Robert De Niro’s take on Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake proved to be a groundbreaking role for tattoos in cinema.

There’s a moment in 1991’s remake of Cape Fear – the film that director Martin Scorsese made immediately after Goodfellas – where Robert De Niro’s character Max Cady finds himself in police custody, and is duly being booked in. The sheriff, looking at Cady’s ink-covered body, simply remarks “I don’t know whether to book him or read him”.

De Niro’s preparation for his characters by this stage was pretty legendary, and in the case of Cape Fear he’d invest $5,000 with a dentist to make his teeth look wrong, and then pay four times that once production had wrapped to put them all back to normal again. That, and months of physical working out got him into shape for the role of Cady.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, one thing he didn’t do was getting his body permanently tattooed as part of the production process. Instead, a call went in to a man in Edinburgh by the name of Paul Jacobs.

Jacobs, in the very early 1990s, had found himself in demand by Hollywood. He’s set up a company in London by the name of Temptu Europa, whose specialism was temporary tattoos for the film and television business. Not the kind of tattoos that fade off after a day or two, either. Instead, the ones that stick around for many months.

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The first production that Temptu was contracted to work on was a movie by the name of – fittingly – Tattoo, that came out in 1981. It starred Bruce Dern and was directed by Bob Brooks, and tells the story of an unbalanced, obsessive tattoo artist. It was the starting point for a business that would be used on a range of movies in its first decade, from small independents through to Hollywood blockbusters such as Bird On A Wire (starring Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson), and Total Recall.

Temptu set up a New York office, and got the gig of working with Martin Scorsese on Goodfellas. What was behind the burst of work it enjoyed was a process it had devised using vegetable dyes. It resulted in an ink that, as Film Review magazine reported in its July 1992 issue, ‘stains the body for considerably longer than the traditional transfer methods’.

To this point, many movie productions were either requiring that their stars got tattoos for real for their characters – not exactly feasibly where Cape Fear was concerned – or that the ink was replicated with make-up, where it was going to last hours, rather than days or weeks. The Temptu Europa process? In the words of Paul Jacobs, interviewed for the aforementioned article, “the outline is released on to the skin using spirits. Then a make-up artist paints in the rest”.

The ink was certainly put to the test during the making of Cape Fear too, as Cady finds himself – without giving anything away – facing both fire and water in the film. “We anticipated some quality deterioration during the … scenes with the water and the fire. But the ink held up well under the circumstances”.

De Niro got actively involved in the design of Cady’s ink, in an era it’s worth acknowledging where tattoos weren’t as popular, and a design was agreed on. It had to work around the one single tattoo De Niro himself already had, a blank panther on his upper arm (a piece of ink he got during the film of his first Martin Scorsese collaboration, Mean Streets).

Temptu is still a business very much up and running too, and through its Pro line of products – it’s not paid us to say this, incidentally – it remains involved in film and TV production. In a blog post over on its site though from back in 2010, it talks about how Cape Fear was one of its favourite productions to work on. It revealed there that “the tattoos were so numerous and intricate that their application took about an hour and a half, although they were not applied every day–usually just touched up. De Niro got so deep into character that we had to actually increase the size of the tattoos about 10% due to the additional muscle he had gained”.

You can read the full post here.

De Niro must have been happy with the work, as he hired Jacobs and his team for his next movie, Night And The City (although it was Jessica Lange who got inked in that one).

And it was very much Cape Fear that put the company behind the tattooing process on the map. “I’ve been doing temporary tattoos for movies for years”, Jacobs told Film Review. “But the response I’ve had from Cape Fear is unbelievable. I’m travelling all over the world to show off the designs”. Plus, he was hot-footing it off to work on Nicolas Cage too, for the movie Amos And Andrew.

He also signed off his interview in the magazine with a hope that tattoos would become more recognised and less niche in the aftermath of Cape Fear. He argued that it would “go down as the movie which really introduced tattoos to the mass audience”. A Scottish Herald article – ‘taking the tat out of tattoos’ – picked up on this theme in 1993, with a bit of help from Jacobs as well.

19 years later, few movies have matched quite the inky impact of Cape Fear

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