The Letter of the Law: Laws for Lettering and Tattoos

Johnny Thief is an amazing tattooer, a legendary poster artist and a damn fine human being. (I still sip the 12 year old Scotch he gifted to me a few birthdays ago.) This primer on Lettering in Tattoos is from his Seppuku Tattoo blog. It should be required reading for anyone interested in getting a Script tattoo.


The Letter of the Law: Laws for Lettering and Tattoos

I’m taking the time to blog about all text tattoos due to the overwhelming amount of lettering we’re doing. We often turn down requests for massive amounts of type & I wanted to spell out our very concrete reason as to why that is. This isn’t to discourage anyone from getting tattooed, but rather to look at the broad picture & to help make better tattoo choices.

I realize its a current fad to get scads of text, we see it all the time. And it drives us crazy. Below are bullet points of why.

TEXT TATTOOS DESTROY THE ART OF TYPOGRAPHY: Just like every other art form, typography has its own rules & limitations. Before computers loaded with hundreds of fonts downloaded for free, typography was a specialized profession, & typographers were very proud crafters of type. Good type is readable because of weight, form, size, leading, tracking, & kerning. Its designed to be read on flat surfaces, with maximum contrast between very dark lettering; very light grounds.

You, dear tattoo client, are not flat white paper. You’re a series of interlocking muscle bands, you’re covered with skin that is anything but white. You are cylindrical, almost every part of you body is long; rounded. But its not rounded evenly, like a pole, each surface is tapered, being much wider at some points; narrower at others. You’re also topographical, with some points rising; dipping dramatically. On top of all that, you’re also flexible, so unless you’ve been stuffed by an expert taxidermist, the minute you move, you will morph into even more elastic contorted shapes. When you try to apply text to this living organic medium, the lines waver, the letter size changes, the spacing inside the letter closes up, the spacing between the letters; between the words run together. It looks like crap. And Guttenberg spins in his grave.

This is why no one has invented billboards for telephone poles or railings, because no one could read it.

TEXT TATTOOS FIGHT ANATOMY: The best tattoos, as the Japanese knew hundreds of years ago, work with the body, not fight against it. That’s why they would design full sleeves; body suits with total saturation, to flow with the muscle groups. This is also why some Asian art may seem two dimensional on paper, but the same art on a body springs to life. Your flesh adds the missing third dimension, it’s graphic nature is powerful enough to be seen from across the room. Strong. Powerful. Classic.

Text does the opposite of this. It needs negative space in order to be legible, since it’s read in lines left to right, it needs to be straight, slicing up all that flowing anatomy into ribbons, graphically speaking. It becomes a visual road block, destroying your natural curves. This is why you don’t see straight lines or geometric shapes in tattoo flash, every flat surface gets twisted, corkscrewed, warped. That’s not because of all the acid we did in college, it’s to conform our art with the flow of your physique. If type is snaked along the lines with the muscles, it trashes the leading, it quickly becomes illegible, defeats the whole point of getting text.

TEXT TATTOOS FIGHT GOOD TATTOOING: Good tattoos use a lot of graphic tricks to fight the fact that tattoos are on a curvy stretchy colored surface that will age for up to sixty to eighty years. Good placement (filling up the spot on the body the right way), design (using symbols graphic tools to maximize an illustrated message), layout (using the given space to its fullest potential), full contrast (going from 100% black to 100% white), color theory (using a full chroma range, complimenting colors for maximum effects), elaborate textures are used to create readable, powerful forms the eye instantly recognizes. Text has none of these tools, it takes every one of these tools out of the hands of the artist.

At the end of the day, type, no matter how cool the font, is really just skinny tribal, look how cool all those 80′s tribal armbands turned out to be.

I had a recent client request map coordinates in his chosen font, which I was happy to do, but before his appointment, he complained that the art was ‘lacking dimension’ that I should ‘work my magic’ to prevent this. Well, the fact that I was expelled from Hogwarts has nothing to do with the fact that there is no magic to be worked. Map coordinates are basically a lost algebra problem, it’s simply a series of numbers, letters, there isn’t anything that’s going to change it’s static, flat, lifeless nature.

