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British actor Tom Hardy gets tattooed at Dark Day Studios in Vancouver this week.The Globe and Mail

When the Will Smith-produced film This Means War wraps in Vancouver next month, co-star Tom Hardy will return home to London. But he'll be back. During the couple of months he's been here filming with Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine ( Star Trek), he's developed a promising relationship that will bring him back to Vancouver as often as he can manage.

"When you find someone like Bryan, you hang onto him," Hardy says. "He's really special."

Hardy is talking about Bryan Glatiotis, tattoo artist and co-owner of Darkday Tattoo Studios. Hardy has made repeated trips to see Glatiotis at the Main Street shop during his stay in Vancouver.

"He's an artist with a needle," Hardy says, lying shirtless in one of the shop's airy booths. It's a frigid Sunday afternoon in Vancouver and the British actor has made a quick stop in to get a Union Jack tattooed onto his upper left chest, the latest work on the taut canvas that is Hardy's upper body.

In This Means War, Hardy and Pine play longtime friends battling for the affections of the same woman, (Witherspoon). Hardy, whose break-out performance in the 2009 biopic Bronson earned raves from critics, and who was a scene-stealer in last summer's sleeper hit Inception, has also signed on for the next Mad Max and Batman films. (Hardy's people confirmed the long-rumoured Batman 3 role to The Globe. To call Hardy, 33, buff would be an understatement. But the tattoos are no vanity project. There is nothing surface, he explains, about the ink.

"Every tattoo I have means something to me. Each one is something that I've been through in my life or I've done or I've been," he said.

"So I map that out on me, where I've been and where I'm going."

His first, which he got at 15, is a leprechaun: an ode to his Irish heritage on his mother's side. Not that she was impressed. "She kept saying 'my beautiful boy, my beautiful boy,'" he recalls, laughing.

He's got the Marine Corps number of his best friend's father tattooed across his chest, and on his arm, the name of his agent - Lindy King - along with a little crown. "I said 'if you ever get me into Hollywood, I'll get your name tattooed on me.' So I did."

Above that there's a large dragon, an ode to his now ex-wife, Sarah Ward, who was born in the year of the dragon. "That's what you call a mistake tattoo," he laughs. He points out a couple of other places where her initials have been tattooed over, in one case by a large rock design. "I had the boulder pushed right over that one."

Some of that cover-up work was done immediately after the split. On the last night of a spectacular run of the play In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings, the tattoo work was finished, he says, 20 minutes before curtain. "If I have to have a tattoo, I have to have it now. I don't care what's going on. ... I just wanted to get rid of her name.

"I was like a month out of rehab so I wasn't really thinking straight. It was good that I [got the tattoo]because I can remember it. I black out a lot of stuff emotionally so I tattoo myself to remember."

Then there are the tattoos honouring his greatest accomplishment: the birth of his child, Louis, now two-and-a-half. There's a star he had done when he found out his then-girlfriend, Rachael Speed, was pregnant. Also the phrases "Figlio mio bellisimo" ("my beautiful son") and "Padre fiero" ("proud father").

And in a new lush tribute, his left arm features a Renaissance-inspired depiction of the Madonna cradling Louis. This work does not just honour Louis, Hardy explains, but also Hardy himself; his own renaissance, or re-birth.

"That was about mothering me," he says. "I went through a lot of stuff leaving home and becoming a father and growing up to be my own mother. I have a mother; she's amazing. But this is about being able to mother my parents and my son and myself - which is very painful. Getting my head around that growth spurt."

The Madonna and child, not quite done, is the first work Glatiotis did on Hardy. "We searched high and low for somebody who can do a portrait really well," Hardy said.

He was on the set of This Means War with his aforementioned best friend (and also trainer/nutritionist/right-hand-man) Patrick "P-NuT" Monroe, when they were both drawn to the intricate Geisha/tree/dragon work on the right arm of props assistant Sonia Zimmerman's right arm. Glatiotis had done the work freehand, based on a fable Zimmerman's mother had told her when she was a child.

"He's not a tattoo artist," says Zimmerman. "He's an artist who does tattoos."

In fact, Glatiolis was training as an artist when he fell into tattooing in Vernon, BC. He now has two shops; the other one in Red Deer, Alta.

Since Zimmerman made the introduction, Hardy has spent many nights at the shop and will spend a few more there in the weeks ahead. In addition to the Madonna and child and the Union Jack, he is planning a large tattoo on his back: an angel-themed portrait based on a photograph he took of his fiancée, Charlotte Riley, which will float above a rendering of the London skyline.

"This is my angel," he says, showing off the photo.

Lying on his back with his knees bent and spread apart, Hardy keeps busy while having the work done: he's on his BlackBerry, he's having a coffee, he's watching the 2009 movie Fighting. He conducts conversations about topics ranging from the war in Afghanistan to Steven Seagal (Witherspoon just bought his house, Hardy reveals).

"This is me time," he says. "I'm having a swim in Lake Me. A cool swim in Lake Tommy Hardy." He's charming and funny, even when he says he's in some pain.

"When I'm hanging out with him, it's just effortless," says Glatiolis. "He's just a nice, nice human being. A lot of energy, really creative. A borderline genius. He's always going, he's always moving."

Hardy had to take off on Sunday before the Union Jack could be completed. He was late for a fight-training session. After more than an hour on the table, he hopped up, took a good look at himself in the mirror, and smiled. "That's a nice start, isn't it?"

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