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From MMA training to tattoo design: Creating the look of 'Kingdom'

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Ryan
Justin Stephens/DirecTV

Setting a scripted television show in the world of mixed martial arts means accurately portraying a very physical subculture of society. So when Byron Balasco created Kingdom, he made sure to craft every detail, from the setting down to the individual tattoos each of the characters would wear with pride. It was a job Balasco took very seriously, because he knew that through Kingdom, he was not only introducing many fans to a new world, but he was also creating an accurate portrayal for those already familiar.

With that in mind, Balasco decided he had to focus just as much on the exterior of the show as he did the interior. First, he chose the setting of Venice, California. “There’s a lot of collision of culture,” Balasco said of Venice. “There’s a lot of glamour and sexiness to it and there’s these Southern California ideals, but there’s a tone of grit and edge to the place that I think is great for our show. There’s still a rawness there if you look in the right places.”

From there, Balasco turned to the look of the characters. Physically, he needed to find actors who couldn’t just get into fighting shape but who could also master the movements and general feel of a fighter. And for that, actors Frank Grillo, Nick Jonas, Jonathan Tucker, and Matt Lauria attended the fight camp of UFC fighter Joe “Daddy” Stevenson, who later served as an MMA tech on the show. For several weeks before filming, the guys drove out to Pomona, California where they underwent two-a-days with real fighters.

“They got their asses kicked,” Balasco said. “All of those guys leaned into it. It’s not about lifting weights, it’s really a way these guys move. You could go into a room of 100 people and pick out the fighter in two seconds. These guys really did a great job of getting all their movement down, even when they’re not fighting, just the way they move through the world is different.”

Physicality aside, the guys also used the fight camp as an opportunity to watch fighters interact. As Tucker said, “MMA training also means being in that world all day every day, in the same kind of environment that a fighter would be if they were camping for a big match. You learn the details and what these guys lives are like. When you’re sitting down having lunch, you’re picking up this little detail and that little note.”

So with the guys off getting ready for their roles, Balasco’s job was to make sure the show’s fight sequences felt real from a writing perspective. For that, he sent his scripts off to Greg Jackson, a top MMA coach, who served as what Balasco called a “guru and technical advisor.” Jackson would read every script and gives notes, and then Stevenson was on set to make sure things felt authentic.

Once the technicalities were worked out, there was one final piece to the exterior of Kingdom: Tattoos. “Tattoos in a warrior culture are very important to the soldier, the fighter, the man on the battlefield,” Tucker said. “Sometimes they’re something that will protect them and other times it’s something that will drive them to win or inspire them to fight. Sometimes it’s all three.”

For each character, Balasco consulted tattoo designer Ken Diaz, who crafted research books on mixed martial arts tattoos, separated into categories such as lettering, traditional tattoos, and tribal tattoos. After meeting with Balasco, Diaz put together a research folder for each character—keeping in mind the Hangover 2 lawsuit and making sure his designs were original—and only then were they ready to sit down with each individual actor and ask, as Balasco put it, “What do you think your guy would have? What do you think he wants? What do you think tells the story?”

Alvey Kuluna (Frank Grillo)

For Diaz, the character of Alvey was the easiest to piece together in terms of ink. Grillo, who plays Alvey, an ex-fighter who now runs an MMA gym, knew exactly what he wanted. “Frank Grillo had a clear vision for what he wanted for his character,” Diaz said. “He wanted a large flaming skull on his outer right bicep, and he wanted an older tattoo of the name of his first wife Christina over his heart. And he wanted a large cross on his left bicep. That went together fairly smoothly; everybody signed off on the first concepts we came up, and that was our easiest.”

But from there, Diaz had to delve into current fighters Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria) and Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker).

Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker)

The character of Jay is one of the show’s most troubled. A former (but not quite done yet) fighter and general disappointment to his father, Alvey, Jay went through a number of tattoo ideas. “Jonathan had a vision for some type of tattoos on his forearms, chest, and ribs that would create a type of armor that would give his character a sense of protection,” Diaz said. But when Diaz presented a tribal graphic design with forearm gauntlets and chest and rib guards, Balasco felt it was “too literal.” And based on the amount of time they had for the tattoo design process for all the characters—14 days from brainstorming to completion—they had to downscale some of their expectations for Jay.

Instead of full armor, Diaz and Tucker quickly decided on a tribal design for Jay’s right calf, before Tucker presented the idea of having his character’s mother, Christina, in the form of angel, flying out of the clouds on his chest. Tucker, keeping in theme with his original armor idea, imagined the tattoo as a sort of chest plate.

Next up, Diaz went to work on Tucker’s forearm designs, but when he found that his tribal designs wouldn’t work for Tucker’s “thin, muscular” forearms, Diaz took a quick trip down to the auto body store and found some pinstriping tape. The day before shooting, Diaz painted stripes on his own forearm, which he brought back to Balasco, who loved the idea. As a result, Tucker had his arms painted for the first few days of shooting until they could create a custom-fitted stencil, another concept that he felt worked with his original armor idea.

“You can put your hands up to protect yourself,” Tucker said. “Jay is a character that’s built up a lot of defenses but also has quite a bit to defend—his heart and his true spirit. Instead of having that be exposed to the world, I think Jay finds solace in those tattoos. It’s a sort of addictive behavior that hides who he really is.”

And for Tucker, who would love more tattoos come seasons 2 and 3, the tattoos were key in helping him get into character. “It’s camouflage; it’s a weapon; it’s something to intimidate; it’s something to make you feel secure. It can frighten another person but also can make you feel at home and familiar with any surrounding that’s new to you. For me as an actor, there’s a sense of consistency in having these things be a part of you. The wardrobe chances, the dialogue changes, your character changes, but the tattoos stay constant.”

Plus, two hours in the makeup chair each morning gave Tucker time to prepare for the day ahead.

Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria)

Lauria’s character, Ryan, an ex-MMA champion recently released from prison, had the biggest tattoo reveal in the show’s first episode, which made choosing them that much more important. “You meet the character very humbled and then when he takes his shirt off, though he’s behaving very humbly and very agreeably, that’s our first little insight into who this man was or potentially could be or is deep inside, so it’s a visual clue right off the bat,” Lauria said. “I knew that the tattoos would do a lot of work for my character because I didn’t want to play him as a badass at the beginning. I wanted to play him as a guy who’s just trying to get through this parole office interview and just trying to put the pieces back together. I thought it was imperative for the tattoos to reflect that former savage.”

And when it came to deciding on the specific tattoos, part of Lauria’s job was done for him. In the original script, Ryan’s “Destroyer” tattoo, which is his fighting name, was written, though it was later moved from his abdomen to his chest for maintenance issues. But written in the script or not, Lauria was most passionate about keeping the memorable chest tattoo. “Who is this guy who is either arrogant enough or confident enough or bombastic enough to get something tattooed across his chest like that? In my mind, Ryan always got that tattoo on his way up, after he was already professional and making a strong impression there,” Lauria said. “So I think it was something that he did after we went pro and I thought, ‘So who’s the guy who is willing to walk into a gym or a fight with ‘Destroyer’ emblazoned across his chest and say I’m going to back that up?’ Who’s the guy who says I know this gesture is going to earn me an unending amount of challenges and I welcome that. People are going to want to put a beating on him and he’s like, ‘Yeah, please try.’ It’s just so overtly self-aggrandizing. It’s like an unfathomable amount of swagger.”

Also in the original script was the fact that the fighters were surfers, and despite the fact that the surfer detail didn’t make it into the final cut, it helped bring about Lauria’s inspiration for the band on his right forearm. “The band around my right forearm was a close mimic of a guy I trained with. I wanted the Polynesian tattoos because originally, we were Southern California surfer kind of guys. There’s a very interesting breed of Southern California fighters who are all tatted up and I wanted to capture that identity as a local kid.”