TEXT TATTOOS EAT UP A LOT OF SKIN: A simple phrase or saying of three or four sentences needs a lot of room to fit on you, be large enough for us to tattoo properly. In order to read something like that, you need to use up an entire pec, or a quarter of your back. That’s some serious real estate, tattoo-wise. This is the kind of skin that could be used for the kind of award winning masterpieces that collectors wish they still had open skin for. Instead its now filled up with an old grocery list. Large body surfaces look best with large imagery that fills up every pore of skin, not piled up with dozens of tiny words that leaves the skin 90% empty.

TEXT TATTOOS COCK BLOCK OTHER TATTOOS: Well done, well placed tattoos lend themselves to be added on to at later times easily, artistically. Text tattoos do not. This will drive you crazy when you’re getting this amazing sleeve done by a master, then it has to end because years before you wrapped your stereo instructions around the best part of your arm. Trust us, every day we’re trying to help people get new tattoos, have used all the prime cut spots for initials, names, man, they are not happy.

THERE’S NO GALLERY OPENINGS FOR FONTS: No one flies to Paris to visit the amazing lettering exhibit at the Louvre. No one buys an Ozzy t-shirt because its a whole shirt full of Helvetica. No one covers their bedroom with liner notes. No one buys an album because of the great spelling on the cover. No one ever got wasted, turned on the black lights, screamed ‘Damn! Nice kerning!’ No one ever laid back looking at clouds in the sky, said, ‘Palatino Bold Italic!’ The attraction here is art. Art hangs in museums, covers chapel ceilings, jumps off a car or a bus, screams at you from roadside billboards, backs up bands at concerts, sells albums, books, cars, well, everything, is itself sold for millions, collected by rich slobs, is stolen in famous art heists.

If art screams, text mumbles.

We tell people this all the time. One of the things we used to do was design for the music industry, posters, shirts, album covers,… often we would read the lyrics, listen to the sounds, create art based on what they were saying, meant, or made us feel. Do the same, you’ll be far happier than if you spelled those lyrics out. Unless your mother is the Amazon rain forest, your father is a paper mill.

No one ever heard of a famous bumper sticker robbery. Which would you rather be, a Picasso, or a post it note?

ART IS SUBJECTIVE, TEXT IS NOT: One of the magical things about a good tattoo is that its timeless.

I know I’m going to sound like a crotchety old fuck for this one, but I am, kids, you’re going to change. As you get older, you will change a lot. And just when you get used to that new person, you’ll do it again. This is a good thing. I hope that your life is full, adventurous, challenges in ways that melts you down, re-crafts you into a strong kickass person the way a master swordmaker folds steel into a katana. No matter who you are at whichever point in time you’re currently residing, your tattoo that once meant one thing to you when you got it, now can offer a different interpretation. The same goes for any number of people viewing your tattoo, they will each see something different. A good tattoo will grow with you.

Text is just about the opposite of this. Words, by their very existence, define. Its why we invented them. Text will lock you in, be far less mercurial than art. There is little to no room for you to play the part of interpreter. Or, if a phrase does offer a number of different meanings, it usually is some gimmicky terrible word play or badly written inspirational saying that belongs on a doily knitted by your grandma, not engraved on your skin. And that definite meaning is not going to travel with you into the future, not the same way fine art does.

NO ONE WANTS TO READ YOU: There’s been hundreds of times I’ve seen tattoos that blew my mind, either by how well they were applied, or because of the incredible idea, or both. And I’ve been sideswiped with that terrible feeling of, man, I wish that was on me, or I wish I had thought of that. (Stealing other people’s incredibly well thought out tattoos is criminal, a topic for another blog,…)

Never once have I ever read a tattoo that had anywhere near that level of impact. Think about how many people refuse to watch foreign films because they “don’t want to READ a movie!” I hate that… but, in a way, they’re right,… reading the dialogue that is also being spoken takes you out of the moment; fights the medium it’s in. So does trying to read a person, especially as you try to follow along the curves, bends, decipher small letters hiding away in folds, hollows,… it can be a lot of work, if the payoff is only some trite bumper sticker verbage, then you have some serious tattoo fail.

YOU FAILED ENGLISH: A lot of people begin their tattoo consultation with, ‘Well, I’m no artist, but,…’. And then they bow to our expertise in taking their ideas to levels they didn’t think were possible. Not one person ever came in, said, ‘Well, I’m no writer,…’. Why not? A vast majority of the requests we get are things written so badly you’d be held back in the third grade for ten years if it was homework instead of a tattoo. Terrible grammar, broken sentences, redundant word usage,… things that should never be on paper, let alone your body. There are plenty of things we will not tattoo, like all white ink tattoos, UV tattoos, or amateur scribblings. It only makes sense that we’d apply the same ethics to screwed up language. Don’t ask us to make your English teacher cry.

