Downtime

Is Ben Affleck’s Phoenix Tattoo a Majestic Shriek for Help?

An ink industry insider answers this and other burning questions.

Ben Affleck shows off a huge back tattoo while filming Triple Frontier.
Ben Affleck shows off a huge back tattoo while filming Triple Frontier on March 15.
TID/Backgrid

Early last week, new photos revealed that the massive, multicolored tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes widely thought to be splashed across Ben Affleck’s back was not, contrary to previous statements, “fake for a movie.” First glimpsed in 2015, the winding tale of the tattoo includes almost two years of secrecy and a shady dig from ex Jennifer Garner, who said of the apparent midlife-crisis mural just after their split: “You know what we would say in my hometown about that? ‘Bless his heart.’ A phoenix rising from the ashes. Am I the ashes in this scenario? I take umbrage. I refuse to be the ashes.”

The tattoo’s existence reappeared in headlines last week after photos from the set of the Netflix action movie Triple Frontier showed that it was indeed real. The internet promptly exploded with both mockery and questions. Why did Affleck think the public wouldn’t eventually find out that the tattoo was real? How long would you have to sit for a piece this big? And then, how many hours would you have to rethink getting a giant phoenix on your back? To answer all these questions and more, I spoke with Michelle Myles, co-owner of Daredevil Tattoo in New York City and noted tattooer of Whoopi Goldberg.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachelle Hampton: So what was your first impression of Ben Affleck’s back tattoo?

Michelle Myles: I was just surprised that it was a pretty large piece. It’s definitely unusual for an actor to commit to something that big. A lot of actors are worried about having something that could get in the way of their work.

Would you describe it as a “good” tattoo?

I think it’s pretty subjective, as far as what the tattoo looks like, because you never know with something like that. He might’ve seen a picture that he liked and brought it to the artist. So it’s hard to pass judgment on it.

But from a technical perspective, would you say it’s well-done?

Yeah … the colors are solid.

In a scenario in which Ben Affleck walks into your studio and says, “Give me a massive, badass back tattoo,” with no other directions besides that, what would you have done?

I would have asked him for some time to come up with a drawing—like usually we need a week or two to draw something up. Then I’d show him what I came up with and go from there: To me it’s kind of like that game where you’re playing warmer and warmer, colder. You try to figure out what’s in somebody’s head. If they like it, then you finalize the drawing and then make an outline for a stencil, put the stencil on, and then they get a look at it, then you can outline the tattoo.

What do you imagine were the directions that Affleck gave this tattoo artist?

He might’ve seen something that he liked or he might have just said, “Oh, I want a big phoenix rising up on my back.” If anything, tattoo artists are sometimes guilty of saying, “No, you should do it really big.” That’s our thing.

Why would a tattoo artist encourage someone to go larger?

Well, for us, it gives you more room to put in more detail and colors, so you can really put a lot into the drawing if it’s bigger. You can really kill a tattoo idea by making it too small, and we want something that will hold up over time and look good another 10, 20 years because tattoos age with us. They tend to soften up over time so you want to give it enough room for that.

How many hours would a tattoo that big have taken?

Generally, with a big tattoo like that, you might do a couple of sessions of two or four hours, depending on how well the person sits, how much time they have, what their budget is. Of course he doesn’t have to worry about his budget.

Why do you think Affleck would have lied about the tattoo being real?

There’s always a possibility that he did get a temporary tattoo for something and he liked the way it looked and he decided to make it permanent. It just seems really weird that he would say it was fake since it wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Have you ever seen a tattoo like this on somebody?

Yeah definitely, phoenixes are a popular image to get. I’ve done a phoenix back piece, maybe two.

Oh wow, that’s kind of surprising. I wouldn’t have thought they were that common.

I think it’s a cool image, it’s visually interesting, and it has a lot of cool colors and stuff. You can really draw it in a fun way. I think it’s a strong image, and by strong I mean it’s really iconic and timeless.

When you see this tattoo, does midlife crisis leap immediately into your mind?

No, not at all. … I would say if a large tattoo is pointing to any marker of midlife, it’s maybe that in midlife you have more money to afford to get a big tattoo like that.

How much would you estimate that this cost?

At our shop, our hourly rate is $200 to $250 depending on the artist. It’s hard to estimate how long it took because so often it has to do with how well the person sits. Some people are easier to work on than others, but definitely probably a couple thousand dollars. At the same time, though, it’s less than a fancy handbag.

I did not think about that.

How much are those Birkins? $150,000?

Has the tattoo world been talking about this?

My main reaction was just that I’m always annoyed that, when I see these things, the artist is never credited. I did a tattoo for Whoopi Goldberg that was on the red carpet the year before last and everyone was freaking out over it. It’s like, “Hey, hello guys, I did the tattoo?” Of course, a part of it is that people just don’t know who did the work and that’s probably hard to figure out, but I would’ve liked to have known.