Typography Today: Are Tattoo Artists Typographers?


“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.”typography and tattoos

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.”

typography and tattoosJoseph 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.”


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.