Example: I had a girl come in who wanted Lil Wayne lyrics. Now, his writing style is perfect,… for Lil Wayne. Its meant to be shouted from stage at high volumes by him, with everything he represents, backed by his music, in context. And that’s great. But as far as grammar is concerned? Its not just a crime, its a homicide.  C’mon now!

•REMEMBER ‘A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS’?: Why pay $500 for fifty words when you can get a THOUSAND for the same price? Its just smart economics!

This would be a good time to talk about adding text to designs. Keep in mind, you’re not a t shirt. If the design is praying hands, in front of a cross, with a crown of thorns, wrapped in rosary beads, that also have another cross, with a dove with an olive branch, a halo, shining strata, nimbus,… do you REALLY need to add the word ‘Faith’ to that? You’re kinda already beating that point to death there with that Bible bookstore cluster already. Its about as helpful as adding the word ‘Tattoo’. Art speaks louder than words, friends. Only add text to a design if it adds, enhances, or totally changes the meaning. Otherwise get out of the way of the art!

AMBIGRAMS: SEE ALL THE ABOVE: Ambigrams are words drawn in such a way that they are words even when flipped upside down, sometimes the same word, sometimes another word. People feel they are terribly clever when the two words are antonyms, like the wide spread ambigram that reads LIFE one way, DEATH when inverted. But graphically speaking, they’re the worst of everything I’ve just been explaining compounded into one big typographical nightmare. So much liberty has to be taken in order to morph the letters into other letters, they’re rarely if ever legible at all. And nothing says bad art louder than a visual that needs you to stop, explain what people are looking at, can’t read.

WE KNOW, ITS CHEAPER: Of course it’s cheaper, it’s only squiggly lines. But I wouldn’t tattoo just lines on you, I would explain that without shading, color, it will look weak, incomplete, an empty coloring book. And that’s what we see with a text based tattoo. A budget is a terrible reason to dictate weak tattoo art. Our tattoos are going to be around for a lot longer than your current income level, trust us. Especially when you quit drinking, smoking, not in a career that requires name tags.

TATTOOING IS OLDER THAN WRITING: This point is a petty matter of pride, but archaeologically speaking, its true. Tattoos are pre-historic. Older than written languages. It could easily be argued that art is a more immediate, powerful communicator than text. Which is why, for thousands of years & hundreds of cultures, tattoos have always centered around visual imagery, not lettering. Or, maybe it’s just that tattoo artists in 2900 BC couldn’t spell “Bashanhavothjair”. Either way,…

In conclusion…

WE’RE NOT HATING ON TEXT: This is not an attack against lettering. Its an attack against an Internet filled with really really bad tattoos, tattoos that try to make their way into our reputable studio. http://ugliesttattoos.failblog.org/. I would’ve been a lousy poster artist if not for text, posters are supposed to explain who, when, where. But I never created a poster for any band that was ONLY text. There are plenty of tattoos that have text attached to them that are killer,… Sailor Jerry’s famous ‘Love Thy Neighbor’, ‘Poison’, ‘Man’s Ruin’, or ‘Stewed, Screwed & Tattooed’. Text is fine in brief, powerful bursts, like Born To Lose, Bad Luck, F.T.W. or F.S.S.F. Or on knuckle tattoos, in an eight letter combo. Text tattoos like this work because they fit into what makes good tattoos, they fit on the body part, are strong ideas that make their point fast, quick. Your English teacher’s advice of K.I.S.S., Keep It Simple, Stupid, speaks volumes here.

The preamble to the US Constitution is NOT a good choice. And we get requests like this every day. If your tattoo idea is falling into a number of the above criteria, we’re going to refuse to do it. We will explain why, of course. And we’re happy to try to guide you into taking your idea, translating it into a graphic visual, or a visual graphic. We can do some amazing things with tattooing, but there are still some limits.

Below, I’m including a series of photos that illustrate my points. I would give credit to the artists, but sadly none was given in the various corners of the Internets© that I found them.

Great curves, nicely tattooed… I still can’t read half of it. Imagine how strong this would have been if she had just gone with the images…

Like a business card printed on a billboard…

The ‘Wicked’ tattoo totally lives up to its name, but with all this fine art on a really fine canvas, why the full menu on the thigh?

