Lettering tattoos are possibly the trickiest to get right and the most rewarding when they’re done properly.
Because they literally spell out whatever it is you are making reference to, they can be a bold move because anyone who sees them can read them.
Lettering tattoos are a favorite among celebrities, with inspirational reminders scrawled out across some of our most famous pop stars’ wrists and shoulder blades.
Sometimes you come across a quote that resonates with you so strongly that you’d like to carry it with you forever.
Sometimes an event causes you to want a person’s name or even their own writing transferred onto your skin.
It’s a beautiful thing when done well, but there are a few things you’ll want to consider before letting that tattoo needle anywhere near you.
Let’s chat about lettering tattoos: who has them, why do people get them, how can you make sure they’re done properly, and what looks good?
The History of Lettering Tattoos
With connections to the earliest form of human expression, lettering tattoos have a long history.
Lettering tattoos take their queue from many different styles of signage, aesthetics, and historical movements.
While lettering may seem simple enough, there is a world of design that goes into any lettering tattoo.
Every single aspect of lettering uses very particular techniques that should be paid much attention to.
From filigree to spacing, every decision made by an artist is made with intention.
While Sumerian archaic writing and Egyptian hieroglyphics are presumed to be the earliest forms of human writing, these symbols were ideograms rather than being based on the language of the people.
Usually these symbols stood for an idea or word without actually conveying sound for that particular word or idea.
These forms of text are found in Egypt, India, ancient China, and Mesoamerica where tattooing was also considered an ancient art!
Although these esoteric designs are no longer used in our everyday writing, it is highly likely that you’ve seen tattoos at one time or another that use the symbols associated with ancient hieroglyphics.
The contemporary tattoos of today, however, are most closely associated with hand painting signs and books found in ancient tribal cultures.
Many lettering tattoos of today are directly influenced by medieval calligraphy found in Old English, Gothic, and other fonts from the distant past.
The Greek, Roman, and Arabic cultures are also to thank for many of the lettering tattoos we see today with aesthetics, fonts, and style finding influence in these cultures.
While these influences are not as obvious as, say, more figurative tattoos featuring portraits or animals, lettering tattoos are an art form influenced by various ancient cultures around the world and these designs are still used all over the world today!
Cross your Ts and dot your Is
Spelling and grammar are paramount with a lettering tattoo.
You may not care about the nitty-gritty details of punctuation and grammar in your day-to-day, and that’s fine.
The problem is when something is on you forever and it’s spelled wrong, or has a misplaced apostrophe, it can distract from the original intention of the tattoo.
People stop seeing a beautiful quote and start seeing a permanent mistake on your body, which can become a bit of a joke.
You don’t want your fresh ink to be a source of embarrassment, so check and triple check and have a third party check that tattoo stencil before its too late!
Also, remember that when looking in the mirror you will see your design backward.
You’re likely aware of this, but there have been cases where people think they have a botched tattoo, only to realize later they were seeing it wrong in the mirror!
Font is something to consider in a lettering tattoo because it changes the “mood” of your ink.
You wouldn’t send a professional email in comic sans, so don’t get a memorial tattoo in a silly-looking font.
Unless you’re memorializing someone very silly, of course.
You’ll also want to look at how close together your lettering is.
When letters are drawn in a decorative way, sometimes they can bleed together.
This can be a really beautiful effect, but it can also make some words look like others.
Make sure the “A” in Aunt doesn’t look like a “C”, for example. It has happened!
Everyone loves a delicate, wispy quote running along the collarbone of a pretty person.
It’s a huge trend in the tattoo world and definitely has aesthetic appeal.
But what looks crisp today is going to start looking like a blob as time goes on.
Delicate lines with longevity can be accomplished in tattooing, but you’ll have to consult with an artist on how your words flow together.
If they’re too tight, they’ll be illegible one day.
If It’s a Quote from Something
Quotes from beautiful scenes in movies and books are popular tattoo choices.
Words can have a special resonance with us, especially when they come from a character or universe we’ve grown to love.
Is it the Right Quotation?
Sometimes a quote from a treasured piece of pop culture becomes so popular, it becomes a part of our oral history.
The trouble with that is so many quotes get changed or miscredited in the process.
Make sure your quote is correct, or you could regret it for the rest of your life.
