieces, they would all fit together perfectly like a puzzle on her body.
GL: It sounds like the production budget for each episode would determine how many tattoos the viewers would get to see up close, or how much clothing she would wear to cover up the parts of her body where you didn’t apply anything.
DC: Exactly. Lots of turtlenecks! [Laughs] It is a time-consuming process to apply the full body tattoo, which costs production additional money, versus only featuring specific parts of her body.
GL: Was it a similar process working on the Aquaman character for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?
DC: Yes. For Batman v. Superman, we created Aquaman’s tattoos. They sent us a computer-generated rendering of what they wanted Aquaman’s tattoos to look like, along with [the actor who played Aquaman] Jason Momoa’s body form, so I had him standing in my office for six months. He was enormous! I had to take their concept art and draw it directly on his body form and had to adjust the original tattoo design to fit Jason’s muscular body. Translating any concept art into the “real world” is a process in itself. Shows that want to feature an individual tattoo or two? If they simply give me the size they want, I’ll create it.
GL: And they don’t have to mail you an entire body.
DC: [Laughs] No bodies, no arms! I get the occasional head sent to me. We do prefer to have the actor visit the studio and get a pattern cast. [Grabs plastic mold from his trash bin, in the shape of an arm.] When I wrapped James Franco’s arm [for the upcoming film, The Long Home], I then could remove and flatten it, and know that the tattoo is going to fit him.
GL: When you describe it like that, it sounds like the difference between making a map versus making a globe.
DC: Exactly! I design each tattoo with the concept of wrapping a piece of paper around a basketball. I want the tattoos to wrap around body parts as smoothly as possible, without any bumps, or any creasing that would change, or alter, the design. Wrapping my mind around some of the more complicated designs we get – I question myself, “OK, how am I going to cut that one up and make it work?”
GL: What kind of work did you do for Mad Max: Fury Road?
DC: I loved working on Mad Max. I was part of a very talented team, and the tattoos I mainly worked on were considered “background.” I applied our process of making their tattoo designs look real when applied on the actor’s skin. Then, I kept an eye on the tattoos once they were printed, making sure the color was all solid – that was a big part of the job.
GL: How long did you work on that project?
DC: It was period of about four years working on that movie. You would think it would go away and then all of a sudden, “Mad Max called again and they’re doing reshoots. Oh, Mad Max called again and they’re doing more reshoots.” But I’ve always been a Mad Max fan, so every time I was like, “Yeah!” It was the same thing for me when I was working on Batman v. Superman – those are two things from my childhood and I’m like, “I cannot believe I am part of this!” Super exciting! It was never a problem when they needed more work. Let’s just do it and get it out to them. Loved it! And Mad Max turned out amazing. Can’t wait for the next one, man! I hope Furiosa gets her own movie.
GL: Forgive me for asking the obvious, but do you have any tattoos?
DC: [Laughs] Nope! I don’t have any!