The last place my eye travels to on this photo is the largest part of her body, dead center in the middle of her back. Almost any image at that size would have blown you away,…

A full forearm, I still can’t read it! (Yes, it’s in Italian,… but if I have to ask ‘Is that an N or a W?’ more than once, I’m out!)

Good idea,… on paper. But you can see what I mean, we’re not paper,… the body makes this design even harder to read than it needs to be. Plus imagine this much skin in the hands of a master artist…


Oh good Lord. Never mind about the worst use of negative space ever. Look how his muscles twist those lines like a Dr. Seuss drawing,… Apologies, Mr. Ashton,…

Not a lot of type, still, the letters run together, are different heights, slope right off the arm. And, is strangely justified to the left margin, which she doesn’t have!

Weird paradox,… as the well done ‘Fear God’ is strong on the clavicles, but although tattooed clean, the rest is again strangely laid out with bizarre sentence breaks. And curves away from being readable as its sucked into the armpit. And kills a whole pec on lettering small enough to make me fetch my reading glasses.

Great work, great flow, fun looking stuff, on an even better looking girl, & then bam, right off the road into a railing of static text on her curvy calf. Look how much nicer the other leg is.

This artist is clearly decent, but even still, under this kind of onslaught, we still have issues with the letters bouncing around at different heights, letters stretching & squashing, strange sentence layouts, & lines flowing in & out of defined abs. Note how little you notice it happening to the IMAGE right next to it, even though the image is doing the exact same thing,… its just so much less noticeable.

Cleanly tattooed, but again, look how the entire thing folds up. And look at the acres of skin it took to get there,…

Ditto times 1000. God’s perfect curves, lanced by strangely justified sentences, tiny fonts,  & rows of skin cutting lines,… she could have been the Birth of Venus, now’s she a Chinese take out menu. *sigh*

Again, all photos used for educational purposes.

Cut & paste this article as you see fit.

Here’s to great tattooing!


You can read more about Johnny at Seppuku Tattoo.
While not in the original article, the image below is one of my favorite Johnny Thief posters; Hank III and Nashville Pussy.


24 thoughts on “The Letter of the Law: Laws for Lettering and Tattoos

    • Make sure to credit Johnny Thief and Seppuku tattoo; they gave repost permissions but it’s always nice to link back to the fellas!

  1. please don’t speak for all artist if you have an opinion state it as your own but don’t include the rest of us that may or may not agree with you

    • The entire thing is an opinion, Darken333.
      if you re-read it, you’ll see that it starts by explaining WHY Johnny and Seppuku have been turning down lettering requests at their shop.

      It’s ok for you to disagree; if you would like to write an article on why a full back tattoo of a poem/song is aesthetically pleasing, I’ll certainly take the time to check it out.

      • i was only addressing the we in his article who is he including in his statement ,,,another person or all artists ,,,that point is not clear

  2. This needed to be said–all of it. Thanks so much for sharing, Shawn, and thanks, Johnny for taking the time to write it.

  3. I did the Pulp Fiction piece. I normally refuse text tattoos but this was for a friend who is a typographer and graphic designer. Its not my usual kind of piece but I agreed to do it and it has largely been met with positve reactions. It was definitely out of my comfort zone though and I almost didn’t take a photo. However, the piece went viral on various social networking sites and I have been asked to recreate similar pieces since, which I have refused as now i have scratched that particular itch.

    I agree in principle that text tattoos are not always the way to go and that i’d much rather translate the meaning into imagery rather than the obvious lettering, but also that if a client is adamant that they want text then i’ll try to find the best way to accommodate their idea.

  4. Exactly Lynn; while we should all expect our tattoos to age with us, there’s a common sense in getting something that is bold and simple so it’ll stand the test of time. if something is busy and overcomplicated when you’re 21…. imagine it at 50!