Combine Lauria’s view for the Polynesian tattoos with Balasco’s description of Ryan having “expensive ink,” the type a champion would have, and you get the character’s most intricate tattoo on his left shoulder.

But the biggest challenge for Ryan was figuring out what sort of back tattoo fit the character best. Diaz, who had worked on Red Dragon among other projects, was a big fan of full-piece back tattoos. With that, Lauria’s first thought was to have a “pitbull ripping through my skin.” “Early on, I identified a quality in Ryan that I sort of paralleled to a pitbull, like a fighting dog,” Lauria said. “The destroyer mentality of destroy or be destroyed. There’s something very primal about that.”

However, the team ran into issues with the uniquely shaped skull of a pitbull, as well as the three-dimensionality of the concept. Instead, Diaz proposed a self-portrait of Ryan leaving the cage with blood dripping off his gloves. “I thought it was a very dynamic-looking piece that just said, ‘Arrogant badass,'” Diaz said. It was an idea Lauria came around to. “It’s very self-celebratory,” he said. But Balasco felt it was “too on the mark.” Instead, Balasco brought another idea to the table: He had seen an MMA fighter who had a sword on his chest pointing up, so he proposed that they do a similar thing but on Ryan’s back with the sword pointing down.

At that point, Diaz came up with four different sword designs and added a skull handle to make it look more “menacing.” Diaz presented the final design at 11 p.m. the night before shooting. Balasco signed off, and to some extent, it was either a sword or nothing. However, Lauria was  fan of the concept. “The thing that’s really cool about the sword is that it’s very painful by all accounts to get a tattoo on your spine and this goes right on down the spine and it’s big and it’s intimidating and I love it,” Lauria said.

Application process

Once shooting began, the tattoos were applied as decals on a daily or, if they held up, semi-daily basis. With two make-up artists on each actor, preparation still took anywhere between an hour to two and a half, depending on how many tattoos would be visible on that shooting day. (And don’t forget any necessary scars and the always-necessary cauliflower ear.) But the process didn’t end when the guys left the chair because, as makeup artist Debbi Zoller put it, the tattoos “were not necessarily made for a show like this where you have so much physical contact.”

So after the tattoos were placed on like decals, sealed with cosmetic sealer, and then touched up, the three-person make-up team was constantly on-call to make additional touch-ups. But fighting wasn’t the only threat to the tattoos. If the actors decided to grab a couple beers after work, there was the possibility that the alcohol could sweat out through their pores, raise the tattoo, and bring the team back to step one. The bottom line? It was a constant battle for the make-up team, but thanks to a considerate cast, Zoller crafted a system where the actors reported in every morning on the state of any given tattoos so that the team could adjust how much time they’d need in the chair.

By the end of it all, it was worth the hassle, because the tattoos played a huge role in helping the guys channel their characters. As Zoller put it, “They became those characters once those tattoos were put on. It was really great to see the transition between when they stepped into the trailer and then once we were finished with the tattoos.”

And as far as the actors are concerned, one of the things they learned from hanging around real fighters is that, generally, the guy with more tattoos is the better fighter. It’s a statement some might not agree with, they realize, but both Lauria and Tucker heard a similar sentiment at some point in their training.

“I’ve heard [Joe] Daddy [Stevenson] say that you want to fight the guy with less tattoos,” Lauria said. “There are a lot of guys who are super, super tatted, and they could be total wusses and they are just trying to look tough, but I’ve heard some fighters say, usually the guy with more tattoos is the guy who’s going to be a tougher fight.”

Tucker heard the same thing when a fighter told him, “The more inked up [a fighter is], the more intimidated I am.” After all, “tattoos are intimately connected with this sport and they mean a lot,” Tucker said. “They say a lot.”

Kingdom airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on DirecTV.