Baxter's Blog


Posted in Helpfull Stuff by misterroadtripper on May 20, 2010



By Uncle Tim Heitkotter

So, what, you might ask, does this all have to do with tattooing? The answer is a simple question. How many times have we seen an absolutely wonderful tattoo ruined by shoddy lettering? I see them all the time. While ignorance is said to be bliss, it’s also said to be ignorance. Although I never claimed to be a so-called expert on lettering, I am experienced enough to share with you, the readers. Some years ago I enjoyed writing the old “Lettering 101” articles for Baxter and offered some helpful tips that I had gathered over the years while painting signs as well as some that popped into my head when lettering problems arose while designing tattoos. This time I am offering some old stuff combined with a general look at the origins of lettering and the impact it has on modern day lettering design. Hopefully, this can give us all a better of understanding of how to construct our letters. 

One thing that will keep us from learning is an indifference towards the historical significance of where lettering comes from. For example: The reason the thick part of slanted thick and thin letters is always leaning to the left is that all calligraphers (usually church scribes), from the first century on, were right-handed. To be left-handed was called “sinister” or “of the devil.” The thick stroke of the lettering style could only be performed with any efficiency by a right-handed artisan. Today, however, left-handed calligraphy pens are available and can be used fairly well with some angular adjustments. The best way to remember which stroke of the thick-and-thins is which is to think of a salute. From your viewpoint, any stroke that matches the angle of your salute is the thick one. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen an “N” mangled by using the left stroke as the thick one. (Even as I am typing on my laptop, the middle stroke is thick.) Any letter that is vertical like an “O” or a “U,” it’s the left side or both. The ”Z” is the only exception, as the middle stroke is the thick one. I’ve had many a light-hearted argument with artists about the “A.”  In my opinion, the only way an A looks better with the thick stroke on the left is when it is used in words which begin and end with the letter, like ALOHA or ALABAMA. 

Many an ancient calligrapher did battle with his colleagues for one-upmanship. Creative variances in the margins of many a manuscript shaped many modern letterforms, or “fonts” that we use today on our business cards and billboards. Maybe this was the origin of the “logo.” Yes, all this history has influenced our tattoo lettering, if only for the choices we make to fit a particular piece. How would we impress our prospective lovers if we used a cartoon balloon letter to proudly advertise our affection (Figure A)? A poor choice indeed! A nice flowery script is certainly more appropriate. Even though this choice is considered cliché, that font selection is as important as the overall design and actual execution into skin. 

Font selection is crucial to finishing a piece that is designed to create a certain mood, feeling or idea. We all know about the “gull wing serif” letters that we’ve used in traditional-style tattooing for nearly a century (Figure B). This lettering (and it’s variants) are used so often that it is automatically associated with tattooing and is showing up in mainstream Madison Ave. advertising designs. It can be designed with a single stroke or as a double stroke, thick-and-thin. We can curve the serifs or straighten them to suit a particular mood that we want to assign to the piece. Or we can run a line through the center to give it a carnival-like feel. This style graces many a knuckle in the tattoo world with eight letter statements like “JAIL BIRD,” “TUFF ENUF” or the classic “HARD LUCK,” informing the reader of the negative trappings of life. Still, we can add a little curl to the serifs (Figure C) for a pirate piece and install the letters in a torn banner for an ominous, rustic flair. This piece would look very silly with a flowery script, unless, perhaps, all the pirates were fashion-conscious ladies. Aside from all this, I prefer this lettering style a little bottom heavy or even wider than it is tall. As far as pirate pieces go, Celtic lettering style also works well (Figure D). There are plenty of medieval fonts that lend themselves well to a crusty Pirate piece. 

I don’t see the point in selecting a font without considering how it fits the piece. Personally, I’m downright sick of tattooing last names arched on the back in “Old E” or Old English. I would rather design something with a German “Black Letter” or a well designed calligraphy type font (Figure E). This condition can happen to anybody work-worn by tattooing the same old tired fonts. Usually, when someone requests Old English, what they are actually referring to is some sort of calligraphy alphabet and there are thousands of them. So why pick the same one? It pays to have a good selection of calligraphy fonts and Dover books are a good place to start. These fonts work well when designing an evil, demonic type of theme. By dropping the extender letters, sharpening the points and maybe adding a red fade it can spice up an otherwise run-of-the-mill design (Figure F). My best suggestion is to take a calligraphy course and learn how to actually construct the letters properly before you decide to modify a perfectly good alphabet. I’ve seen way to many perversions irritate my bile ducts from artists who think they know calligraphy. And I’m still learning myself. 

Thus endeth Part 2. Part 3, the final one, continueth sooneth. 

—Uncle Tim 

Blue Tiki Tattoo 

Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii

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