Ryan Hurst has been known to show up to his first day on the set with a lot of baggage.
“For the last 20 years, whether it’s hairstyles or costumes or tattoos, I’ve shown up to the first wardrobe fitting with four suitcases of ideas, and we end up using 90% of it,” Hurst tells Co.Create. “Maybe it’s because I’m slightly larger than the average person, but I have a very clear idea for how I can present something and it’s not always in the script.”
So when preparing for the role of Lil’ Foster—the imposing 6’5″ member of an Appalachian mountain clan fighting for its land against corporate interests—in WGN America’s recently renewed Outsiders, it wasn’t completely out of character for Hurst to take on the mantel of resident tattoo champion.
“It’s a passion of mine, so I just jumped in there during preproduction,” says Hurst, who pursues various visual arts as hobbies. “You can change hair, makeup, and wardrobe. But tattoos on characters, especially on a television series, are something you’re establishing for the life of that character.” Falling between special effects, makeup, and production design departments, “there’s often not a lot of thought that goes into designing tattoos, so I thought, why don’t I get in there and see what I can do?”
After scouting various tattoo shops in Pittsburgh, where the production is based, Hurst hired tattoo artist Dooner, from Up In Arms Tattoo and Piercing, and four of his colleagues to brainstorm some designs. Hurst wanted symbolic reflections of Farrell clan ethos, with placement offering additional meaning. Those on the hands and forearms illustrated a person’s skills and life milestones, while those on chests and backs addressed emotional traits.
“You have to be able to look at a tattoo and understand it without someone telling you the whole story behind it,” says Hurst. “So they were going to have a lot of nature- and animal-based tattoos, but then work in the runic tradition and occult symbols and dress them up a little bit.
“I designed all of mine, then showed the producers. They were like, ‘Oh my god, this stuff’s amazing,'” he adds. “I said, ‘I’d love for all the actors to meet with the artists and give them some input about their characters.’ They ended up working side by side.”
Hurst employed a similar tactic for a shirtless scene on the FX biker drama Sons of Anarchy, working with two artists to fabricate tattoos for his entire upper body before showing them to producers.
“On Sons of Anarchy, everything you saw was mine that I’ve had for 10 years. Same thing with Outsiders. It was a beautiful collaborative process,” explains Hurst. “I sent wardrobe 35 pages of reference photos of what I knew this guy was going to look like, and we ended up playing a lot together.”
One design you don’t even fully see in Outsiders—an enormous set of deer horns that covers his torso, but only peeks out of the top of his shirts—but will be unveiled in season two.
“I always felt that when you’re bringing life to words on a page, someone telling you what you’re wearing always feels like someone’s giving you a line reading,” he says. “I just know what works best for me, whether it’s a tattoo or an outfit, a hairstyle, or whether to have a beard. I wanted this character to have a few dreadlocks. I wanted him to be part biker, Lost Boy, and Daniel Boone.”
So far, Hurst hasn’t decided to make any of his character’s markings permanent or organize Farrell cast tattoos for real, the way The Lord of the Ring’s “fellowship” cast got matching tattoos of the word “nine” in Elvish.
“I have six tattoos, but if I wasn’t acting full time, I’d be tattooed from head to toe,” he says. “It’s a beautiful art form. In the Maori tradition, the role of the tattooer is more like a shaman. They say that you have the tattoo; it’s their job to bring it out.”