Lettering is a classic category when it comes to tattoo design. This is probably also one of the most popular. Unfortunately, lettering tattoos are the ones that most commonly to fail, due to a myriad of possible errors.
As a lettering AND tattoo maniac, I’ve seen my share of mind-blowing and disastrous lettering on people’s skin. Size, color, style, placement, an infinite list of details play a massive role when it comes to tattooing letters. The simple fact that a sentence is “readable” makes it hit or miss, which is why it requires extra care if that’s what you’re getting inked onto your skin forever.
Don’t make it too small
There’s one thing to know and keep in mind when it comes to tattoos: no matter how good your artist is, it will end up smudging a little over time. This is absolutely normal, and it will most likely be barely noticeable before many decades, but your skin will age and you can’t expect to retain the crisp aspect of the first days.
Especially if this is your first tattoo, you might be tempted to get something small. The problem is, lettering consists of intricate lines crossing each other over and over. If you consider that those lines will end up smearing a bit, this could however severely harm readability.
If you’re going for single-line lettering, make sure it’s big enough so readability lasts. A good tattoo artist should be able to predict this and make the right technical choices for you.
Don’t underestimate readability
I’ve heard/read some people, including lettering artists, state that readability isn’t always an absolute necessity. In some cases this is true: you don’t actually have to be able to read every single letter in a word to understand it. Yet, I’m not totally sold on the theory of “prettiness over readability”. If you’re doing lettering, your craft is about words as much as it is about artistry, and not caring too much about wether people will be able to read what you made or not seems more like an excuse to justify laziness.
Anyway, whatever your opinion is on the subject, let’s face it: if you’re getting a word or a sentence tattooed, you probably want it to be readable.
There are many lettering styles and ornaments that will make your tattoo hard to read: overly-decorated script or blackletter, futuristic styles with unfinished lines and symbols, ultra narrow or wide letters, old and faded textures, etc. Remember, your skin is a different medium than paper or a computer screen, it doesn’t allow the same level of precision, it’s not flat, it’s not 100% white even if you have fair skin, and it evolves with time.
If you decide to use blackletter or any heavily-ornamented style, please do not do the fatal mistake of having it tattooed in all caps: not only is this extremely unsightly, but it’s also impossible to read without your eyes bleeding.
Don’t do “no-outline”
Tattoos without outlines are very appealing due to their delicate and photorealistic feel. However, if there’s a rule I’ve learnt from tattooers over time, it’s that solid structuring lines are what lasts. Again, you absolutely want your lettering tattoo to remain legible even after years wearing it. No-outline is not what you want to go with for this type of tattoos, or you’ll end up with an unreadable piece of watercolor-looking shapeless thing on your skin.
Hire an artist
I know there are trillions of beautiful, crazy fonts over the Internet. You could actually create amazing lettering tattoo designs based on typefaces only, if you know how to do it and where to look.
I’ve seen countless lettering tattoos where I could tell that the person made it themselves, just because of the lack of creative critical eye. Yes it’s easy to fall in love with a swirly font, yet you may not have the necessary perspective to make a creative decision that you won’t regret in a few months. What artists have is a level of skills and expertise that allows them to create artwork that you will love forever.
If you’re not a lettering artist yourself, hire one. Usually, tattoo artists draw their designs themselves, so if that’s your case have them do the artwork. In any case, don’t play cheap on this one: remember this will be on your skin for the rest of your life.
Every style carries meaning, don’t overlook it
Just like with fonts, it’s easy to fall for a specific lettering style just because it looks great. However, you must keep in mind that especially when it comes to tattooing, every lettering style has a strong meaning that people associate it with.
For example, some variations of gothic calligraphy or script lettering are highly associated with gangs or prison. It doesn’t mean that you can’t wear it if you want, but you need to make sure you can live with it.
Triple-check grammar, spelling and translation
I’m still a bit shocked every time I see a typo in a tattoo. You had one job, make sure that this word you’re getting burnt into your flesh for the rest of your existence was at least spelled right!
If you’re bad at grammar and spelling, have it double-checked by someone who knows best. Make sure it’s also done right on your tattoo artist’s stencil (you DON’T let them tattoo lettering on you without a stencil). You’re supposed to get the stencil onto your skin just before he starts, that’s the perfect moment to do a final checkup and make sure you don’t give your friends a huge running gag opportunity to bug you with for decades.
If you’re getting tattooed a word or a sentence in a language you don’t speak, or even don’t master, have it checked by someone who does. And I’m not talking about your cousin who started Japanese lessons last year, I mean actual specialists, fluent or native speaking people who have the credentials to be able to give you a 100% trustworthy translation. You can ask people for free on the Internet (Reddit, etc.) or hire a professional translator.
Be extra careful if you’re getting tattooed in languages that use another alphabet. Your tattoo artist isn’t necessarily fluent in Hebrew or Tibetan, and you definitely don’t want his design choice to make any part of the sentence ambiguous. Whoever draws the final design, make sure to have it checked by a specialist before you have it inked.
Choose placement wisely
While simple words can easily fit anywhere, it’s not always the case for sentences. A phrase usually is long and thin, which makes it look well across an arm, a chest or a back, for example. However, it’s probably not a good idea to try and make a whole sentence fit horizontally and without line breaks on your calf. Why? Because it’s a narrow and non-flat area, which means it won’t be readable without moving around you. Hey, maybe that’s an effect that you actually like, like a bracelet of words, but be prepared to hear a lot of “wait, what does that say?”.
Also, remember that, just like horizontal stripes, a long horizontal sentence on a vertical part of your body (eg. from left to right on your belly) will create an optical illusion and make it look larger. This isn’t something you necessarily want to happen, so be mindful of that.
Pick the right tattoo artist
And this goes for every tattoo you’ll ever get: please, choose an artist who specializes in what you want. Yes, you can expect any seasoned tattoo artist to be able to do a butterfly without messing it up, but just like any artist, great tattooers often are the ones who specialize in one very specific field.
I’m astonished when someone goes to the closest tattoo studio they can find, whatever style they want, just because it’s more convenient. Every tattooing style has rules, and you cannot expect someone who does traditional Japanese all day long to be a killer at lettering.
Yes, this is worth spending more money and travel a bit farther from your home to have it done by a specialist. Again, this is your body: don’t be a cheapskate with your own skin.
A list of tattoo artists who master lettering: