Typography Today: Are Tattoo Artists Typographers?

[CALL FOR ENTRIES: International Design Awards Deadline August 14, 2017]

Editor’s note: The following article was originally featured in the Print Special Typography Summer 2017 issue. Grab your copy featuring Jessica Hische and 9 other brilliant women ruling type and lettering today, PLUS the top 25 American type masters.

Tattoo Artist As Typographer?

Words by: Alex Harrell

After experiencing firsthand the eternal embarrassment of a poorly executed type-based tattoo, I started looking for artists who specialized in custom lettering to revive my illegible ink. I found myself wondering: Can tattoo artists be considered typographers? Are tattoo artists typographers?

There are those who very aggressively believe that lettering and calligraphy are not—and will never be—typographic. But why not?

Tattoo artists are typographers in their own right. Alleging they aren’t is like condemning Johannes Gutenberg as artificial and Alfred Roller as an amateur. These men are now regarded as inspirational innovators in an industry that has clearly had a hard time adapting to change throughout history.

[related articles: 7 Designers Who Broke the Rules of Typography – With Beautiful Results11 All-American Design Projects Featuring Great Typography & Lettering]

Excluding calligraphic-based styles from typography is an elitist result of Jan Tschichold’s claim that clarity triumphs intention. Heinrich Wieynck’s comment on his former student’s style applies as much to tattoo artists today as it did the Bauhaus movement in the 1930s: “The secret to good typography does not lie in obeying a one-sided school of thought; instead it will always remain bound up with personal creativity capacity.”

typography and tattoos

If typography isn’t intended to convey emotional expression and is strictly for communicating, why don’t wedding planners design invitations with Comic Sans? Why are text-based tribute tattoos to Ernest Hemingway designed to resemble Courier?

Perhaps many in the design world turn their noses up at graffiti—a background the majority of tattoo artists specializing in lettering come from—because it’s an art comprised of diversity. Perhaps the design world is scared to incorporate lettering into the standard realm of typography because that would allow stereotypical lower-class artists to participate in a historically white-male–dominated industry. For centuries, graffiti has given a voice to the disenfranchised throughout the world. Tattoos, while they’ve become less taboo in recent years, were once deemed tasteless and for uneducated, impulsive degenerates.

A bit harsh, no?

Tattoo artists themselves seem to be excluded from the typographic world not because they lack qualifications or because major differences in definition exist, but because it’s largely a boy’s club that’s averse to change. It’s arbitrary. Above all else, these minute dividing details that put type a few ranks above every other letter-based artform are dated and the result of the baby boomer generation’s unwillingness to adapt to the digital and DIY world. The internet and Instagram have transformed typography to be about much more than just arranging type for print.

In this case, it’s arranging letterforms for skin. The renaissance of handmade type (sorry, Paul Shaw et al.) has only further catapulted tattoo artists into the typographic world. Tattooers have to take the rules already established and further specify them to withhold the wear and tear the human body goes through. Unlike paper, skin is alive. It requires its own systematic approach to maintaining its integrity and legibility.

typography and tattoosOf course, history did warn us of this grudging acceptance of radicalism. Most of the truly great typographers were ridiculed in their day, only to be revered in their deaths. It’s only appropriate that tattoo artists will go through the same pedantic trial of worthiness. Plus, much like tattoo artists, some of the biggest names in type history—Gutenberg, for example—had little to no formal typographic training.

Filippo Marinetti’s Futurism movement was also uneducated. His revolution aimed at the so-called typographic harmony of the page, according to his manifesto Destruction of Syntax. Critics were less-than-thrilled with the Futurists’ anti-establishment publications and performances. Yet Marinetti has since been credited with opening the proverbial doors to modern graphic design.

Herb Lubalin was criticized for his type work’s reduction in legibility. When the phototypography pioneer was scrutinized for his tight tracking and kerning, he responded, “Sometimes you have to compromise legibility to achieve impact.” He was awarded the Type Directors Club Medal in 1984 after his death.

David Carson’s digital-revolutionized work focused more on the emotional impact than the type’s legibility. It pissed a lot of people off , even Paul Rand. But a few years later, Newsweek wrote that Carson “changed the public face of graphic design.”

typography and tattoos

The definition of typography has historically and continuously changed, almost always contradictory to the decisions made by the design police. But where would type design be without rule-breakers like Lubalin and Carson? They toyed with new technology as it unraveled and prevailed despite the harsh criticism of their elders.

So instead of dooming ourselves to repeat the past, we should learn to recognize innovation when it brazenly appears, and tolerate it—maybe even attempt to understand it. Let’s drop the academic parlor games of whose definition of typography is the most exclusive to keep it a boy’s club, and loosen the reigns on an industry—and definition—that thrives on adaptation.

With that said, here are five artists taking tattooing to new typographic heights. Here’s to hoping that they and their peers can break the stubborn, cyclical nature of design definitions.


One thought on “Typography Today: Are Tattoo Artists Typographers?

  1. kariemil

    The difference between typography and calligraphy/lettering lies not in expression vs. clarity but reproduction vs. custom-made. Typography is mechanically reproducible and looks the same every time. Calligraphy and lettering are done by hand. So unless tattoo artists are using some kind of printing technology to create tattoos, then what they are doing is not typography but calligraphy/lettering.