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Every now and then, the joke comes up. It usually starts with me making reference to my seedy past. Then the person I’m talking to asks if I mean tattooing. To which I respond, “No. Graphic design.”
If you watched episode 96 of our podcast with Isaac Bales from Indiana, you may have noticed that he spent several minutes talking about lettering and his lack of confidence in this area. This made me think of the joke I just shared. Then it made me realize how much my “seedy background” in graphic design actually helped me during my time working in tattooing. So I thought it would be nice to discuss and share some of the aspects of graphic design and typography that can be helpful with tattoo lettering.
When I started tattooing, I was with a group of pretty talented artists. However, for all their drawing skills and amazing talent, everyone in the shop went to the computer when someone came in for a tattoo with lettering in it. It was not long that I realized that all of the artists I’ve worked with had more of a fine art background and that lettering was out of their comfort zone. While I don’t feel it is completely wrong to go to the computer for help with lettering, I feel it is important to understand the difference in software tools and how to use them, so that you can make a compositionally better text based image for your tattoo. Don’t just go to Microsoft word, pick a font, type out the word or phrase the client wants and hit print. I’ll get to why shortly, after this brief flashback.
When I went to art school back in the 90s, it was a very pivotal time to be learning design. Computers were becoming the norm, but there were still a lot of old school folks out there that did things by hand. It was not uncommon for hard drives to crash or files to get lost before saving. However, my instructors were very adamant about instilling in us that just because we had computer trouble, was no excuse to miss a deadline or have subpar work for a client. If you were doing a mock up, you especially had no excuse because along with the computer, we had to learn how to do things by hand. This was particularly true with type work.
Any conversation about my art school days will quite frequently lead to me referencing one of my favorite instructors, who just happened to be one of the last old school hand typographers in the country, Bill Womack. There were no computers in his class. There was however, a vast assortment of pens, nibs, and inks. He was a kind older guy with a Santa Clause beard and a soft voice. Although a lot of how we learned type with Bill was centered on doing common fonts with a pen instead of a computer, the takeaway from it has been invaluable.
You can read more about Bill Womack here:
Type in Tattooing:
What seems to be the norm in tattooing, is a combination of having access to a computer and the possession of about three or four font staples in the form of flash. Old English has been and continues to be something you just simply have to have. This is usually accompanied by a good flash sheet for a nice script font. The rest seems to get relegated to a computer in the manner I described above, just typing and hitting print.
Before you hit print, you need to understand how computer fonts work. You need to understand “kerning”. Basically, some letters are wider than others and take up more space; an M takes up more space than an I. However, word processors are designed to type body text and treat the space in between letters rather indifferently. If you are making Signage on a computer, then you need to understand how to kern. This is basically the manual spacing between letters. Almost all your software packages will allow you to move the letters in tiny increments so that they look more balanced and evenly spaced. Even Word, will allow you to do this. However, I’m more of a fan of Adobe Illustrator for this type work. You can also kern in Photoshop now.
However, I highly recommend you learn to be confident in doing certain things by hand. With a little practice, you will find it is faster to just sit down and crank it out on paper than to sit in front of a computer. This makes you look more impressive to a client. This also allows you to do things that are more difficult to do on a computer screen, things like drop letters.
What I recommend is learning how to do at least one serif, one sans serif, one script and one style of calligraphy. If you go to your local art supply store, you can find an entire aisle of pens, nibs, inks and markers. You should also try buying a pica ruler. This provides a straight edge for you to line your type up on with a little more elaborate measurements to space with. You can find instructional books for all these things, probably on the same aisle and definitely on Amazon. In fact, a quick search on Amazon for Typography brought up a pretty good selection of quality book results. The first 10 or 12 results were most likely textbooks used by instructors teaching classes on the subject. You’d also be surprised how much practicing something as simple as lettering will improve your line work.
You don’t have to be a design nerd and be able to recognize the work of Dave Carson or be able to discuss the influence that Barbara Kruger’s use of futura font had on graphic design in the 90s. However, learning some very basic aspects of this highly underrated corner of the tattoo industry will benefit you in more ways than you will recognize.
As always, the floor is now yours. Let us know your thoughts. What are your favorite resources? Do you have a favorite artist who specializes in letter based tattoos? Are there any convention workshops that you have attended and found beneficial?
Till next time….
Also, if you haven’t checked out Jake’s interview with Isaac Bales, then get with the program people:
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