Lettering is one of the most requested styles of tattooing… and for some artists, it’s also one of the most intimidating. But even if you’re brand new to lettering or tattooing in general, there’s no reason to think lettering is out of reach for you. Like any other tattooing skill, you’ll master lettering with education, practice, and time. We’ll get you started with some foundational knowledge and tried-and-true methods to start practicing as a beginner.
What is Tattoo Lettering?
At its most basic, tattoo lettering means tattooing any written word… but as any lettering veteran can tell you, there’s a lot more to it than that. Anyone can print and trace tattoo lettering fonts from dafont.com, but actually, mastering script and other types of lettering takes time and practice. When you hear lettering experts talk about lettering, odds are, they’re referring to the art of custom lettering – not to tracing pre-made designs.
The Importance of Mastering Lettering
When you master lettering, you can offer your clients a truly custom piece. For some tattoo shops, lettering is a requirement for all artists. Even if the shop you work at doesn’t require this skill from every artist, it’s still an incredibly valuable one to have in your arsenal.
Walk-ins at street shops will have a variety of requests, and you can bet that one of the most common will be lettered pieces. If you’re the artist in the shop that can quickly create a custom design that matches the client’s envisioned style, word-of-mouth can help give you an edge over other artists when local clients are looking for a lettering pro. And this is where the difference between tracing printed fonts and creating custom tattoo lettering really matters. Every client will come in with a different word or phrase with a specific emotion attached to it and a specific style in mind – and they’re looking for an artist that can capture both in a custom design.
The Most Common Lettering Styles
Script and Cursive Lettering
A mostly script tattoo with “Anguish” in gothic/blackletter style from BJ Betts
The terms “tattoo lettering” and “tattoo script” are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. Script refers specifically to fluid, cursive lettering, while “tattoo lettering” encompasses a range of other lettering styles such as block and gothic lettering. Script lettering is often highly embellished with flourishes but can also be quite minimal as it often is in the “tiny tattoo” trend.
Block lettering may be a common style, but it can look vastly different from piece to piece depending on the artists’ style and use of embellishments.
Blackletter and Gothic Calligraphy
Blackletter – also called gothic lettering or gothic script – is another common style for lettering tattoos.
Of course, there are plenty of other lettering styles from bold graffiti-style lettering to minimal sans-serif lettering. The more you learn about lettering, the more you’ll recognize the different styles and notice how experienced lettering artists such as BJ Betts often incorporate multiple lettering styles into a single tattoo.
Anatomy of Letters
Sure, “anatomy of letters” sounds a little intense – this is just the alphabet, after all, right? But learning the anatomy of letters will help you master any style of lettering. You’ll not only pick up on the terminology of letter parts – from eye to upstroke to flourish – you’ll also learn how each piece of the letter should be sized, spaced, and angled. Hand lettering guides are some of the best resources for learning the basics. From there, you can move on to guides and reference books made specifically for tattooing.
How to Practice Lettering
As with anything else in tattooing, you’ll want plenty of practice before you begin offering custom lettering to clients. Here are the materials and techniques we recommend when you’re just starting out:
- Tracing paper
- Graph paper (Can help in early stages for perfecting sizing and angles)
- Pencils and drafting pencils
- Fine tip marker or drawing pens
- Tattoo lettering reference books
- Skin markers
Building a foundation
1. Start with the alphabet
Once you’ve learned some of the terminologies of the anatomy of letters, it’s time to start drawing. Instead of jumping into complex designs, start with the alphabet. Focus on perfecting letter height, spacing, and how thin or thick each line should be. Save embellishments like flourishes and serifs for after you’ve mastered the basics.
After you’ve sketched the letters onto graph paper or drawing paper with a pencil, use tracing paper and fine tip markers to trace a cleaner version of your design.
2. Practice every day
Stick with it. Drawing the alphabet each day will help create the muscle memory you need to create custom designs. With time, you’ll be able to quickly draw the entire alphabet in a style you’re happy with. Once you’ve gotten there, you can move on to sketching words and phrases in different styles.
3. Use reference books
Whether you’re just starting out with lettering or just want inspiration for different lettering styles, tattoo lettering reference books can be extremely helpful. A few we recommend include Nyce Lettering from Galo Balseca, Lettering & Script from Delia Vico, and Handmade Tattoo Fonts.
4. Follow Lettering Artists
Speaking of inspiration, nothing’s quite as inspiring or educational as the work of expert lettering artists.
Legends like BJ Betts and Big Meas are masters of nearly all types of lettering, but their designs most commonly feature embellished script, block letters, and gothic style. Benjamin Laukis may be most known for his realism, but he’s also gained fame for his highly customized blackletter/gothic style. Other artists like Joanna Romans and JonBoy have made a name for themselves with the trend of minimal, fineline script, often in “tiny tattoos.”
We recommend following a range of artists with different tattoo lettering styles – even if those styles differ from your own. You’ll learn more, and since you’ll find inspiration from multiple sources, you’ll be less tempted to closely mimic the style of one artist.
5. Graduate to embellishments
Got the fundamentals? Now you can start experimenting with flourishes, shading, outlining, and other embellishments. These are the features that will help you find your unique lettering style and create truly custom pieces.
6. Practice on skin
Of course, paper isn’t skin. Practicing lettering on the body is important to understand how the curvatures of the body affect your text. Start by drawing on yourself or friends with specially-designed skin markers like Alpha Markers from BJ Betts.
Remember, even the best lettering artists didn’t get there overnight. If you’re committed to learning the art of tattoo lettering, you’ll eventually be able to create custom-designed pieces in a range of unique lettering styles. And you’ll have the portfolio and clients to show for it.