In roles that range from Vito Corleone to Travis Bickle to Jake La Motta, Robert De Niro changes his on-screen appearance as often as Madonna changes her hair color. His latest role, as psychotic ex-con Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” is no exception. But it’s not just a new hair style and his pumped-up body that’s creating a stir. He has enough tattoos for an army.
A crucifix and scales of truth and justice adorn De Niro’s back, biblical quotations his arms and chest--it’s hard to find a place on his torso where there isn’t a tattoo.
The assignment for De Niro’s tattoos went to Manhattan’s Temptu Inc., the country’s largest manufacturer of temporary tattoos. “The theatrical market has been the bread and butter of our company for many years,” says Roy Zuckerman, who’s supplied tattoos for “Die Hard,” “Jungle Fever” and “Miami Blues.”
In the early ‘80s, Zuckerman’s father developed the formula that has become the mainstay of the temporary tattoo: The outline of a tattoo is printed on special tissue-like paper and then transferred to the skin with an alcohol solution. The outlines are then filled in by a makeup artist and dusted with talcum powder.
“Cape Fear’s” makeup artist, Ilona Herman, had worked with Temptu Inc. when De Niro had a tattoo in “GoodFellas,” and went back to the company for “Cape Fear.” “For this film, the requirements were much more stringent,” says Zuckerman. “Scorsese and De Niro wanted them to tie together thematically.”
To do that, Zuckerman and the filmmakers, including De Niro, went through the Bible and picked phrases having to do with vengeance and betrayal. Two of the phrases that made it onto De Niro’s body are “The Lord Is the Avenger” and “Vengeance Is Mine,” complete with chapter and verse. “De Niro was shaping the character and we had his input very early on,” says Zuckerman. “He monitored the tattoos down to the smallest detail.”
For the intricate lettering, a specialist in jailhouse tattoos was brought in. According to Zuckerman, application of the tattoos took about an hour and a half, although they were not applied every day--usually just touched up.
The only problems encountered by Zuckerman and his designers was the fact that between the time of De Niro’s original fitting and start of the film’s production, De Niro had significantly pumped up. “We had to increase the size of the tattoos about 10%,” he says. “He was considerably bigger.”