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Intimate Messages: Typographic Tattoos

by Ina Saltz

Permanently etched in flesh, these words are a serious typographic commitment.

Graphic designers, artists, musicians, students, and young people from affuent backgrounds are changing the face of an ancient and ritualistic art form-tattoos. No longer the province of sailors, prisoners, gang members, and the lower classes, tattoos are enjoying a tremendous resurgence. Tattoos have transmogrified from rebellious and antisocial statements to become not only socially acceptable but, in many circles, de riguer. And typography has come to play a larger role. While images, including those with a "legend" (a ribbon with words) are still plentiful, increasingly the typographic message itself becomes the image.

Celebrities, musicians, and models routinely sport multiple tattoos, many of them declarations of love but just as frequently messages of another sort: political or social commentary, satire, personal mottos, logotypes, beloved song lyrics, homage to public figures, or just plain fun.

What's new here is the graphic sophistication and awareness of tattoo design: Both the tattooed and those tattooing them are responding to trends in a visually driven culture. Patrons of tattoo parlors, especially in urban areas, often come in with predesigned messages, printed out from the fonts on their computers. And the younger, hipper tattoo artists are often design school grads, with a broad knowledge of typographic choices.

A chance encounter on a New York City crosstown bus led me into a typographic tattoo obsession: I had never spotted a tattoo in a recognizable typeface before, much less a sans serif, so I was startled to see a young man with a tattoo of the word happy in lowercase Helvetica (approximately 120 points high). Dan'l is a graphic and web designer who had chosen Helvetica specifically because of its simple, bold shapes.

Typographic tattoos are everywhere. Walking down a street in Chelsea, I met a young carpenter planing wood; the tattoo on his arm read Life when viewed from one angle and Death when viewed from another. I also encountered a man named Brian who had Breathe tattooed on the back of one upper arm and Resist on the back of the other arm. These, he said, were from the title of a favorite song by the punk rock band Hoover, and they were rendered in Univers 47, his favorite typeface (with the kerning carefully adjusted by a friend who is a graphic designer). The words are, as he says, "A shorthand way of reminding myself of the bands, the music, and the people during a period of time in my life; and as I've become an adult I want to resist the urge to become complacent, and to remember my ideals."

Dan Rhatigan, a graphic designer, celebrates letterforms one at a time: with an on-going series of tattoos based on letterforms he thinks are beautiful. "From a visual standpoint, I'd been wanting something big, black, and smooth-edged that would peek outside of most clothing, but that I could cover up when I wanted to look respectable," he explains. "I had this flash of inspiration that a letter with an umlaut on my back would be a nice touch, so that the dots would be visible above the neck of a T-shirt. Just for kicks, I started looking at some bolder sans serifs and other letters, and the Meta Bold ü was really outstanding. I decided to move the dots of the umlaut out to the sides a bit more than where they would sit if the letter were used in text, since it looks better that way than when it's on its own. Once I did, I noticed this lovely effect where the letter began to look like two simplified figures standing side-by-side, one reaching out to the other. That little bit of added conceptual value was the clincher." Rhatigan also has an ampersand in Poetica, a lowercase s in Fette Fraktur, a cap r designed from a piece of wood type, and, most recently, one half of the old Krispy Kreme logo.

Attending a major tattoo exposition in the New Jersey Meadowlands, accompanied by photographer Karjean Levine, I saw typographic tattoos in abundance. The stories behind the words were as fascinating as the forms themselves.

Flesh adorns the neck of Martin (a.k.a. SinisterFlesh), a typeface and tattoo designer (tattoo art is called "flash art") who has designed his own tribal-inspired typeface called "Alpha-blade." His work is very much in the graphic tradition of Margo Chase, whose work in the late '80s defined a new Gothic style.

I am is a personal motto tattooed in script on Andrew's neck: "It is an open-ended statement that has roots in the Kaballah, magic, Wiccan lore, and the Freemasons. The burning bush said to Moses, 'I am.'"

In a script typeface chosen from Jessica's computer, the lyric from the band Boy Sets Fire, In hope this little angel will be free, circles Jessica's ankle. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Bryan has Take Everything on his wrist in a techno-inspired typeface because, he says, "Nobody gives you anything."

Unforgiven, and Bleed: "I wanted Sinner to look as if it were carved into my flesh because we are all sinners. I saw the letterforms for Unforgiven in a book; it was a father's day present because my father and I don't get along," he says. "Bleed had to be blackletter because I'm a singer and songwriter. I'm bleeding my soul in the song."

Jason (a.k.a. drubias) has a circlet around his wrist reading Fear Is The Mind Killer in caps inspired by a book of typography.

Henry had an entire newspaper article on his torso, tattooed by artist Erik Mermagen: the actual obituary of G.G. Allen, a punk rocker who died from a heroin overdose.

Surely the most curious use of typographic tattoos involves a new work of literature by Shelley Jackson titled Skin. The 2,095-word story is to be tattooed on individual participants. On her website Jackson writes: "Each participant must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body. Tattoos must be in black ink and a classic book font. Words in fanciful fonts will be expunged from the work." She goes on to define classic book fonts as: "What you will find if you open a typical novel. Some examples are Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, and Times Roman...Your tattoo should look like something intended to be read, not admired for its decorative qualities. My own tattoo, the title of the story, is in Baskerville." Jackson's insistence on a classic book font refers to, "The history of the printed word, a claim to a position in that tradition," she says. Today's typographic tattoos are a modern twist on an ancient and worldwide form of personal and cultural ritualistic expression.

In their sophistication and self-awareness, tattoos are conceived to shock, impress, titillate, or amuse, and ultimately to communicate a message of self, of style, of sentiment. These personal messages are deeply permanent, perhaps far more permanent than the feelings that inspired them. Still, we cannot help but admire such a sincere commitment to the printed word and to the typographic shapes that give it voice.

Ina Saltz is principal of Saltz Design in New York City. She writes and lectures on design-related topics.

Reprinted with permission of STEP inside design, Vol. 20, No. 1
© 2004 Dynamic Graphics Group, 800.255.8800

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