You don’t want a portrait of Marilyn Monroe with a quote from a vicious dictator underneath it.
Or maybe you do, but choose it consciously.
Who Said It?
Pop culture loves to quote other pop culture.
So often we end up quoting something from say, The Simpsons, without realizing it’s actually a quote from a classic movie or musical.
It’s fine if you want to use a quote in a way that has personal meaning to you, but you should know the source material first.
If it’s in Another Language
Have your design checked over several times from native speakers of the language.
Google translate is not your friend when it comes to tattoos.
There are many colloquialisms to account for, and you’ll be glad you asked around when you have a properly spelled tattoo to show off on your travels!
Celebrities with Lettering Tattoos
Many of our favorite celebrities are starting to warm up to tattoos when they used to be unheard of for people who need to shape-shift with each role.
With more options for tattoo covering makeup and digital effects, celebrities are starting to show off some ink.
Lettering tattoos seems to be a well-loved choice in tinsel town.
Known for trying to keep her tats to one side of her body, Lady Gaga has a bit of a “sticker book” effect going on with her many random tattoos, a collection she adds to with each milestone. A tattoo on one of her arms is a quote from a German book, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The text is scrawled out in ornate writing and translates to:
“Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?”
This model, actor, and fashion icon is a big fan of scripted ink. She has “silence” in script on her wrist, “breathe deep” in white ink on her upper arm, and “bacon…” on the bottom of her foot.
Delevingne has joked that her foot tattoo is also scented. Feet can be a discreet place for more “fun” tattoos, because they’re often covered up in public.
Hayden is, unfortunately, a great example of what NOT to do. The star had to have her tattoo removed after she got “live without regrets” in Italian on her torso, only to realize it was misspelled!
How to Choose the Best Lettering Tattoo Design
Lettering tattoos are as unique as the people that wear them.
While many lettering tattoo designs feature similar elements, each is unique and selecting the best lettering tattoo for you should involve some serious thought.
From taking your artist’s personal style, spacing, font, positioning, and skin type into account, there is much to think about before finalizing your design.
Here are a few things that you should consider when choosing the best lettering tattoo for you:
- Typeface style
- Serif (letters with little flourishes throughout) or sans serif (more simple lettering)?
- Body placement (how will the lettering flow with your body?)
- Kerning (placing the design based on spacing between the letters to affect readability as well as the artist’s personal style)
- Do you want the lettering outlined or shadowed for a bit of extra pop?
- Solid, shadowing, or shaded coloring for your lettering?
- Will you use other forms of visual imagery to convey meaning and emphasis?
- Your artist’s personal style
- Cultural references in terms of lettering style
If you take each of these factors into account, you’ll be able to choose a lettering tattoo design that conveys exactly what you want to say, both literally and figuratively!
Work collaboratively with your chosen artist as their expertise will be paramount when coming up with the perfect lettering tattoo design.
This is the best way to craft a lettering tattoo design that you will be proud to wear for the rest of your life.
Lettering Tattoo Ideas
Words speak to us in a way abstract images can’t.
With enough care and consideration, your lettering tattoo is likely to be your favorite.
Still mulling it over? Check out our library of lettering tattoos for some inspiration!
- Viking Tattoos
- Shamrock Tattoo
- Lighthouse Tattoo
- Odin Tattoo
- Geometric Tattoo
- Cow Skull Tattoo
- Kali Tattoo
- Leprechaun Tattoo
- Samhain Tattoo
- Gothic Fairy Tattoo
- Dryad Tattoo
- Plague Doctor Tattoo
- Blackwork Tattoo
- Single Needle Tattoo
- American Traditional Tattoo
- Koi Fish Tattoo
- Geisha Tattoo
Lettering Tattoo FAQ
2. Typeface style
3. Serif (letters with little flourishes throughout) or sans serif (more simple lettering)?
4. Body placement (how will the lettering flow with your body?)
5. Kerning (placing the design based on spacing between the letters to affect readability as well as the artist’s personal style)
6. Do you want the lettering outlined or shadowed for a bit of extra pop?
7. Solid, shadowing, or shaded coloring for your lettering?
8. Will you use other forms of visual imagery to convey meaning and emphasis?
9. Your artist’s personal style
10. Cultural references in terms of lettering style