I was on a crosstown bus in Manhattan in 2003 when I spotted a typographic tattoo: quite large and quite visible: it was the word “happy” in tightly-kerned lowercase Helvetica. I was mesmerized! I had to know more. Thus began my adventure.
Ten years later, typographic tattoos are more popular than ever, and I am working on my THIRD volume of Body Type, images of text tattoos and the stories behind them! I have now photographed over 750 typographic tattoos, and they continue to fascinate me. (Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched in Flesh was published in 2004, and Body Type 2: More Typographic Tattoos was published in 2010, both by Abrams Image.)
The BBC has just published an extensive article about typographic tattoos, and a 2012 Harris poll shows that one in five of all US adults has at least one tattoo; among young adults the percentage can be much higher, depending on location.
It has become a bit of an obsession; I can’t seem to stop encountering these tattoos and inquiring about their motivation and purpose. I have photographed tattoos of poetry and prose from Shakespeare, e e cummings, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Homer, Robert Frost, et al; an entire gamut of literature, as well as single words, single letters, and bits of punctuation. I call these typographic tattoos “intellectual tattoos” or “highbrow tattoos.” As it happens, many of my subjects are “creatives,” art directors, type designers, and graphic artists.
So, dear CreativePro reader, if you happen to have a great typographic tattoo that you’d like to share with me, please get in touch! You can find my contact info on my website, bodytypebook.com.
Meanwhile, enjoy these photos which will appear in my next volume of “Body Type;” you are getting the first “sneak peek” at them here!
“I am a type designer and Hera is my first released typeface; it was also my thesis project. The ampersand is a bold italic swash character. It started with a logo for my friend’s band.”
“It’s about my love of dogs, also a gay or straight reference about being a dog, a playful sexual reference.”
“The Camus quote is from “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus is my favorite philosopher, and this is an ode to hard work. To me, the meaning of the Sartre quote is that you have to decide your own reason for living.”
“‘I create, therefore I am.’ It is a play on Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I am getting a doctorate in developmental psychology, and the other words are about the investigative scientific processes such as inception and deduction.”
“I was in two serious car accidents, and I was lucky to have survived without major injuries; this tattoo is thanking God for my safety.”
“I have a BFA in photography and painting, and I have designed all of my tattoos. I go through hundreds of fonts, and when I see it, I know it’s the right one. Most of my tattoos are about movies and music that are meaningful to me and that help define me.”
“This is an homage to a beautiful letter, the first letter of my name.”
“I’m a graphic designer, and this was my birthday present to myself. This is a lyric from Florence and the Machine’s Drumming Song; it’s 16 pt Helvetica Condensed Light Oblique with 18 pt leading. To me, it means lust.”
“‘Remember your good fortune’…I wanted something to remind me about how lucky I’ve been; it is a mantra to be thankful for everything you have.”
“The quote on my right arm is from Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” It is about fate, sticking with the course; it will pay off. The quote on my left arm is from “The Illiad,” by Homer. It speaks of Achilles’ confidence, which I found inspiring.”
“This is a humanitarian sentiment, a quote from the Aga Khan about creating unity amongst people.”
“This is from an Italian poem about loving someone, being loved, having been loved, and giving love. I am a creative director and I commissioned a calligrapher to design this, the design is heart shaped, which felt just right between my shoulder blades.”
“The text is from Homer’s Odyssey; I love words, I am a writer and journalist. To me, this text is a more poetic way of saying ‘take time to enjoy life, it is rich and fascinating, you shouldn’t sleep so much, there is so much to do.’ The typeface is Monotype Cursiva, I chose it because it is both elegant and ‘ancient'”.
“I had a painful breakup and was inspired by this quote from Ecclesiastes 1:5; it was written by Solomon when he was very depressed; it was hard for me to move on for awhile. I had read Hemingway’s book ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and when I did research into the title I found the King James version of this quote.”
“This tattoo has a double meaning for me, it reminds me of two thirsts in my life, one negative and one positive. I got it shortly after my seventh anniversary of giving up alcohol: that is the destructive thirst I want to remember. I also have a thirst for knowledge and experience, and this tattoo reminds me of that enriching thirst in my life.”