GRACE JOSEPH, 28 / DIVING SWALLOW TATTOO / OAKLAND, CA
“Skin isn’t like paper; over time it stretches and ages,” says tattoo artist Grace Joseph. “You need to leave enough room inside the actual letters so the ink can expand, but still be legible over time. I think that’s the biggest thing I struggle with trying to convey to people: The tattoo is going to be larger than they were thinking,” she notes with a laugh.
Most of the Oakland-based artist’s clients request typefaces found online or from Microsoft Word. “I try to convince them that if you’re working with someone who is a custom-lettering artist, you should probably let them go ahead and come up with some original lettering,” she says. “It’s more organic to the flow of the body, rather than something blocky from the computer.”
Her style is graffiti-meets-gothic lettering, mixed with decorative scripts evocative of type designer Ken Barber’s early 2000s work. Her letter structure is tailored to where the tattoo is located on the body; she accentuates swashes and adds ink traps to further ensure the longevity of the tattoo’s legibility as well as its aesthetic appeal.
“What I find creates the best tattoo is when a client has a general idea of what type of script they’d like, and then let me run with it,” she says. “Having more freedom always results in a better, more creative tattoo.”
Joseph was trained as a small-format tattoo artist in Florence, Italy, during her undergraduate years. The smaller the tattoo, the more meticulous the work has to be. “That lent itself really well to lettering because it has to be so precise,” she says. “As far as the tattoo goes, even if you’re executing something that’s drawn to look imperfect, it still has to be executed with extreme precision.”