ROBERT LASARDO is hard to miss on TV this fall: He's that thoroughly tattooed guy in supporting roles on two new shows. LaSardo plays the terrifying ghost of an ex-con in two upcoming episodes of CBS' "Ghost Whisperer" and a good-guy motorcycle mechanic on three episodes of UPN's "Sex, Love & Secrets." This summer, he was a homicidal gangster/rapist in the first episode of TNT's "Wanted," and last fall, he had a recurring role as the murderous drug kingpin on FX's "Nip/Tuck." A few weeks ago, LaSardo joined ABC's "General Hospital" in another recurring role, this time as a high-powered Miami drug lord.
To some, LaSardo's constant TV presence this season might suggest a newfound acceptance, even respect, for the tattooed. However you look at it, body art doesn't carry the same stigma it did in the past. Tattoos are now as ubiquitous on the backsides of suburban moms as they once were on the forearms of craggy sailors, and LaSardo's busy work schedule certainly suggests his appeal reaches beyond novelty. Or maybe American viewers, now so conditioned to diversity, are more willing to accept a tattooed man as the guy next door?
In person, LaSardo comes across as a sensitive soul with a sense of humor. In an interview in his agent's office he lifted his right forearm as if to prove it, and there, amid a roiling sea, is winsome Betty Boop in her flirty pose. "That's my comic relief," he said. He's reluctant to make too much of the other tattoos -- or as he prefers, "illustrations" -- that cover both arms, his abdomen, neck, hands, fingers, back and legs. He's even a bit self-conscious about discussing their significance.
LaSardo admitted the ink has helped him establish a 20-year career portraying thugs, drug dealers and gritty undercover cops. But he said landing roles through his tattoos was never his intention. "It's my life story," he said. "It's the trip through my world."
LaSardo was 17, still in his native Brooklyn, when he got his first: a boxer on his chest, with fists poised to strike. By the time he was 22, he had what's known in tattoo lingo as "full sleeves," ink that covered both arms. He kept acquiring tattoos over time, even as his acting career took off, even after his agents warned him he'd illustrate himself out of a job.
That was in the mid-1980s, when tattoos were still the fetish of bikers, convicts and gangsters, when mothers pulled their children close as LaSardo walked by. Over time, tattoos were co-opted by hipsters and wannabes as a shortcut to street cred, he said, a bit ruefully.
"You can just purchase an image now," LaSardo said. "Back in the day, to sleeve down, you really turned a corner, especially in the acting business."
But LaSardo insists he doesn't feel limited as an actor by his tattoos. Sure, his resume is dominated by the gun-toting thugs his fans love to hate, LaSardo said. "There's a lot more people that enjoy me playing the enforcer, the destroyer," he said. Yet these characters, he said, represent balance, the yin to the yang of upstanding citizens. "If bad disappears one day, then good goes out of business," LaSardo said.
And as his role on "Sex, Love & Secrets" demonstrates, LaSardo can play a believable average guy too. (Though it bears mentioning that the show, which isn't expected to survive the season, may not be the most auspicious place for LaSardo's gentler side to emerge.) Nonetheless, he holds to a sort of utopian position, that every character has nuance, no matter how potentially one-note. In his view, good TV writing and direction elevate his work, and ink, to their truest form: art.
"The more intelligent the storytelling becomes and the deeper the character development," he said, "people will realize in film and television like they do in real life that human beings possess both good and bad."