  5. Interesting piece-constantly we are asked to print onto flesh rambling,dull quotations for people who know no better-sometimes we must grasp the nettle & risk a few hour’s pay to steer them from disaster…read a Dave Gibson quote that said lettering in tattoos always works better short & fat rather than tall & thin.Pretty good rule of thumb…I’m normally a trifle thunder-struck by the excrable quality of verse chosen as much as the lack of brevity,but,as a rule,short & to the point stands some chance.Although,if you look at Katie Sellergren’s work,she seems able to pull off a moderately long verse with admirable grace.I also remember seeing a half-sleeve by Juan Puente in lower-case English which was bold enough to sustain itself & initially attractive.Also, bold graphic work can be very effective if it’s bold-witness some of Buena Vista’s work-this style is not represented well here by the pulp fiction piece as it is too busy,& frankly not executed particularly crisply.The tattooist’s attitude to his piece being featured here is a trifle depressing,too,as if not taking a photo would somehow erase the tattoo from existence…One must either not do a tattoo or take responsibility for it…The piece on the (very)pretty girl’s thigh,& even more so on the sideboob photo, also shows a readily avoidable failing in that the lines are spaced WAAAY too far apart & obviously straight off a computer print-out.
    I’m glad that Johnny Thief is as erudite in writing as he is excellent in poster design!

  6. I read some feedback on Reddit about this, and one Redditor’s opinion is that tattooists need to keep their opinions to themselves and do whatever they’re paid to do.
    It’s a shame that we’re headed to that conclusion; that because they’re paying that you guys and gals- professional tattooers- should say ‘how high’ when asked to jump and to not take control of the piece. Obviously it’s a process where both parties have a say, but in the end… their money buys a quality tattoo, not the ability to tell you how to do your job.

  7. I think the issue becomes confused by tattooers sometimes steering people towards a piece that favours the artist’s precious portfolio more than the client’s preference.A lot of civilians realise when this is happening,and they don’t fucking like it,and I don’t blame them.Customers are not our personal sketchbooks to be manipulated into wearing our preferred style.I don’t think somebody should come in wanting three stars & be coerced into having a bearded victorian lady carrying an owl with a tin leg!But a conscientious tattooer should,I think,be ready to say that a desired piece will not look good,not age well etc & either steer them toward a mutually satisfactory product,or send them elsewhere-after all, there are hack tat-zappers at the end of every road now so we are no longer the customer’s only option.I find saying ” I think that piece done that way will not look as good as doing it this way” proves effective maybe 90% of the time IF you are helping the client toward the sort of design they want for life ,rather than what you want for a quick facebook post.But shithouse lettering,& other design nightmares, are perpetuated by their repetition on the internet- if that’s what google says lettering tattoos look like,it kind of “legitimises” the design, & that’s what people can be at some level swayed towards- a consensus reality that the public can be excused for subconsciously absorbing, but that we as (relative) experts should at least do something to combat….we all have to make a living & make potential clients happy, but ideally we should protect them both from their lack of design knowledge,& our sometimes narrow careerism.

  8. This is such a great article, due to the choices of lettering, with which, you proved the point.
    I think you picked some of the nicest lettering, that I have ever seen.
    You definittly did not use, the easy-to-find, bad lettering, as an attempt to show your point, has merit. By using the nicest, I actually had to “visually argue”, with the pleasant artistry, to get truth to roll in as the ultimate proof. I AGREED BEFORE, but, I am impressed with how you tried to tell them!!!!!!! (…..i have tried for years, never being so persuavive.)

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  10. Damn, what a great read. I’ve never been crazy about text tattoos and haven’t really been able to vocalize why, but this hit the nail on the head. Very clear, awesome points, and most importantly, informative and concise. I was just browsing this part of OV and I’m glad I found this! Thanks y’all!

  11. I have been wanting to get a tattoo that reads “Faith and Farewells” for about a year now, perhaps more.

    Found this pretty decent shop around my area, went in with what I wanted. I had previously gone to a different shop where they had asked $80 to get it done then and there, the shop smelled of weed so I decided to find someone a little more responsible to place something defiant on my body. This next place however stated the text was too small. They suggested I find a different way to letter it to keep the letters from running together or closing in as I age and my body changes.

    I loved that they were professional enough to tell me this, as it made perfect sense.
    I have no tattoos and if it weren’t for the very strong, special meaning those (2) words hold for me, I would never get one.

    I do not wish to have a fairly large image scar my body forever, as beautiful as they can be.
    As mentioned if these words weren’t so significant….

    Anyway, I thought I should share my story because I could have been denied and turned away, but I was simply told the truth. I found something more appropriate for me that’ll hopefully work out better in the long run.

    As a tattoo artist, you see art. Many see the same way you do, but if you fail to see that art comes in all forms, and most importantly for all types of reasons, you still have some miles to go as an artist. For you tattoos are art as they should be, but to me this is just a little more personal and special.

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